O. Henry (1862-1910)
Study Guides on Works and Writers
For a few years in the early twentieth century O. Henry was the most famous writer in America. “O. Henry” was the pen name of William Sydney Porter, whose path to success was circuitous. Porter was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he spent his teen years as a drugstore clerk. At twenty he went to Texas to help out on the ranch of some family friends. He later wrote for the Houston Daily Post and other newspapers, finally settling in Austin, Texas, where he took a job as teller at First National Bank. He also wrote, illustrated, and published a humorous weekly called the Rolling Stone, which failed after only a year. When he was accused of embezzlement at the bank, he fled to Honduras but returned in several months to be at his wife’s deathbed. He was convicted and served three years in the Ohio Penitentiary at Columbus. His job in the prison dispensary left him much time to read and write, and after his release in 1901 he went to New York City to write for magazines. Employing a variety of pen names to conceal his criminal record as well as his unnatural productivity, he settled on “O. Henry” when that name began to command editors’ attention and higher prices.
The decisive event in his career was an offer from the New York Sunday World of a contract for a story a week. Until then his fiction had drawn largely on his experiences in Central America and the western and southern United States. But the World wanted tales of New York, and the teeming life of the city, combined with continual deadlines, drove him to produce what is widely considered his best work. The World, with a circulation of half a million, was the most popular newspaper in the country, and his New York stories made him nationally famous. From late 1903 through 1906, O. Henry published 113 stories in the World, while continuing to write for Ainslee’s, McClure’s, and other magazines.
In 1904 O. Henry stitched together his magazine stories set in Honduras to create a continuous narrative. The resulting book, Cabbages and Kings, sold poorly, but his next collection extended his fame around the world. The stories in The Four Million (1906), nearly all from the World, depict the impoverished lives of shop girls, the serial occupants of rented flats, and other members of New York’s working class as well as of the leisure class. Other New York-themed collections followed: The Trimmed Lamp (1907), The Voice of the City (1908), and Strictly Business (1910). Heart of the West (1907) collects tales of cowboys, lawmen, and outlaws, and The Gentle Grafter (1908) takes up the con man types that O. Henry met in prison. In all, he published nine books during his life; and his uncollected stories filled several posthumous collections.
O. Henry’s eccentric work habits influenced the shape and even the content of his stories. Despite his popularity, his casual handling of money often left him strapped for cash. Too impatient to wait for royalties, he sold his manuscripts outright to publishers and badgered editors for advances against final payment. He alternated between procrastination and periods of intense work when he attempted to fulfill his many commitments. He rarely delivered an entire manuscript, instead dispatching his stories in what one editor called “propitiatory fragments.” His distinctive style, rambling and discursive, was well suited to this propensity for working close to deadline. Many of the stories begin with miniessays on broad subjects such as adventure or destiny, providing just enough information for an illustrator to begin work while buying the writer more time to work out the details of his plot.
O. Henry saw himself more as pieceworker than litterateur. In 1908, however, critical approval was added to popular acclaim with an appreciative essay about his stories in the prestigious North American Review. O. Henry began to take his work more seriously and developed plans for a novel. But, drinking heavily and in worsening health, his facility had already deserted him and he found it increasingly difficult in his final years even to produce short stories. He died destitute.
More critical appreciation followed his death—he was called “the American Maupassant” and “the Bret Harte of the City.” The first biography of O. Henry, which appeared in 1916, claimed him as a major American short-story writer who had built on the tradition of Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. That same year, however, a backlash set in, begun by “The Journalization of American Literature,” an essay by F. L. Pattee, who saw in O. Henry’s technical skill only superficiality. The Canadian writer Stephen Leacock counterattacked with “O. Henry and His Critics,” and the battle over O. Henry’s literary stature continued to be fought throughout the 1920s. With the rise of modernism and the “new” fiction, O. Henry came to seem passe and the argument over his reputation moot.
It did not help matters that even his supporters did not bother to read him closely. One early essay, according to Eugene Current-Garcia, “set the pattern for such critical analysis by skimming rapidly through each collection, synop-sizing action, situation, and/or personae in a succession of stories.” Critics who subjected the stories to close readings did so in order to identify their shortcomings: “thin and sketchy characterization,” a “mawkish and wheedling tone,” “far-fetched coincidence,” and an ending that is “a shabby trick” was the verdict of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren in their study of “The Furnished Room” in Understanding Fiction (1943).
Though O. Henry’s work lived on in anthologies, and some of his char-acters—such as the Cisco Kid (“The Caballero’s Way”) and the safecracker Jimmy Valentine (“A Retrieved Reformation”)—gained new life through dramatic adaptations, many surveys of American literature took no notice of him. O. Henry scholarship picked up somewhat in the 1960s and at intervals since but is always at low ebb compared to the attention paid to his contemporaries Stephen Crane, Frank Norris, Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London.
TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION AND RESEARCH
- 1. O. Henry was one of the several American short-story writers who began as journalists in the late nineteenth century. Trying to find his place in the magazine and newspaper market, he took as his models Crane, London, Ambrose Bierce, and Richard Harding Davis. Newspapers competed for their kind of exotic short fiction, and O. Henry’s peripatetic life provided him with material that he could exploit in the same fashion. Other influences were the tradition of humor from the Old Southwest and the localcolor genre, which was still popular. Students might consider what effect O. Henry’s target market—periodical publications and their readers—had on the shape and content of his fiction. His first biographer, C. Alphonso Smith, gives details on his voracious reading, and Current-Garcia is a useful resource for a discussion of the genres on which he drew.
- 2. Consider Smith’s argument that O. Henry’s worth resided not in his trademark surprise endings—skillful as they are—but in the fact that he “enlarged the area of the American short story by enriching and diversifying its social themes.” Smith was the first to attempt to catalog those themes: “turning the tables” (rich folks masquerading as poor and vice versa, as in “While the Auto Waits” and “Lost on Dress Parade”); attempts to conquer deeply rooted habits or attachments (“From the Cabby’s Seat,” “The Romance of a Busy Broker”); the lure of adventure and “what’s around the corner” (“The Green Door,” “The Enchanted Kiss”); shop girls and others struggling to make their way in the city (“A Lickpenny Lover,” “An Unfinished Story”); the city as a collective entity with a distinct personality (“A Cosmopolite in a Cafe,” “The Making of a New Yorker”); and contrasts between different regions of the United States (“The Duplicity of Hargraves,” “The Pride of the Cities”). Subsequent critics have suggested other useful frameworks for grappling with O. Henry’s three-hundred-odd stories. Karen Charmaine Blansfield, for instance, examines the formulas used to generate their plots. Some useful areas for research are the social and intellectual developments that O. Henry responded to in his stories: How does his treatment of habit, for example, compare with writings on the subject by his contemporary William James?
- 3. O. Henry’s curiosity and sympathetic nature led him throughout his life to go “slumming” in the poor sections of town; he found his material in the streets. In so doing, he not only created the myth of New York City as a modern-day land of Arabian Nights—“Bagdad-on-the-Subway,” as he called it—but also tapped into the major currents of change that transformed the country in the years between the Civil War and World War I: “Rapidly increasing wealth, the rise of the city, expanding immigration, a widened spirit of reform, mass education, a new scientific point of view, and the acceptance of technology” (Jay Martin, Harvests of Change). O. Henry’s stories, especially the New York stories, touch on all of these to some extent. Students are advised to choose one of these currents of change and investigate how O. Henry treated it in one or more of his stories.
- 4. The Four Million in its range of protagonists casts a wider net than the typical local-color collection. The title of O. Henry’s breakthrough book was his response to Ward McAllister, who coined the phrase “the Four Hundred” to define the number of people in fashionable New York society. An author’s note explains that a “larger estimate of human interest has been preferred in marking out the field of these little stories.” O. Henry stressed the individuality of the oppressed; in showing how they counted their pennies and parceled out their small luxuries in stories such as “The Gift of the Magi,” he revealed the human dimension behind social statistics in a way that even Jacob Riis’s famous photographs of tenement dwellers could not. His aims, in fact, were similar to those of his contemporary John Sloan and other painters of the New York Realist
school. See David E. Shi’s Facing Facts for a discussion of how Sloan found his material in the same streets that O. Henry frequented. Students might compare an O. Henry story and a painting by a New York Realist and discuss the effect the author’s and painter’s medium has on their artistic expression and the reader/ viewer’s perception of it.
- 5. O. Henry was a champion in particular of the shop girl and her sisters in the workforce, and it was for his series of workingwoman stories in the World that he was most renowned in his time. His factory workers, typists, and waitresses are more often depicted on the street or in their rooming houses than at work. “It’s not the salesgirl in the department store who is worth studying, it is the salesgirl out of it,” O. Henry said. His portrayals of the poor and exploited have led some critics, especially in Russia, to see him as a critic of capitalism. Students might consider whether they find a political message in O. Henry’s stories and, if one is found, identify the means by which it is related.
- 6. The famous “O. Henry twist,” or trick ending, seems less important now than his unique style. O. Henry peppered his stories with puns, dialects, arcane words and allusions, and unexpected digressions. His style was baroque yet playful and confiding, prefiguring humorists and metafictionists such as S. J. Perelman and Donald Barthelme. There was a performance or “stunt” aspect to his stories in the World: they demanded endless invention, and O. Henry no less than his readers took pleasure each week in discovering how he would manage to pull it off yet again. He loved to pull back the curtain and share the tricks of the writer’s trade, as when he second-guessed his own choices: “It was a day in March. Never, never begin a story this way when you write one” (“Springtime a la Carte”). Identify examples of O. Henry’s verbal trickery and discuss its effect on the reader. For a focus on this aspect of his work, see the formalist critics B. M. Ejxenbaum and Cesare Pavese as well as Margaret Cannell’s “O. Henry’s Linguistic Unconventionalities,” in which she argues that “O. Henry’s language is as surprising as his plots.”
Paul S. Clarkson, A Bibliography of William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1938).
Be warned: these books contradict each other on key points, and one should be careful about accepting any statement at face value.
Gerald Langford, Alias O. Henry: A Biography of William Sidney Porter (New York: Macmillan, 1957).
Still the most thorough and dependable biography, this was the first to address the discrepancies between earlier accounts. Langford includes a detailed discussion of the question of O. Henry’s guilt or innocence of embezzlement.
C. Alphonso Smith, O. Henry Biography (New York: Doubleday, Page, 1916). Superseded in many ways by Langford and others, but an excellent starting point.
William Wash Williams, The Quiet Lodger of Irving Place (New York: Dutton, 1936).
A memoir by one of O. Henry’s friends and colleagues.
Karen Charmaine Blansfield, Cheap Rooms and Restless Hearts: A Study of Formula in the Urban Tales of William Sydney Porter (Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1988).
A solid scholarly introduction to O. Henry’s short fiction.
Eugene Current-Garcia, O. Henry: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York: Twayne, 1993).
A good critical overview of the stories and their reception.