Semicolon Author Celebration: William Sydney Porter, aka O Henry


I’m not much of a fan of short stories. They’re too short for me. Just as I get interested in the characters or the plot, the story is over. The End.

However, I will make an exception for the short stories and sketches of William Sydney Porter, nom de plume O Henry. The reason he thought he needed a pseudonym will be revealed later in the post, ala O Henry himself who was a great fan of the twist at the end of the story, the reveal that surprised the reader into laughing wryly and shaking his head gently.

Will Porter was born on September 11, 1862 in Greensboro, North Carolina. He came to Texas at the age of twenty in 1882 hoping to get rid of a persistent cough. (Texas used to be a haven for tubercular patients, not that Mr. Porter had tuberculosis. He may have thought he had.) He worked on a sheep ranch, then moved to Austin where he worked as a pharmacist, draftsman, bank teller, and then a journalist. He married a wife Athol, who did have tuberculosis, and the couple had two children, a son who died soon after birth and a daughter, Margaret.

He and Athol moved to Houston, and he wrote for the Houston Post (newspaper, now defunct). It was the bank teller thing that got him in trouble. The bank he had worked at in Austin was audited, and some money seemed to be missing. Mr. Porter was accused of embezzlement, andhis father in law posted bail. But William then did a very stupid thing. He ran away to New Orleans, then to Honduras. He was on the lam for about a year, but heard that his wife was dying back in Austin. So he returned, managed to stay with his wife and daughter until Athol died, and then he was sent to the penitentiary in Ohio to serve out a five year sentence. Why Ohio? I couldn’t find any reason. Maybe interstate banking or something?

Anyway, it was in prison that W.S. Porter really began writing prolifically and in prison that he decided that he needed a new name, a psuedonym. He became the New York short story writer, O Henry, and he became famous. Unfortunately he also became an alcoholic, and he died in 1910 of cirrhosis of the liver, penniless and alone.

Famous O Henry stories:

The Gift of the Magi: the classic Christmas story that O Henry called “the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house.”

The Ransom of Red Chief: In this story two would-be kidnappers are foiled and bamboozled by a ten year old brat. I read it out loud this evening to two of the urchins, but one fell asleep and the other one, Karate Kid, thought he could have outwitted those bungling kidnappers with more style and intelligence than the boy in the story.

The Last Leaf: A story about superstition, selfishness, and sacrifice. I’ve read it and enjoyed it although I could see the twist at the end coming halfway through.

The Last of the Troubadours: J. Frank Dobie called this story “the best range story in American fiction.” It’s about the feud between the sheep farmer and the cowman and about the actions of a quixotic troubadour.

The Furnished Room tells of a young man’s search for his runaway love, run away to sing on stage in the theaters and music halls of New York City.

So, do you have anything to say about the life or works of William Sydney Porter, aka O Henry? If so please add a link to your post in the linky below as we celebrate the short stories of O Henry on this day of his birth. He would probably find some irony in the fact that his birthday was also the anniversary of a rather momentous event in the same city that he lived in and wrote about.

The Book Den on O’Henry’s short stories.

Semicolon’s September: Celebrations, Links and Birthdays

4 thoughts on “Semicolon Author Celebration: William Sydney Porter, aka O Henry

  1. It’s been years since I read O. Henry’s “Gift of the Magi”, but I am in the midst of reading another of his works, “The Gentle Grafter.” I haven’t gotten far enough into the book to post a review, but I did want to let you know in case your or anyone is interested — I hope to post a review on this book within the next two weeks. I’ll come back and link to it when I do.

  2. I think the life and works of O. Henry are truly remarkable. So much so, that I’m producing a movie on his life. You can find out more at There are some facts about his imprisonment that few people know. Facts that will change most folks’ opinion of why he fled. Also I’ve spoken with remaining family members and they’ve shared some great insights into his verifiable genius. Yes, I’m a fan.

  3. Bob Curran

    I love the fact that O. Henry violates about every rule for short stories. He will never be taught in English classes. But he is a truly great underestimated writer whose number one goal is to entertain the reader. He refers constantly to the classics while writing about the common man. He has great affection for people and writes from the heart. His use of irony and satire permeate his work. I love his prolific stories on tape as well as print. Hearing his tales read puts him wonderfully in the oral tradition.

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