Study Guide

The Best of O. Henry

by O. Henry

The Best of O. Henry eText - eText

This eText contains embedded glossary terms and other notes added by our community of educators. Simply mouseover or tap on the yellow highlighted words within the text to see the annotations.
Turn Off

Notes

What is a literary classic and why are these classic works important to the world?

A literary classic is a work of the highest excellence that has something important to say about life and/or the human condition and says it with great artistry. A classic, through its enduring presence, has withstood the test of time and is not bound by time, place, or customs. It speaks to us today as forcefully as it spoke to people one hundred or more years ago, and as forcefully as it will speak to people of future generations. For this reason, a classic is said to have universality.

O. Henry is the pen name of William Sydney Porter, who was born in Greensboro, NC, on September 11, 1862. He did not receive a formal education and, at twenty years of age, moved to Texas, where he worked on a sheep ranch.

In 1887, he married Athol Estes Roach, supposedly the model for Della in “The Gift of the Magi,” O. Henry's most popular story; they had two children, a daughter and a son. A year later, he obtained a job at a bank, but was accused of embezzlement and served time in Ohio Penitentiary. However, it was this imprisonment that led directly to O. Henry's career as a writer; in 1902, after three years in prison, he settled in New York with his new name and nearly a dozen short stories ready to be published.

For three years, O. Henry wrote short stories every week for the World, a New York newspaper. Cabbages and Kings, his first collection of short stories, was published in 1904. These stories became extremely popular throughout the United States, and O. Henry's next book, The Four Million, cemented his reputation as a vivid portrayer of life in New York City. However, his personal life was destroyed by a failed marriage, bad financial dealings, and heavy drinking. O. Henry died of complications due to alcoholism, penniless, on June 5, 1910.

The derivation of his pseudonym is unclear: It may be related to a family cat, the name of the prison warden, or a name in a book he read in jail.