Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: The 19th Century)
Article abstract: William Sydney Porter advanced the state of American short stories and made his pen name of O. Henry synonymous with surprise endings. In a little more than one decade, he published more than two hundred stories in magazines and books, some of which are still well known one century later.
The life of William Sydney Porter was much like the literature he wrote as O. Henry: a short story punctuated by unforeseen twists. His opening took place in the North Carolina mountain town of Greensboro, where he was born in the midst of the Civil War and grew up under the postwar occupation government.
His father, Algernon Sidney Porter, had a well-known drinking problem and no medical degree, but he was known as the best doctor in the county. His mother, Mary Jane Virginia Swaim, died of tuberculosis when Porter was only three years old. Porter and his older brother Shirley (“Shell”) were mostly raised in their grandmother’s boarding house by their Aunt Lina, a schoolteacher who encouraged Porter’s love of books. By age ten, he was reading Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott. At fifteen he left school and became an apprentice pharmacist in his uncle’s drugstore, just as his father had done. Four years later, he was a licensed pharmacist.
In March of 1882, Porter went to Texas with family friends, hoping that the Texas climate would help his persistent, racking cough. He spent two years on the Dull-Hall Ranch near Cotulla, where he lived as a sheltered guest in Dick Hall’s home doing very little real ranch work. He sent some stories and letters to Greensboro, some of which appeared in the local newspaper.
In 1884, the Halls deposited Porter in Austin, the state capital. He worked briefly in a pharmacy and then part-time in a cigar store, but mostly he did little for two and one-half years but socialize, sing in a quartet and church choirs, and serenade women. Late in 1886, he was given a job as a real-estate bookkeeper. He learned this job quickly, but soon moved to a $100-per-month job as a draftsman in Hall’s new Texas Land Office. Many of his later stories drew on the experiences of his four years there. In January, 1891, Hall had lost his gubernatorial bid, so his job as land commissioner and Porter’s job as draftsman both ended. Within one month, however, Porter’s friends got him a new job as a bank teller, also at $100 per month.
Meanwhile, Porter’s serenading had been fruitful. A rather normal-looking but foppish man at a height of 5 feet 7 inches, with broad shoulders, blue eyes, chestnut brown hair, and a fashionable mustache, he eloped with young Athol Estes on July 1, 1887, less than three weeks after her graduation from high school. Athol apparently stimulated Porter into more frequent writing, as he sold some humorous items to the Detroit Free Press in 1887. On May 6, 1888, they had a son who died only hours after birth. This seems to have begun the decline in Athol’s health that finally resulted in her death nine years later. On September 30, 1889, she bore their only other child, Margaret.
In March, 1894, Porter and a partner bought a struggling scandal sheet and its press and used it to publish humorous commentary and stories, many of them poking fun at the large German community of central Texas. They soon changed its name to The Rolling Stone, stimulating Austin through the next twelve months.
A crucial change in Porter’s life began in December, 1894, when bank examiner F. B. Gray uncovered shortages in the accounts and charged him with embezzlement of bank funds. Porter left the bank to spend more time with The Rolling Stone, but it folded in April. In July, a grand jury refused to indict Porter, but Gray persisted.
In October, 1895, Porter accepted a new job writing for the Houston Post. In February, 1896, Gray succeeded in getting four indictments against him. Porter wrote his last Houston Post column on June 22. On July 6, he boarded a train heading up to Austin for his trial; after fifty miles he apparently got off and, hours later, boarded an eastbound train to seek anonymity in New Orleans, Louisiana. With his excellent command of Spanish, he decided that he could build a new life in Honduras, which had no extradition treaty with the United States, and that he could then send for his wife and daughter to join him there until the statute of limitations expired. Honduras was at that time a stereotypical banana republic but politically more stable than most of its neighbors. Once there, he mixed with the swindlers, bank presidents, confidence men, and other brigands who would later populate some of his stories. The pueblo of Trujillo, Honduras, later became Coralio, Anchuria, in his Cabbages and Kings (1904).
The flaw in Porter’s Honduras plan was that...
(The entire section is 2019 words.)
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Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Although O. Henry was primarily a showman and a journalist who wrote stories to make a living rather than to create art, no study of the short story would be complete without some consideration of his brilliant ability to create an irresistible storytelling persona; to fulfill the human need for unity, order, and poetic justice; and to leave his readers—whether laughing or crying—always satisfied.
Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Receiving little formal education, O. Henry, pseudonym of William Sydney Porter, found themes and plots for his short stories in his early jobs as pharmacist, ranch hand, draftsman, and bank teller. After being arrested for embezzlement in 1894, he fled to Honduras, where much of the material for Cabbages and Kings was acquired. He returned to Texas in 1897 to be with his dying wife and was convicted and sent to prison one year later. During his imprisonment he began to achieve national prominence for his stories and subsequently continued his writing career in New York. He signed contracts with the Sunday World and Munsey’s for weekly stories drawn from his own experiences in the city. In 1907, he...
(The entire section is 136 words.)
Biography (Critical Survey of Mystery & Detective Fiction, Revised Edition)
Although O. Henry was born in a small town, he was to feel most comfortable personally and professionally in New York City, observing and chronicling the little lives of little people. He was a private and gentle man in his life and in his writing, and he harbored a humiliating secret. Although his work cannot be called “autobiographical” without a considerable amount of qualification, his writing certainly was based on his own experiences and observations. His production coincides with the four main stages of his life: childhood in North Carolina; youth in Texas; adulthood in New Orleans, Honduras, and the federal penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio; and maturity in New York City.
Christened William Sidney Porter (he...
(The entire section is 675 words.)
Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
William Sydney Porter, known by his pen name O. Henry, grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, where his father was a physician. His schooling was meager, and at the age of fifteen he was given a job in a store kept by his uncle, a pharmacist. In 1882, threatened by pulmonary weakness, he went to stay on a large ranch in La Salle County, Texas. Two years later, he moved to Austin and found employment as a bookkeeper. For four years, he worked as a draftsman in the Land Office there. He was clandestinely married in 1887 to Athol Estes, a seventeen-year-old young woman whom he had met while both were members of a Presbyterian church choir. Early in 1891, he became a teller in the First National Bank of Austin. At the end of 1894,...
(The entire section is 800 words.)
Biography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
William Sidney Porter, best known by his pen name O. Henry, was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1862, the second son of Dr. Algernon Sidney Porter and Mary Jane Porter. When his mother died of pneumonia three years after his birth, he and his father and brother moved into the home of his grandmother and his aunt Lina, who took over his education and started him in his interest in literature.
In his late teens, O. Henry began working in his uncle’s drugstore as an assistant pharmacist, obtaining his pharmacy license in 1881. However, when he developed a cough that made him fear his mother’s fate, he moved to...
(The entire section is 641 words.)