O. Henry was the pseudonym for William Sydney Porter. Considered to be the finest short story writer of his generation, most of his stories came from the ordinary lives of people that he met. Educated in his aunt’s private school in North Carolina, Porter developed a love of reading and books.
At the age of nineteen, Porter moved to Texas where he acquired a job as a teller at a bank. While working there, Porter was accused of stealing $4,000. He was convicted of embezzlement of bank funds. While in prison, Porter began writing his stories using pen names. Because of his criminal past, he felt that he needed to use the pen names to keep from being humiliated. He settled on O. Henry. Porter was released from prison early for good behavior.
He emerged from prison as America's favorite short story writer.
O. Henry became the most popular short story writer of his time. His stories followed a standard formula:
- Common place events
- Ordinary people
- Surprise endings [This was his signature writing ploy.]
- Theme of fate and imposters
- Used the foibles of human nature
Some of his best known stories included:
- “The Gift of the Magi”
- “The Ransom of Red Chief”
- “The Last Leaf”
- “The Fool-Killer”
Porter was a prolific writer. From 1903 to 1906, he wrote a story per week for the New York World magazine. In addition, he published several other short stories in other magazines.
His first book of short stories to be published was The Four Million. O. Henry wrote in the preface to the book:
Not very long ago someone invented the assertion that there were only "Four Hundred" people in New York City who were really worth noticing. But a wiser man has arisen—the census taker—and his larger estimate of human interest has been preferred in marking out the field of these little stories of the "Four Million."
In his last years, Porter had financial and health problems. An alcoholic, he died on June 5, 1910 in New York City, virtually broke.