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Biography

(History of the World: 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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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...

(The entire section is 3,136 words.)