William Sidney Porter

O. Henry

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O. Henry Biography
The Complete Works
of O. Henry
(William Sidney Porter)
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The Complete Works of O. Henry



This foreword is NOT in the public domain. It is taken from the the 1953 edition of The Complete Works of O. Henry (isbn: 0-385-00961-5), Copyright 1953, by Doubleday & Company, Inc. It was written by Harry Hansen,

It is included here without permission. The Doubleday edition is still in print, apparently, and can be purchasedon Amazon.com. (See right-hand column.) We stongly urge you to purchase a copy, as it is an indispensible part of your home library.

Foreward to The Complete Works of O. Henry

by Harry Hansen

One day when the century was young O. Henry was dining with several friends at Mouquin's, a New York restaurant favored by theatrical and writing folk. Will Irwin was there, a tall, lean reporter for the New York Sun, and Irvin S. Cobb, who had come East from Paducah a few years before and had just moved from the Sun to the payroll of the New York World. Eager to learn how O. Henry wrote, Cobb—who told me this anecdote—began asking him where he found his plots. "Oh, everywhere," replied O. Henry. "There are stories in everything." He picked up the bill of fare, on which the dishes of the day were typewritten. "There's a story in this," he said. And then he outlined substantially the tale called "Springtime a la Carte."

That was O. Henry's way, to seize on something commonplace, part of the routine of living, and associate it with one of his favorite subjects, the experience of two lovers, kept apart in the maze of a great city, united by a providential accident—and a trick of storytelling. It is not one of O. Henry's best; it puts a strain on one's willingness to accept coincidence, but it contains the longing and expectant hope and victory over frustration that endeared his stories to the thousands who have found them moving, entertaining, and memorable. O. Henry is a master of make-believe, who puts a romantic glow over everyday living. By drawing characters who are wistful when lucky and brave in adversity, he answers the eternal demand for a good story.

When O. Henry died in 1910 at the age of forty-seven his friends— editors who had bought his stories, reporters who had shared his walks in mean streets—pieced together the fragmentary record of his experiences and tried to find an explanation for his contradictory character. His courtesy and resignation had touched their hearts; they remembered how he alternated between procrastination and fits of feverish industry, and how he had literally burnt himself out meeting his obligations close to magazine deadlines. They found that experience had shaped all his writings, had supplied the settings for his stories and the dominant note that man was a plaything of fate, the victim of strange circumstances. They also learned that a man whose nature was easygoing, if not slipshod, had fought manfully to establish himself as a writer after the most tragic personal experiences.

O. Henry was born William Sidney Porter, in Greensboro, North Carolina, September 11, 1862, and in later life signed himself Sydney Porter. His education stopped at fifteen, but his aunt, who had a private school, stimulated his reading and storytelling. Bill Porter worked five years in his uncle's drugstore—since advertised locally as the O. Henry Drug Store. Bill's mother had died of tuberculosis when he was three, and he was a pale, anemic lad when he was taken to a sheep ranch in Texas. There he became acquainted with cowboys and heard about desperadoes and cattle thieves. Two years later, in 1884, he went to Austin, where he worked in a real estate office, sang in a church choir, and for four years was occupied as a draftsman in the General Land Office. He liked to draw and his associates thought Bill Porter had the makings of a caricaturist.

In Austin tragedy struck, and struck repeatedly. Porter married a young woman whose parents had died of tuberculosis, and who was to meet the same fate a number of years later. Their first-born died, but their second child, Margaret, grew to maturity and survived her father. Porter's attempt to build up a small humorous weekly failed. He obtained a job as a teller in a bank, which his biographers, Robert H. Davis and Arthur B. Maurice, who wrote The Caliph of Bagdad, called "an astonishing bank, run with astonishing laxity." When irregularities were found in Porter's accounts, a shortage of less than a thousand dollars, he lost his job with the bank and went to Houston, where he worked for a

time on the Houston Post. When, a few years later, the federal authorities ordered him to stand trial, he left via New Orleans for Honduras. A little over two years later the illness of his wife called him back to Austin, and he faced federal prosecution.

Apparently Porter made no effort to defend himself. His flight to Honduras counted heavily against him, although he lived in Austin nearly a year before he was tried. He was found guilty and served a few months over three years in the Columbus, Ohio, Penitentiary. In the prison he worked as a drug clerk, had considerable freedom of movement, and could even walk about the city. He had attempted a few stories before, but it was in Columbus that he began seriously to write, and to store up what the inmates told him. It was there also that he was supposed to have picked up the name O. Henry from a prison guard named Orrin Henry, though Porter never gave a clear explanation of its origin.

O. Henry had contributed "Whistling Dick's Christmas Story" to McClure's in 1899, and "Georgia's Ruling" to the Outlook in 1900, and had written ten other stories while in prison, including "A Blackjack Bargainer," "The Enchanted Kiss," and "The Duplicity of Hargraves." For three months he lived in a shabby bedroom in Pittsburgh and sent manuscripts to New York editors. Ainslee's Magazine offered to guarantee him a regular income if he would move to New York, and in the spring of 1902 he came. What followed is a fabulous story of success. In less than eight years O. Henry became the most widely read storyteller in the country. Readers were enchanted with the romance that he found in drab boardinghouses and forgotten streets. They shared his pity for little people and savored his nostalgia for what might have been, and they were delighted when his surprise endings routed misfortune. In Cabbages and Kings (1904) appeared his stories about Central America, which had a certain degree of unity because a young editor named Witter Bynner persuaded him to write an opening and a closing sketch for them. In his second book, The Four Million, he collected stories about New York. Other tales appeared in The Trimmed Lamp (1907), Heart of the West (1907), The Voice of the City (1908), Roads of Destiny (1909), Options (1909), Strictly Business (1910), Whirligigs (1910), and in three books issued after his death: The Gentle Grafter, mostly yarns about the suave swindler Jeff Peters, based on what O. Henry had heard in prison; Rolling Stones; and Waifs and Strays. A number of unsigned stories taken from the files of the Houston Post and thought to have been written by O. Henry were published in 1936, but they are of indifferent quality and not positively identified as his.

Some of O. Henry's shortest stories are also among his best. This includes several that appear to have been well planned. "The Gift of the Magi" is based on his favorite use of coincidence, but the tender spirit

of mutual sacrifice imparts a special glow. "The Furnished Room" is told with the economy of language that marks the master, and portrays not only the effect of the city on the lonely and disheartened, but the unfeeling practicality of those who look solely to their own security, as in the case of the two landladies. "The Last Leaf" has qualities that make it memorable, but it might have been a better work of art if the solution had not been completely spelled out. More ambitious storytelling is found in "A Municipal Report," which was written to answer a challenge by Frank Norris. Norris had declared that there were only three "story cities" in the United States—New York, New Orleans, and San Francisco. "Fancy a novel about Chicago or Buffalo—or, let us say, Nashville, Tennessee," wrote Norris. So O. Henry, placed his tale of unconventional Southern chivalry in Nashville, without, however, awakening any unusual interest in the city itself, while Norris, as if to test his theory, wrote The Pit about Chicago.

A story that has enjoyed great popularity and even influenced the stage is "A Retrieved Reformation," which lives in the annals of the theater as Alias Jimmy Valentine. Jimmy's name has become a synonym for a light-fingered burglar who can crack the combination of a bank vault. Many refer to him as the man who filed down his finger tips to open the safe, but O. Henry's Jimmy used tools. The story first appeared in 1903. It belongs to O. Henry's crisp, hurried manner of storytelling, a series of brief incidents, with a sentimental snapper at the end inviting sympathy for a guilty man who has done an unselfish deed in rescuing a child.

The story grew out of an incident that took place at the Columbus, Ohio, prison. There are two versions of its origin. Al Jennings, the train robber who repented and "went straight" after serving a term in Ohio, originally met Porter in Trujillo, Honduras. He relates that while he was in prison a locked safe full of incriminating documents in a publisher's office was opened by a bank robber named Price who was escorted from the prison, and who filed down his fingers to the quick to make them sensitive to the movement of the tumblers. This convict was a tough character who was later killed in prison. Another witness, a prison doctor, identified Jimmy Valentine as Jimmy Connors, who had been sentenced for blowing up a post-office safe. Connors was day drug clerk in the hospital, and Porter was night drug clerk; the two men often talked together. The inference is that O. Henry built his plot out of Price's experience and made Valentine look like the more gentle Connors. O. Henry explained later that he did not make Jimmy file down his fingers because he did not wish to offer his readers anything unpleasant. His point of view is in strong contrast to that prevailing among many writers of thrillers today.

O. Henry received $250 for the story and six years later sold the dra-

matic rights to George C. Tyler for $500. Tyler wanted him to write the play, but O. Henry refused and declared himself completely satisfied when Tyler turned the writing over to Paul Armstrong. Armstrong received over $100,000 in royalties out of it. The play was the hit of its season and became the forerunner of a long series of "crook plays," in which the character who commits a crime mitigates his offense by a humane act or by disclosing a weakness that his audience shares. This does not imply that Alias Jimmy Valentine was the first of its kind, for actually the amiable villain, so necessary to motion picture plots, has a history that goes back to Robin Hood. But its success invited imitation. It must be conceded that O. Henry hurried through the tale, which needed very little adaptation to turn it into a tense melodrama, with a tug at the heart.

Shortly before Alias Jimmy Valentine was produced O. Henry and Franklin P. Adams had written a libretto for a musical play called Lo, based on O. Henry's story, "To Him Who Waits." It had been performed fourteen weeks in the Middle West. Possibly the toil entailed in the writing discouraged O. Henry from dramatizing "A Retrieved Reformation." The next year, however, O. Henry, who had moved to Ashe-ville, North Carolina, offered to write a new play if Tyler would advance him money so that he could come to New York and work in secret. Tyler sent him "something like $1,200" in all. When next he received word from O. Henry, the author was down with pneumonia in a New York hospital. "I never saw him again" said Tyler, "and the great American play, The World and the Door was never written."

O. Henry's stories are marked with the manners of the decade in which they appeared, but this has not diminished their appeal to popularity. The clothes people wear have altered; the emotions that move them remain the same. But the New York in his stories is today a period piece. It bears evidence of manners and economic conditions that belong to the past. A young author looking for stories can still rub elbows with the unemployed on the Bowery, but the two-cent cup of coffee will be hard to find. No working girl feasts royally on veal chops and fritters at a cost of twenty-five cents, plus a ten-cent tip. Nor do young women move in throngs on lower Sixth Avenue as they go to work in the department stores where the phrase "Meet me at the Fountain" originated. The huge buildings still stand, but the retail center has moved uptown.

O. Henry has written the forlorn little working girl of the shops indelibly into American fiction. But for him she might not have been remembered. Even when he pictures her as unable to recognize the genuine from the spurious article, as in "While the Auto Waits," he describes her with sympathy. Dulcie of "An Unfinished Story" has his complete approval when she dodges an evening out with a designing male, though O. Henry is not certain that she will win the next battle.

Fortunately the little Dulcies no longer stand behind the counters all day long for six dollars a week. No longer does the city take for granted that they are the likely prey of men who can offer them a square meal and an evening amid the bright lights. The roue has gone, and with him went the stage-door Johnnie and midnight lobster suppers with champagne after the show. Today the salesladies and the chorus girls can buy their own dinners and choose their own entertainment.

When Robert H. Davis and Arthur B. Maurice wrote their biography of O. Henry they lamented because some of the streets and haunts that had captivated him had lost their tinsel glamour. Fourth Avenue, they surmised, would no longer appeal to a man of O. Henry's imagination. The Bowery no longer "blazed with light," and Sixth Avenue retained nothing of the "evil glory" of Satan's Circus. Union Square and Madison Square had changed—even the Greenwich Village that O. Henry knew had been cut open by wide thoroughfares. They seem to approve a static condition that literature does not recognize. To many the most picturesque period of Greenwich Village was that of 1910-30, following O. Henry's death. Those who reached New York when the brownstone Waldorf-Astoria Hotel typified an era of elegance may regret the presence of a tall office structure on its site, but it is possible that young writers of the future will tell with awe of their first glimpse of the Empire State Building.

Like Edgar Allan Poe, O. Henry is now one of the legendary characters of New York. He was a kindly, considerate man, who liked to walk about the city at night, studying faces and inventing stories about them. "I've got some of my best yarns from park benches, lampposts and newspaper stands," he said. He fled from publicity, and enjoyed most a quiet meal with a friend who knew the value of silence. Robert H. Davis, the editor who knew him well, said of him: "He was a childlike individual, absolutely without guile, and at times utterly helpless. I always had the feeling that had he possessed the slightest powers of resistance the illness to which he surrendered would have been defeated. . . . Were all other records lost, from the forty-odd titles against the definite New York background, a future historian might rebuild a grotesque and alluring city, that would somehow be the city of that decade from 1900 to 1910, echoing its voice, expressing its moods."

Harry Hansen

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