O. Henry went to jail before penning short stories

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By Becky Stiles
Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, September 17, 2017

If you’re reading this article and recognize the name O. Henry, let me clarify outright that this will not be an homage to the candy bar, Oh Henry! Unfortunately, I don’t eat a lot of Oh Henry bars, but I have read a decent amount of O. Henry’s short stories, whose actual name was William Sydney Porter.

He was born on Sept. 11 in Greensboro, N.C., and led a normal life until it changed dramatically in 1896 when he was indicted for fraud in connection with his work at the First National Bank of Austin he previously worked for in 1895. During that time, he began to write short pieces for local newspapers and developed his talent as a cartoonist. He wound up being tried, convicted, and sentenced to five years in the Ohio Penitentiary, but after serving over three years, he was released on good behavior.

Porter continued his writing and his first short story was published in 1898; to conceal his identity and imprisonment from his publishers, he wrote under several pseudonyms before settling on the now infamous and well known O. Henry.

Porter produced more than 380 short stories, sometimes at a rate of one a week. It has often been suggested that he could have written better stories if he had tried harder, took himself and his writing more seriously, and had a little more self-discipline.

Some common themes throughout his works are deception, mistaken identity, the after-effects of coincidences, the nature of fate and difficulties with love or between lovers. He’s famous for writing surprise endings that keep readers in suspense until the last sentence.

One example is his well-known story, “The Gift of the Magi,” which centers around a couple dealing with the challenge of buying Christmas gifts for one another with very little money. The point of the story is to show the reader how far people are willing to go for something as small as a gift, with the narrator comparing their sacrificial gifts of love to those given by the biblical Magi.

Is it irony or just ridiculous that the wife cut all her hair off to afford a pocket watch for husband who wound up giving her a set of combs for her long, beautiful hair? Either way, even in the most destitute of situations, they still wanted to get gifts for one another at Christmas.

The writer of this article would like her friends and family to know that she will not cut her hair to buy them a gift, for any occasion.

O. Henry left an indelible mark on the world of American literature. His most prolific writing period started in 1902, and while his wit, characterizations, and plot twists were adored by devoted readers, the criticisms didn’t stop him. He was a heavy drinker, and by 1908, his health deteriorated fast. On June 5, 1910, Porter died of complications from cirrhosis of the liver and diabetes, and was laid to rest in Asheville, N.C. His last work titled “Dream,” a short story intended for publication in the magazine The Cosmopolitan, was left incomplete at the time of his death. It’s a haunting piece of fiction, and O. Henry stated that he wanted to write something that showed his commitment to real storytelling, but he proved himself time and again if his loyal readers were anything to go by.

Becky Stiles is an Administrative Assistant at MOA.