Sunday, September 12, 2010

Revisiting a Classic: O. HENRY

Yesterday was the birthday of short story writer, O. Henry, also known as William Sidney Porter. In my opinion, O. Henry is an undervalued writer, where many in high-brow literary circles downplay his genius and mastery of the short story form. This is odd (and ironic) because the O. Henry Prize, which lauds the "best" in short fiction each year, actually bestows the award on "literary" as opposed to "commercial" fiction - the type that O. Henry, himself, created. Go figure.

For me, O. Henry's writing is energetic and witty.  The elements of mystery and suspense in his stories greatly contribute to the twist endings that have become the hallmark of his work. Revisit his most famous tales like "The Gift of the Magi," "The Ransom of Red Chief," and "A Retrieved Reformation."

My personal favorite is, "The Cop and the Anthem," a story set in Manhattan. It is told from the point-of-view of a homeless man named "Soapy" who knows, while wandering the crisp, fall streets of New York City, that the chill of winter is fast approaching. Soapy is a lost soul, but he's industrious and clever. He sets out on a quest to get arrested, as a night in jail would certainly offer him the warmth and security he seeks. But Soapy's efforts keep falling short until he meets with an ironic twist of fate at the end of the story.

While O. Henry's work has entertained and inspired me, I find the story of his own life as compelling as his fiction. This was posted yesterday on The Writer's Almanac:

September 11: It's the birthday of short-story writer O. Henry, born William Sidney Porter in Greensboro, North Carolina, on this day in 1862 . . . He worked at his uncle's drugstore, becoming a licensed pharmacist when he was 19, and before he turned 20 he'd headed west to Texas, where he spent time on a ranch as a shepherd, domestic servant, and baby-sitter.

He moved to Austin, Texas, worked as a pharmacist, and played guitars on street corners around the city. He eloped with a tuberculosis-infected, rich and beautiful teenage girl whom he'd fallen in love with.

Later, he got a good-paying job as a bank teller so that he could support his wife and young daughter. But he was not a good bookkeeper, and he was fired for embezzlement. He took to writing full time.

The feds did an audit of the bank he'd been working at, and when they found a bunch of discrepancies, they decided to indict him on federal embezzlement charges. His wife's dad posted bail for him, but instead of sticking around for trial, O. Henry fled to New Orleans and then to Honduras, where he stayed for months. But when he found out that his beloved wife was on the verge of dying from her tuberculosis, he came back to Texas and turned himself in. Soon after, his wife died. He stood trial, was convicted of embezzlement, and was sent away to a federal penitentiary in Ohio.

He wrote short stories there, and he came up with the pseudonym O. Henry. Magazine editors were clueless that the stories they published were written by an inmate locked up in a federal penitentiary.

He got out of jail and wrote fast and furiously, about 400 short stories in those years following his release. He became famous, and an alcoholic, and he died less than a decade after getting out of jail, at the age of 47, from liver disease . . .

When asked what advice he would give to young writers, he said, "I'll give you the whole secret of short-story writing. Here it is. Rule I: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule II."

Happy Birthday, O!