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"In the Bible of births kept by O. Henry's father, it is recorded that on September 11, 1862, there was born mt 9 o'clock P. M., William Sidney Porter. But in the latter part of his life O. Henry spelled it Sydney."
C. ALPHONSO SMITH
F the work of William Sidney Porter, better known as O. Henry,
was the most noteworthy contribution made to American literature during the first decade of the twentieth century, the expanding vogue of that work has no less characterized the succeeding decade. He was hardly a national author at the time of his death in 1910, but in 1920 he seems securely national and international. The largest class of midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy was recently asked to name in writing the author whose complete works, if placed in the library of every American battleship, would be most often called for. O. Henry led by two hundred votes, Mark Twain coming second. It will be recalled also that at the autograph sales held in New York at the American Art Galleries early in 1918 a twelve-page letter from O. Henry, already published, sold for $810, while an unpublished autobiographical manuscript by Mark Twain, consisting of fourteen pages, brought only $540. "If I had discovered him before his death,” wrote Sir James M. Barrie, "I should have considered a trip to the United States well worth while to make his acquaintance.” But nothing ever said of O. Henry would have pleased him more than a sentence from a London paper during the great war: "We ought to be reading our casualty lists, for God knows they are heavy enough; but, instead, we are all reading O. Henry.” The appreciation of O. Henry came to England, however, only after effort. "It was not easy for the British public to 'get 0. Henry at first,” said Sir Ernest Hodder Williams during his recent visit to New York. “They had to try. But they've got him now, and all over England you hear 0. Henry being quoted.”
The World War, by the way, was a severe test to the popularity of writers, living and dead, American and European. It brought in a new audience, with new interests, with changed or changing ideals, with a refashioned outlook. Ordinary appeals seemed exhausted, for the world had been reduced to the bare elementals again. But the elemental facts of human nature, the essential traits of the human heart, are precisely those that gave 0. Henry both theme and arena. 0. Henry entered Europe via the French trenches because the French trenches spelled the common denominator of human nature. "O. Henry was our greatest
literary discovery during the war," writes John o'London.1 medicinal. He distracted us from intolerable things. His name is as familiar as that of Kipling, Conan Doyle, or Jacobs.” Writing of actual life in the trenches Frank A. Lewis reports that, when Options was received, “an hour of insane jubilation ensued.” The book was torn at once into its seventeen separate stories, the pages were pinned together, and seventeen soldiers feasted synchronously on seventeen stories instead of successively on one volume. Of course the war served to postpone the translation of O. Henry into foreign tongues; but he can now be read in German, Swedish, Dano-Norwegian, French, Spanish, and Jap
When we add to this that five million volumes of his stories have been sold and that his vogue is steadily increasing among readers of all classes, it need hardly be reaffirmed that the chief current in American literature from 1910 to 1920 has been that issuing from the stories written by 0. Henry in the ten years preceding.
O. Henry's life falls into four clearly marked stages, each stage contributing a definite quota to his training and a distinctive flavor to his writing.
(1) He was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, September 11, 1862 (not 1867), where he remained until 1882, and where the O. Henry Hotel now testifies to the local esteem in which his memory is held. His schooling was limited, but his reading was wide and avid. "I did more reading,” he said, “between my thirteenth and nineteenth years than I have ever done in all the years since, and my taste at that time was much better than it is now, for I used to read nothing but the classics. Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy and Lane's translation of The Arabian Nights were my favorites.” A count of all the books and authors referred to by him in his stories shows that the great Perso-Arabian classic stands well among the first. The Bible leads with sixty-three ref
Shakespeare follows with thirty-four; Tennyson with twentyone; The Arabian Nights with fourteen; Kipling with twelve; Byron and Dickens with seven each; Omar Khayyam with six; Conan Doyle with five; Cæsar, Marcus Aurelius, Keats, and Henry James each with four. The total number of authors alluded to directly or indirectly is one hundred and twenty-three, the number of references being three hundred and thirty-six. But O. Henry took with him from Greensboro not only a love of good books but an ability as a humorous cartoonist that gave evidence, before the age of ten, of rare constructive and interpretative talent. The man who was later to be acclaimed as the short story historian of New York City began by being the annalist of Greensboro through his cartoons.
(2) From 1882 to 1896 he lived in Texas, first on a ranch, then in
1 See The New York Times Book Review, May 16, 1920.
Austin, then in Houston, with occasional visits to San Antonio. His out-of-doors life on the plains gave material that was afterwards to appear not only in pictorial description and vivid narrative but in a wealth of first-hand observation, in a widening of personal experience, and in a breaking away from mere bookishness, that find illustration in every page of his Heart of the West. It was not a summer visitor that wrote that book. It was one who had lived the life and loved it; it was one who needed just this wider horizon to give him margin for comparison with what had gone before and basis for contrast with what was to come later. His reading partook now more of the nature of study. He mastered Spanish, pored over the great historians that he found in a ranch library, pitted his narrative art against theirs, and learned in constant comradeship with Webster's Unabridged Dictionary an accuracy and freedom in the use of words that random reading could not give. During these seven years also he practised the cartoonist's art as before, not, so far as I can learn, with a view to utilizing it, but merely for the pleasure that he found in some form of disciplined selfexpression. In Austin he edited The Rolling Stone and in Houston he contributed Postscripts and Pencillings to the Daily Post.
(3) The third stage, that from July, 1896, to July, 1901, made him what he became, not only a master of the short story, but a thinker about human life, a delver into its mysteries, an appraiser of its conflicts, a noble exemplar of its hidden but unconquerable reserves. Out of these five years was wrought the philosophy that makes The World and the Door a permanent contribution to the literature of humanitarian reform. For more than six months of this time he was a wanderer, "a fugitive from justice"-50 the indictment runs in Central and South America. The charge was that, while acting as paying and receiving teller in the First National Bank of Austin, he had misappropriated funds, a charge not only baseless but susceptible of easy, disproof had not a whim of the moment sped him on his fateful and compromising tour among the Latin-Americans. Returning to Austin to nurse his dying wife, O. Henry surrendered himself to the authorities, asserted his innocence of the charge made against him, and after a brief trial was sentenced to the federal prison in Columbus, Ohio. He entered the prison on April 25, 1898, and without a demerit against him was released on July 24, 1901. It was here that he wrote his first twelve stories and assumed the now famous pseudonym, O. Henry. The name was taken without change from the United States Dispensatory which he used when he was a drug clerk in Greensboro, Austin, and Columbus. It is the abbreviation of the name of a famous French pharmacist, EtienneOssian Henry.1
(4) From Columbus O. Henry went at once to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where his daughter and her grandparents were then living. But
See. The Nation, New York, May 11, 1918; The State Journal, Raleigh, North
in the spring of 1902 he moved to New York City, where he died on June 5, 1910. He was buried in Asheville, North Carolina, the home of his second wife, where he had sought and seemingly found restoration to health and where his grave is visited annually by many thousands of devoted tourists. It was in New York that O. Henry's genius culminated, though he did not devote himself wholeheartedly to the absorption and reproduction of the great city until he had harvested his Latin-American experiences by the publication in November, 1904, of Cabbages and Kings. His real flowering period began in December, 1903, when he signed a contract with The New York World for a story a week. The price was a hundred dollars a story. The responsibility thus imposed, with all that it promised of release from need and uncertainty, was a challenge that evoked for the first time in his life every ounce of energy and determination that he possessed. His training had been varied and thorough, and the passion for self-expression that had burned in him from childhood found now a happy and adequate outlet. "The city teaches the man,” said Simonides. It not only taught O. Henry, but released in him the powers and appetencies that had before been cramped or caged. During the first month of his contract he contributed not only the required four stories to The Sunday World, but one each to Ainslee's, McClure's, and Everybody's. This amazing quota of seven stories he repeated in February, May, and December of the following year. A marked falling off in the number but not in the quality of his stories becomes noticeable early in 1907. Ill health had gripped him and inspiration lagged. His total output of stories, if we omit fragments and early extravaganzas, is two hundred and fifty.
“Grammar, to O. Henry,” says an English critic, 2 "was only one way of saying a thing. He had others equally efficient when he wanted, for he was a master, and not a servant, of words. For two years in Texas his favourite companion was a dictionary—which he studied as lovingly as some men study poetry." O. Henry was a conformist and a non-conformist; but conformity and non-conformity were governed by the same law, the law of effect. Few writers knew words better than he or felt more instinctively their limitations as well as their possibilities. Words had more than meaning to O. Henry: they had flavor, a flavor unknown to Noah Webster, but recognized by every poet and prose writer who has enriched the resources of our speech. To most writers the dictionary says “You must,” to O. Henry it said “You may," and the freedom thus imparted has contributed no little of the sparkle and humor and suggestiveness of O. Henry's vocabulary.
He had no pet words, at least no pet coinages, if we except "accusive." The word is not found in any dictionary, but it is so aptly used by
1 Sec The Spectator, London, April 7. 1917.