“Life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.” So said William Sidney Porter, more commonly known as O. Henry. William had many causes for sniffles in his life: the deaths of his mother and wife from consumption, his stint in prison, and the alcoholism that eventually caused his own demise. However, he overcame these obstacles to produce some of the most cherished and well-known short stories in American literature.
William Sidney Porter was born on September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina. Originally, his middle name was spelled with an ‘I’ as the second letter, but later on, he changed it to a ‘Y.’ When his mother died of tuberculosis, he and his father moved in with his paternal grandmother. His father, Algernon, had been a physician, but after his wife’s death, he quit the job and pursued his dream of building a perpetual motion machine.
When he was fifteen, William dropped out of high school to work at his uncle’s drugstore. He was soon licensed as a pharmacist. He found the profession too boring, though, so he moved to a large, isolated Texan ranch with a family friend. There, he spent his time reading, learning Spanish and German, and helping out around the ranch. Eventually, the family sold the ranch and moved to Austin, so William followed. There, he held various jobs, and he began writing on the side.
William was a talented artist: he drew skillfully, he played the guitar and the mandolin, and sang in the Hill City Quartet, where he was a basso profundo. He was also very social, and in 1887, he met Athol Estes. In July of that year, they eloped, even though her parents strongly disapproved and even though Athol had tuberculosis. They had two children: a son who died shortly after his birth, and a daughter named Margaret.
Athol encouraged him to pursue his writing, but instead, he got a job as a draftsman and cartographer for the General Land Office. After several years, he resigned and landed a job as a bookkeeper at the First National Bank of Austin, even though he had no experience. He also formed and single-handedly wrote a small weekly publication, The Rolling Stone. When the Rolling Stone was in financial trouble, William dipped into the bank’s money. The monetary discrepancies in the bank’s accounts were noticed, and he was accused but not indicted of embezzlement and lost his job. He abandoned The Rolling Stone and moved to write a column for the Houston Post. While working there, further investigations were made into the bank records, and enough evidence of his embezzlement was found to arrest him.
Before his trial, William secretly fled to New Orleans, then Honduras, where he could not be touched by United States law. He returned, though, when he learned that Athol was dying from consumption. The trial was postponed until after her death, at which time he was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to five years in prison.
While in jail, he published fourteen short stories under several pseudonyms, including O Henry; he also worked as the prison’s night pharmacist. He was released after three years for good behavior, then went to live with his daughter, Margaret, who was living in Pittsburgh. She was unaware that he had been in jail; she thought that her father was on a business venture.
He moved to New York City in 1902, where he wrote hundreds of short stories, one each week. Despite his success as a writer, he retained his anonymity, never even having his picture taken for fear that someone from prison would recognize him. He lived very extravagantly, buying expensive clothes and food, and began to drink heavily. He married Sarah Coleman, a childhood friend, but she left him in 1908. He died on June 5, 1910 from diabetes and cirrhosis of the liver, which were brought about by his alcoholism and lavishness; upon his death, he had thousands of dollars of debt. His last words were, “Turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark.”
O. Henry was best known for his witty short stories with unseen plot twists. His work has been both lauded and criticized, cherished and denounced. Although he may not have had a great impact on the world, he did revolutionize the short story niche, and it is doubtful that his name or his words will ever be forgotten.