New York Stories

09 11 william sydney porterToday is the birthday of William Sydney Porter, better known as the short story writer O. Henry. He wrote hundreds of short stories that are full of humour, wonderful characters and surprise endings. He was most prolific in the last few years of his life when he was living and writing in New York City.

Porter was born in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1862. His mother died when he was just three years old and he and his father moved to his grandmother’s house. He was raised and educated by his aunt who ran a school. William was a great devourer of literature and read everything he could lay his hands on from the classics to dime store novels. His favourites were One Thousand and One Nights and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, a vast and sprawling seventeenth century work about depression that covers a wide range of topics including digestion, wolves and goblins. An odd book for a child but probably it belonged to his father, who was a physician.

At fifteen, Porter began to work at his uncle’s drugstore and later trained as a pharmacist. He was troubled by a persistent cough and, hoping that a change of air would cure him, he moved to Texas three years later. Here he had several jobs and eventually became a bank teller at First National Bank. He had a great social life there, joining theatre and musical groups. He also met and married his first wife, Athol Estes, and began to write in his spare time. He lost his job at the bank when he was accused of embezzlement, which was likely the result of careless bookkeeping rather than any malicious intent.

In 1894 he began to publish his own weekly magazine called The Rolling Stone. It featured some of his short stories. The magazine folded the following year, but not before it had caught the attention of the Houston Post. Porter wrote a column for them which became very popular. His ideas came from hanging around in hotel lobbies just talking to the people there. Then, in 1896 the federal auditors found out about his embezzlement problems at the bank and he was arrested. His father-in-law posted bail for him but on the day of his trial, instead of going to the courthouse, he fled to New Orleans and then to Honduras. It was there that he wrote his first book Cabbages and Kings, a series of short stories about the characters of a sleepy American town. He also made friends with a bank robber. After six months he heard that his wife was ill and returned to Houston and handed himself in. His wife died and he was sentenced to five years in prison. There, his training in Pharmacy gained him work as a night druggist in the prison hospital. This left him plenty of time for writing. He forwarded his stories to a friend in New Orleans and had fourteen of them published under various pseudonyms of which O. Henry became the best known. His publishers never knew that their author was in prison.

He was released in 1901 and in 1902 he moved to New York to be near his publishers. This was the beginning of his most prolific writing period. He wrote 381 short stories. He wrote a story a week for over a year for the New York World on Sunday Magazine. People loved his beautifully drawn characters, his humour and his plot twists. His most well known story is probably The Gift of the Magi. It is about a poor young couple who can’t afford to buy each other Christmas presents. The woman sells her beautiful hair to buy her husband a chain for his watch, but he has sold his watch to buy combs for her hair. I’ve only had time to read a few of them. There is one called The Love-Philtre of Ikey Schoenstein about a shy all-night chemist who is enamoured of his landlord’s daughter. He has a rival for her affections to whom sells a love potion but things don’t turn out as he had hoped. Also there is a story narrated by a dog, called Memoirs of a Yellow Dog, who describes his appearance as a cross between an Angora cat and a box of lemons. Which is lovely.

Porter drew on his own experiences as well as what he learned from the people he met. He was obviously just terribly interested in people. Both of the last two stories come from a collection published as The Four Million which was published in 1906. It is a series of tales about the ordinary citizens of New York. They give an excellent picture of life at the turn of the century in the city which cuts across all social classes. He gave the book this title in response to a remark by Ward McAllister, a terrible snob, who asserted that there were only four hundred people in New York who were really worth knowing. William Porter knew that every single person in the city was worth knowing and had their story to tell.