Prior to the tragic events of September 11, 2001, admirers of O. Henry recognized that date each year as his birthday. Today, such celebrations would appear inappropriate. But perhaps it’s acceptable to recall a time when September 11 had a different and more positive association. The following article is based on a talk I prepared for an Objectivist group that met in New York City on that date in 1999.
Born in Greensboro, N.C. on September 11, 1862, O. Henry’s original name was William Sidney Porter. After all, O. Henry would have been a rather strange name for an infant. Three decades later, he changed the spelling of his middle name to Sydney. As for the pen name O. Henry, he told several versions of its origin.
I discovered and loved O. Henry’s stories well before I encountered the works of Ayn Rand. I was gratified, however, to learn that she shared my admiration of his talents. Specifically, she praised “the pyrotechnical virtuosity of an inexhaustible imagination projecting the gaiety of a benevolent, almost childlike sense of life” (The Romantic Manifesto, p. 110, paperback).
O. Henry’s curiosity and ingenuity were boundless. He could glance around a restaurant and instantly find the premises for half a dozen stories. That knack most likely helped inspire Rand’s own clever story, “The Simplest Thing in the World” (also reprinted in The Romantic Manifesto), in which a struggling writer attempts to produce a hack piece for a quick buck, but is constantly distracted by imaginative ideas he knows won’t sell.
The O. Henry trademark, is, of course, the twist or surprise ending that delights the reader because it’s unexpected yet logical. The device provided memorable denouements to his most familiar stories, including “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Cop and the Anthem,” “The Ransom of Red Chief,” and “The Last Leaf.”
But some of his best stories are not as famous. One of my favorites is “After Twenty Years.” It’s also one of his shortest, fewer than three printed pages. Lest I spoil your enjoyment, I will say only that it contains all of his characteristic touches.
The literati disparage O. Henry’s work as, among other things, superficial and sentimental. As with criticism of Ayn Rand, many of the accusations are ignorant and unjust.
In the early 1970s, I was in the Navy. I carried The Complete Works of O. Henry to three continents. Rather than read the volume straight through, I returned to its 1,700 pages intermittently over several years. (The title of this volume isn’t strictly accurate; it contains 250 stories, but O. Henry scholars estimate that the number of stories he wrote is closer to 300.)
Not everything O. Henry wrote is of equally high quality. Indeed, he often recycled themes and plots, and some of the situations rely excessively on contrivance and coincidence.
At his best, however, O. Henry is terrific. He’s a superb stylist; his use of language is skillful and often gorgeous. And he’s a master of character and dialogue. Even the speech of his “street people” is witty, humorous, and literarily romantic — not the way people talk, but the way they should talk.
O. Henry lived in New York City for eight years, drawing upon its colorful neighborhoods and characters for his best-known stories. But many of his works have other settings. He was a ranch hand in Texas, where his experiences inspired a group of tales with Western settings. (Many fans of The Cisco Kid may be unaware that he is O. Henry’s creation.)
He was in prison for three years, which supplied fodder for his vivid tales of grifters, con men, and rogues, including safecracker Jimmy Valentine. And a stay in Honduras inspired a series of adventures of a U.S. consul in the backwaters of a fictitious Central American country.
O. Henry worked as a draftsman, a cartoonist, a pharmacist, and a bank teller. It was this latter job that landed him in the slammer, on a charge of embezzlement. He protested his innocence, and indeed some of the evidence exonerates him.
In the biography Alias O. Henry, Gerald Langford notes: “O. Henry’s life has seemed colorful enough to justify his own remark when he was asked why he did not read more fiction…. ‘It is all tame as compared with the romance of my own life.’”
In 1910, O. Henry died at the age of 48. He was penniless and dissolute — an ironic turn worthy of one of his own stories.
His works have often been dramatized on stage, on television, and in films. The 1952 film O. Henry’s Full House is an excellent adaptation of five of his stories, each by a different director, and with a cast of big-name stars, including Charles Laughton, Marilyn Monroe, and Richard Widmark. It was long unavailable on home video, but now it’s on DVD, along with several bonus features.
Although O. Henry didn’t invent the surprise ending, he certainly perfected and popularized it. His legacy pervades popular culture—from The Twilight Zone to the short stories of Jeffrey Archer to a long list of movies, including The Sixth Sense, The Others, The Usual Suspects, and The Crying Game. I suspect that the “twist in the tale” is largely responsible for the word-of-mouth success of such films.
O. Henry’s home in Austin is now a museum. Each May for the past 34 years, an annual “O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships” contest has been held in the adjacent park. As a wordplay enthusiast, I’ve always liked the idea. True, O. Henry played with language, but even the creators of the event concede that the connection is a bit tenuous.
In 2012, the U.S. Postal Service will issue a stamp honoring O. Henry. Appropriately, given the author’s enduring appeal, it’s a “Forever” stamp that will always be valid as one-ounce first-class postage. The design shows a portrait of O. Henry, with the skyline of New York City in the background.
I hope I’ve motivated you to savor the rewards of this outstanding yet often underrated writer — whether for the first time or as a rediscovery.
On his birthday, then, let’s toast him with the O. Henry cocktail. You don’t know the recipe? It’s a Manhattan, with a dash of saccharine, served with a twist.
Don Hauptman is a New York City-based advertising copywriter and humorist, and a longtime Objectivist. He writes a weekly online column on language. He is also author of The Versatile Freelancer, an e-book that shows creative people how to diversify into public speaking, consulting, training, and other profitable activities.