O. Henry: A birthday tribute

Original
The short stories of O. Henry continue to entertain and delight readers. Of course, he was the master of the twist or surprise ending. But there's much more to O. Henry, which is why his work endures, almost a century and a half after his birth.
Don-hauptman

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).

William Sydney Porter, a.k.a. O. Henry

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.

Although O. Henry didn’t invent the surprise ending, he certainly perfected and popularized it.

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.)

Even the speech of his “street people” is witty, humorous, and literarily romantic — not the way people talk, but the way they should talk.

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.

Ayn Rand praised “the pyrotechnical virtuosity of an inexhaustible imagination projecting the gaiety of a benevolent, almost childlike sense of life.”

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.

9 comments from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
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His birthday and mine. Although my twist is that my adoptive mother swore that I couldn't have been more than 3 days old on October 14th, 1943 when she and adoptive dad took me home to Fort Collins on a bus from Denver during a snow storm. I never asked her what the evidence was, but from my own children, I'd guess it was my belly button still being attached.

Thanks for the reading tip!
Jeff O
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I didn't know this author before but now I know his work. Movies based on his stuff do have interesting twists. It is always a paradox when a great author or artist dies broke and broken in their own time, it's ridiculous. A stamp you say! That's a big deal.

I wonder if the entertainment business will ever try to keep track of these extraordinary artists while they are still alive. Some personalities do die long before their wakes, but we could at least try to inspire them when they down, couldn't we?
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This is wonderful. It's not just admiring; it has information about O. Henry that I didn't know. This is a condition I intend to rectify immediately. I'm especially interested in O Henry's Full House, partly because I have just discovered the joy of Marilyn Monroe and I want to see her in as many things as possible. Thank you.
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O. Henry was one of my favorite authors from childhood, and thanks to Don for this delightful tribute. Lovely prose, and the ending made me smile.
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Thanks for sharing this! O. Henry was my first favorite adult author (aside from kids' books). It was great to read insight into what made him so great and to see why I liked him and then later came to appreciate Rand.
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I've never read O'Henry, but I'll take Ayn Rand's word that he was a great author.
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He definitely was a great author.... There is not reason do doubt Ayn Rand....
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Nice job. I am an O. Henry fan, too and was not aware of some of the neat facts that Hauptman introduced like the Cisco Kid being an O. Henry creation.

The fact that the master of the surprise ending's birthday coincides with the 9/11 terrorist attack is a twist worthy of O. Henry himself. It's nice to have something positive to celebrate on that date.

Thanks!
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I really don't think that Ayn Rand would have approved of O. Henry's moral ideals at all; in fact I venture to say that she would have detested them, and therefore him. He was always welling up in indignation over the "little people" supposedly being exploited in one way or another by the great; in "An Unfinished Story" he told of a shopgirl being paid wages he felt were inadequate and how she ended up falling into prostitution instead; and the narrator finishes the tale with this paragraph:

"As I said before, I dreamed that I was standing near a crowd of prosperous-looking angels, and a policeman took me by the wing and asked if I belonged with them.

"Who are they?" I asked.

"Why," said he, "they are the men who hired working-girls, and paid 'em five or six dollars a week to live on. Are you one of the bunch?"

"Not on your immortality," said I. "I'm only the fellow that set fire to an orphan asylum, and murdered a blind man for his pennies." "

Sorry if I spoiled the twist ending of that story. But he wrote a lot more like that one.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.