Remembering O. Henry and How he Got His Pen Name
“Life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating” was written by an author known for his brilliant short stories in American Literature. An award after his name is awarded to outstanding works, while his own work has inspired many plays, shows, and films in several languages. The person in question is no one else but William Sydney Porter, famously recognised by his pen name, O Henry.
William was born on September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina to a father who was a physician, Algernon Porter, and mother, Mary Jane Porter. Tragedy struck the family when his mother passed away giving birth to her third child. To avoid his son growing up without the presence of a mother, his father moved him to the house of his paternal grandmother.
Porter used his time to read anything and everything he could get his hands on, from classics to inexpensive novels. By the age of 19, he had gotten licensed as a pharmacist working at his uncle’s drugstore. During his time working at the pharmacy, he showed his natural talents by sketching the people of the town in his free time.
Porter then moved to the state of Texas with hopes of alleviating his declining health conditions. Here, he moved jobs such as shepherd, ranch hand, cook, and also a babysitter. During this time, much of his development took place with him spending his time reading and learning bits of different languages.
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Life in Texas
He then traveled with his friend to Austin, Texas, and decided to stay at his friend’s house. He also worked there as a pharmacist briefly and would also start writing some of his early stories. As a bachelor, he lived a very active social life and was well known amongst the people of Austin for his story-telling and musical talents.
Accompanying his talents in the instruments of Guitar and Mandolin, he started to court a girl named Athol Estes, who was 17 years old. Her mother didn’t approve of the union because of Athol’s tuberculosis. Porter and Estes eloped, and after this happy union, the couple started to participate in more and more musical and theatre productions.
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Porter started a new job as a Land Commissioner and with submissions to newspapers and magazines. This was when some of his earliest works came into being. After another job in the field of politics, Porter resigned and started working for the National Bank of Austin.
This was going to bring a big change in his life. During his work at the Bank, he was careless and was accused by the bank of misappropriation of funds and he was fired. He then started working full-time on his humorous weekly called The Rolling Stone. It was a satirical weekly that had a significant readership, but failed soon, and couldn’t be published further.
But his weekly had caught the attention of the editor of The Houston Post who offered him a position there. He started getting ideas for the column by walking around the lobbies of hotels, observing people. While this was going on, federal auditors audited his bank and charged him with embezzlement.
Fleeing the Federals
Porter’s father-in-law kept Porter from getting into jail by posting bail. However, en route to his trial, he got scared and fled. He fled to New Orleans and later Honduras. Porter lived in Honduras for 6 months where he became friends with a train robber by the name of Al Jennings.
It was in Honduras that he started writing ‘Cabbages and Kings', his first short story collection. During this time his wife and daughter were living at Athol’s parents’ house. However, Athol’s health worsened and Porter learned that his wife was dying. Porter soon returned to Austin and surrendered, after some time his wife passed away from Tuberculosis.
Porter was sentenced to Five Years in Prison in Columbus, Ohio. As he was a licensed pharmacist, he was able to get to work in the Prison’s Hospital. During this time, he published 14 stories under various pen names, which he passed to his friend in New Orleans, who passed them on to publishers. Porter was released for good behavior after three years and was reunited with his daughter, aged 11.
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Later Life and Death
Porter’s most prolific writing period started after his incarceration ended. He moved to New York, where he wrote around 381 short stories with his stories being published in New York World Sunday Magazine. Porter married again to his childhood sweetheart Sarah Coleman. She was a writer and they enjoyed a good married life. Porter drank heavily and soon that started to take a toll on his health and also his writing. In 1909, Sarah left him and Porter died some months later, on June 5th, 1910.
Some of his famous works and short stories include ‘The Gift of the Magi’, ‘The Ransom of Red Chief’, ‘The Cop and the Anthem’, ‘The Last Leaf”, etc.
The Pen Name: O’Henry
Porter was interviewed by The New York Times where he revealed how he got his name O’Henry. According to him, he wanted to get a literary name for himself. And to pick out a good name, he got a newspaper and picked names from the first list of names he thought were good. His eyes stuck on the name, Henry. He wanted a brief first name and he thought O was the easiest letter written which he said stood for Olivier. Hence the stories were published under the name of Olivier Henry.
It cannot be debated that O'Henry was one of the most prolific Short Story Writers of his time. And his stories are meant to be read, loved, and relished forever.
Also Read: 7 Must Read Short Stories
- Harsh Kichambare
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