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PORTER, WILLIAM SYDNEY

PORTER, WILLIAM SYDNEY (1862–1910). William Sydney Porter [pseud. O. Henry], writer, was born on September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina, the son of Dr. Algernon Sidney and Mary Jane Virginia (Swaim) Porter. His middle name was originally spelled Sidney, but he later changed it. When Will Porter was three, his mother died, and his father, his brother, and he moved into the house of his grandmother Porter and his Aunt Lina. Until age fifteen Will attended his Aunt Lina's school. This was his only formal education, and under the tutelage of his aunt, Evelina Maria Porter, he developed his lifelong love of books. Porter was known as a cartoonist during his early years in Greensboro. When he began working at his Uncle Clark's pharmacy, he often sketched the townspeople. By 1881 he was licensed as a pharmacist, but in 1882 Dr. James Hall, a close family friend, invited him to go to Texas to visit Hall's four sons, who had all moved west. Hall was concerned by Porter's persistent cough and thought the Texas climate and the ranch life might help him.

In La Salle County, Jesse Leigh Hall, a retired Texas Ranger, managed the ranch holdings of the Dull brothers from Pennsylvania. Porter lived on this ranch for two years with Betty and Richard Moore Hall. Mrs. Hall was a well-educated woman and had a library that Porter used during these years. While he herded sheep for Dick Hall, Webster's Unabridged Dictionary was his constant companion. During his two years on the ranch, Porter gained a knowledge of ranch life that he later incorporated into many of his short stories. Lee Hall was Porter's prototype for the Texas Ranger who appears in many of the Texas stories. In 1884 the Halls moved to a new ranch in Williamson County, and Porter moved to Austin and lived as a house guest of the Joseph Harrell family for three years. During this time he worked at several jobs and was active in Austin social life. For a time he was a member of the Hill City Quartette. During this time the first recorded use of his pseudonym appeared, allegedly derived from his habit of calling "Oh, Henry" to the family cat.

In 1887 Porter began working as a draftsman in the General Land Office, headed by Dick Hall, who had become land commissioner. On July 5 of the same year Porter married seventeen-year-old Athol Estes of Austin. The following year a son was born to the young couple, but he died a few hours after his birth. On September 30, 1889, a daughter, Margaret Worth Porter, was born. Porter is believed to have illustrated J. W. Wilbarger's Indian Depredations in Texas in 1889. He resigned from the General Land Office when Hall's term ended in 1891 and became a teller at the First National Bank of Austin. The bank, owned by George W. Brackenridge and run by his brothers, John Thomas and Robert J. Brackenridge, was poorly managed. Porter disliked his job and looked forward to another career. In 1894 he founded his own humor weekly, the Rolling Stone, a venture that failed within a year. Between October 1895 and June 1896 he wrote a column for the Houston Daily Post. In the meantime the First National Bank was examined, and when certain irregularities were discovered Porter was named the culprit. The indictment of 1896 stated that he had embezzled funds. Porter left Houston, supposedly to return to Austin, but fled instead to New Orleans and later to Honduras, leaving Athol and Margaret in Austin. In January 1897 he returned because of Athol's continued ill health. On July 25, 1897, Athol died. In February 1898 Porter was declared guilty and sent to serve five years in a federal penitentiary in Ohio.

At age thirty-five, he entered the penitentiary a defeated man; he had lost his job, his home, his wife, and finally his freedom. He emerged from the prison three years later reborn as O. Henry, a pseudonym used to conceal his true identity. During his prison years, Porter worked as a pharmacist and was treated more like an employee than a prisoner, a consideration that allowed him more time and comfort to write. He wrote at least twelve stories in jail. McClure's had already published one of his stories, "The Miracle of Lava Canyon," in 1897. After leaving prison O. Henry went to New York City, where he published more than 300 stories and gained fame as America's favorite short-story writer. In 1903 he signed a contract with the New York Sunday World to write a weekly feature story. In 1904, at the suggestion of his editor at McClure's, Witter Bynner, O. Henry published his first book, Cabbages and Kings, which included stories from his Central American experiences. In 1906 The Four Million, a collection of his New York stories, appeared. O. Henry's reputation as a writer who knew the hopes and despair of the common people gained momentum, continuing with the publication of The Trimmed Lamp and Other Stories of the Four Million (1907), The Voice of the City; Further Stories of the Four Million (1912), and several other volumes. Many editions of the stories have been published since his death, and his stories have been translated all over the world. In The Heart of the West (1907) O. Henry published many of his Texas stories, including "The Reformation of Calliope," "The Caballero's Way," and "The Hiding of Black Bill." His years in Texas enabled him to write about cowboys, Texas Rangersqv, Mexicans, and pioneers with realistic detail. He depicted the life and times of Texas as he later depicted New York City life.

He married Sara Lindsay Coleman, a childhood sweetheart, on November 27, 1907. After months of poor health, he died in New York City at the age of forty-eight on June 5, 1910. He was eulogized across America and the world and hailed as a master of the modern short story. His stories are noted for their unexpected endings and for their sympathetic portrayal of human nature. Since 1950 his reputation has been firmly in place. He is more popular with the public than with scholars but is recognized by all for his contribution to the short story. See also LITERATURE and O. HENRY MUSEUM.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Eugene Current-Garcia, O. Henry (New York: Twayne, 1965). Gerald Langford, Alias O. Henry: A Biography of William Sydney Porter (New York: Macmillan, 1957). Trueman E. O'Quinn and Jenny Lind Porter, Time to Write: How William Sydney Porter Became O. Henry (Austin: Eakin Press, 1986). C. Alphonso Smith, O. Henry: Biography (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page, 1916; rpt., New York: Chelsea House, 1980).

Connie Patterson

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Connie Patterson, "PORTER, WILLIAM SYDNEY," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fpo20), accessed July 23, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.