The Life and Love of O. Henry: A Tale of Ups and Downs and Unexpected Twists

On April 24, 2023, the announcement of the O. Henry Short Story Awards unveiled the triumph of two Chinese Americans who emerged as the laureates. Established in 1919 as a tribute to the renowned wordsmith O. Henry, this prestigious accolade is bestowed annually. O. Henry, a revered name in China, left an indelible mark despite his brief sojourn of 48 years, penning nearly 300 short stories and a singular novel. His literary opus, often referred to as “O. Henry-style” works, has ascended to the realm of literary terminology, renowned for their “unforeseen yet logical” denouements that captivate legions of readers. Little known, however, is the seamless fusion of O. Henry’s sagas with the tapestry of his own existence.

From a tender age in Greensboro, he traversed a vast spectrum of identities—from a Western cowboy to a seasoned journalist, from a fugitive traversing borders to a pharmacist languishing in the confines of a penitentiary, and ultimately becoming a luminary in the realm of American literature. O. Henry’s life brimmed with vicissitudes, a perpetual tango of ebbs and flows. It was these very experiences, the ones “that dared not be chronicled within a novel,” that cemented his position as the “progenitor of contemporary short stories.” Notably, his amorous odyssey, replete with convolutions that defied the bounds of imagination, propelled him towards mastering the American short story.

Love, like the ceaseless tide, whispers its desire for eternal companionship. On September 11, 1862, William arrived into this world in Greensboro, North Carolina, USA. His father, Algernon Sidney Porter, a physician with a penchant for imbibing, led a dissolute existence that plunged their family into the abyss of penury.

At the tender age of three, William’s mother succumbed to tuberculosis, compelling him and his father to seek refuge in the embrace of his grandmother’s abode. When he turned seven, he was admitted to a private school overseen by his aunt. A bibliophile at heart, his aunt’s ardor for literature ignited William’s own passion for the written word. Among the countless volumes that sparked his imagination, “One Thousand and One Nights” assumed the role of a cherished treasure.

In 1876, William completed his education at his aunt’s private school and transitioned to high school. However, he was compelled to abandon his studies in the second year, embarking instead on a path to become a pharmacist under the tutelage of his uncle. For five years, he toiled in this vocation, albeit harboring a distaste for it, all the while nurturing his profound adoration for literature. Fortunately, his professional obligations harmonized with his creative pursuits, allowing him to traverse the realms of medicine and the written word concurrently.

In 1884, a twenty-two-year-old William ventured to the capital of West Texas, Austin, in search of gainful employment. Priding himself on the extensive knowledge he had acquired in the management of pharmacies, he presumed that securing a position as a pharmacist would be a simple endeavor. Alas, fate had other plans, for no one extended an offer of employment to him. Thus, he found himself in the depths of despondency, resorting to a lowly existence as a balladeer in a tavern, with meager recompense. Subsequently, he attempted his hand at various professions—the penultimate draftsman, the transient reporter, the unassuming waiter—yet none of these roles resonated with his core being.

Fortune smiled upon him one fateful day when he auditioned for a role as a stage actor. To his astonishment, his latent gift for sardonic wit and repartee catapulted him to the zenith of popularity. Following each performance, he basked in the euphoria of his artistry, accompanied by commensurate financial rewards. It was during this juncture that he redirected his creative prowess towards crafting novels imbued with exaggerated humor, cunningly conceived plots, and denouements that defied all expectations.

One fine morning, he crossed paths with a resplendent damsel named Athol Estes on the theatrical stage. As his gaze locked with hers, he beheld an aqueous expanse within her eyes, causing William’s heart to liquefy. Athol, experiencing the pangs of love for the first time, found solace in William’s unwavering devotion. Yet, she uttered these words: “I am currently a student. If your affection for me is genuine, then patiently await my graduation from high school!” Overwhelmed with joy, William plucked the strings of his guitar and serenaded her with an outpouring of love songs.

On the eve of July 1, 1887, fresh from her high school commencement ceremony, Athol seized the opportunityto embrace William’s ardent affection. Their union, sealed with a fervent kiss, propelled them into the realm of matrimony. A year later, the couple celebrated the birth of their daughter, Margaret Worth Porter. Yet, the idyllic haven they had carved out for themselves was ephemeral, as a tempestuous storm brewed on the horizon.

In 1894, William’s flourishing acting career came to an abrupt halt when he was accused of embezzlement. Falsely accused and fearing retribution, he embarked on a clandestine journey to New Orleans, leaving behind his beloved Athol and their young daughter. The weight of his transgressions bore heavily upon his conscience, leaving him anguished and tormented. Disguised under the pseudonym “O. Henry,” he sought solace in the vast expanse of the United States, traversing its length and breadth in search of redemption.

It was during this period of exile that O. Henry’s literary prowess burgeoned. He composed his first short story, “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking,” and submitted it to a newspaper contest. The story not only claimed the first prize but also served as a harbinger of O. Henry’s illustrious career as a wordsmith. His pen danced across the pages, weaving tales that spoke to the human condition, capturing the humor, tragedy, and intricacies of life in a manner that resonated deeply with readers.

In 1898, O. Henry’s wanderings came to an end when he surrendered to the authorities in Austin, Texas, to face the embezzlement charges. Found guilty, he was sentenced to five years of imprisonment in the Ohio Penitentiary. The bars that confined him served as the crucible for his creativity. Within the confines of his cell, O. Henry penned stories that would later captivate audiences around the world.

Upon his release in 1901, O. Henry embarked on a new chapter of his life. Reunited with Athol and Margaret, he relocated to New York City, where he would encounter the zenith of his literary success. The city’s vibrant energy and eclectic mix of characters provided fertile ground for his narratives. O. Henry’s stories, often set in New York, painted vivid portraits of ordinary people facing extraordinary circumstances. His keen observations, clever twists, and ability to distill the essence of humanity into concise tales endeared him to readers across the globe.

In the years that followed, O. Henry’s literary output continued unabated. His collections, such as “The Four Million,” “Cabbages and Kings,” and “The Voice of the City,” solidified his status as a master of the short story genre. Each tale carried the indelible mark of his experiences, infused with wit, irony, and a touch of sentimentality. O. Henry’s unique style, characterized by his trademark surprise endings, became a hallmark of his work.

Tragically, O. Henry’s life was cut short by health complications. On June 5, 1910, at the age of 47, he succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver, leaving behind a rich literary legacy that would endure for generations. His impact on the short story genre continues to be felt, and his name remains synonymous with narrative craftsmanship and unexpected twists.

Today, O. Henry’s stories continue to be celebrated and studied in schools and universities worldwide. The O. Henry Short Story Awards, established to honor his legacy, recognize outstanding contemporary short fiction and continue to inspire new generations of writers. The 2023 laureates, two Chinese Americans, have joined the pantheon of esteemed authors who have received this prestigious accolade, perpetuating O. Henry’s enduring influence on the literary landscape.

   William beat his chest and burst into tears. For so many years, he has not allowed his wife to live a good life for a day. The promise he made back then can only be fulfilled in the next life.
   In February 1898, William was found guilty by a jury and sentenced to five years in prison. He was sent to the high-security federal prison in Columbus, Ohio, to serve his sentence.
   At this time, William was already disheartened. If his wife’s departure was a sharp sword, then the imprisonment would undoubtedly make it worse.
   In prison, William endured great mental torture. He just wanted to finish his sentence quickly and then go to his wife’s grave to apologize. Although life in prison is hard, it is nothing compared to the pain in William’s heart.
   As the days passed, William moved mechanically like a living dead. One day, the prison infirmary needed a pharmacist, so William put on a white coat over his prison uniform and started working in his old profession. This job was familiar to him, but he still had no interest in it.
   At this time, a female doctor named Natasha in the infirmary said to him: “You have to have confidence. As long as your heart is full of sunshine, a few years will pass quickly.”
   He raised his head in surprise. It had been too long. People talk to themselves. Natasha’s voice was very soft, but she was wearing a mask and could not see her face clearly, only her eyes were bright. William tried his best to smile. After all, the other party meant well. But deep down in his heart, he had long lost his fighting spirit.
   Every day, he would see Natasha, but she always wore a mask and never let him see her true face. She didn’t talk much, but she would say a few words every day to cheer up William, hoping that he would cheer up.
   But William understands better than anyone else, how to cheer up a person whose heart is already dead? Unexpectedly, he really had a chance to cheer up.
   That day, Natasha said to him: “I heard that you used to like writing. In fact, you can also write in prison.” William was stunned for a moment, and the literary dream that had been sleeping in his heart really revived, but then he thought , how can one write in prison? He stared into Natasha’s eyes quietly, his expression dimming.
   Natasha seemed to have guessed his scruples: “Don’t worry, write it. Once it’s done, I’ll take it out for you to submit.” Finally, William read sincerity in Natasha’s beautiful eyes, and he believed her. Decided to start writing.
   Soon, Christmas of 1899 was coming. William missed his deceased wife, especially his daughter who was raised by her parents. What would he give his daughter as a Christmas gift because he was penniless? He associated Christmas gifts with the pain of poor families who had no money to buy gifts, and thought of homeless homeless people who had no jobs and would spend Christmas night miserably. As a result, a complete plot of the novel was formed, and he gave this work a title called “Whistle Dick’s Christmas Gift”.
   When preparing to submit the manuscript, the attentive Natasha told him that it was best to use a pen name so that no one would know that the author was a prisoner. He heard that this was exactly what he wanted, because he hid the truth that he was serving a sentence from his daughter, and kept lying to her that he was doing business in other places. With a pen name, he would not expose himself.
   As a result, the pen name O. Henry was born and flew from the high wall to the magazine.
   In December of that year, O. Henry’s name appeared for the first time in the Christmas issue of McClure’s magazine. After the publication of his first novel, William’s desire to create suddenly increased. The extreme experience of prison, a state of life, inspired his creative inspiration. When repression and restrictions reached their peak, the need for expression and the ability to dig out details would be lost. Unprecedented improvement.
   Suddenly, short stories one after another, such as “A Loan at Notice”, “Two Friends of San Rosario”, “Tomorrow Will Follow”, were quietly written from the prison and secretly sent outside. published in the magazine. These works have won the love of readers with their fresh and humorous language style and unexpected plots. But no one knew who Mr. O. Henry was.
   Due to his good behavior in prison, William was released early in July 1901. The more than three years of imprisonment were of great significance to him. When he went in, he was completely dejected, but when he came out, he was already a great writer. He knew that all this should be thanks to Natasha.
   Before leaving, he went to express his gratitude to Natasha. He had been a little attached to her for such a long time, and now he was really reluctant to leave. Although Natasha was still wearing a mask, he could clearly see the smile on her lips: “Thank you! I’m about to leave. Take off your mask and let me see the real you?” “No.”
  Natasha He did not take off the mask, “Your success is the result of your own efforts. I just did what I should do, so you just remember my face wearing a mask.” William was a little disappointed, but did not force it. , it’s good to keep those beautiful eyes above the mask in my heart forever.
  Dependent on each other in life and death, spending the rest of their lives with ups and downs.
   In order to let himself and the readers forget the unpleasant experience of prison as soon as possible, William came to New York, the cultural center, as soon as he was released from prison, and officially used the name O. Henry.
   However, when he went to a literary salon, the organizer Teheip saw him wearing ordinary clothes and laughed at him: “O. Henry is a great writer who has risen recently. No one has ever seen his face. Are you pretending to be a fake?”
   When William heard this, he really couldn’t laugh or cry: “Don’t worry, I just came out of prison. Those novels were all written by me while I was serving my sentence. They are guaranteed to be fake.”
   Teheip said even more disdainfully . He looked at William and said, “You’re a prisoner. Get out of here. If you’re still pretending to be here, I’ll be rude to you.” William
   frowned. He had been anonymous while in prison, so it was hard to prove that he was O. Henry. At this moment, a woman in red stood up and said: “I can prove that he is O. Henry.”
   Teheip was stunned for a moment, and was about to have a seizure, but saw that it was reporter Hai Naping, so he smiled and said: ” Okay, since I have the reporter’s guarantee, I won’t pursue it.” Hai Naping is a famous iron mouth, and he doesn’t want to cause trouble for himself. William looked at Hainaping gratefully: “How do you know I am O. Henry?” Hainaping smiled: “I guessed, but I have an intuition that I believe you are not a fake.”
   In this way, the two met in such a strange “divine reversal”. At this time, O. Henry was already in his late teens. After seeing too many dark sides of life, he had become a person who believed in fate. He felt that Hai Naping and Natasha were both people who came to help him secretly.
   Heinaping is 3 years younger than O. Henry. Her husband died in a car accident and she is now alone. After truly confirming O. Henry’s identity, she appreciated and admired him even more.
   They often travel together and discuss literature together. O. Henry can read the expectations in Hainaping’s eyes, but he doesn’t want to accept it. Because he found that his health was getting worse and worse. He had already let down a good woman and didn’t want to let down another good woman again.
   As a result, he began to avoid Hai Naping and contracted his father’s bad habit of drinking alcohol. He drank nearly 2 pounds of whiskey every day to relieve his loneliness. As a result, his liver enlarged and his blood pressure increased.

   Hai Naping felt very distressed when she found out and advised him to quit drinking. Looking at her sincere eyes, William couldn’t help but hold her hand: “I quit, I will never drink again.” After quitting
   drinking, O. Henry began to write non-stop again, and he wrote very fast , and there are very few modifications. He said: “Once a novel begins, I have to write it to the end in one breath, otherwise I will never be able to write it again.”
   In New York, he wrote hundreds of short stories. The most famous of his works is the short story collection “Four Million”, which contains a total of 25 stories. The most familiar ones are “The Gift of the Magi”, “The Policeman and the Hymn”, “The Sacrifice of Love”, “The Furnished Room for Rent”, etc., which can be called the classics of short stories in the world.
   Unexpected story endings are an important artistic feature of O. Henry’s works. He often surprises readers with surprising endings. This technique can be found throughout his works.
   After every novel is written, Hai Naping is his first reader. She said with a reporter’s professional vision: “Your works have a unique artistic style. Your exaggeration is not only reflected in the description of details, but more importantly, in the basic aspects of character image and plot structure. Sometimes it is so exaggerated that it almost makes people feel uncomfortable.” It’s unbelievable, but when I think about it carefully, I feel that it is very consistent with the reality of life.”
   Many times, O. Henry would look at Hainaping affectionately and say: “God has given me the wings to write, but I have always been in my heart. I secretly imagined that you are the feathers on my wings, always accompanying me to fly.”
   However, he never imagined that Hai Naping’s companionship would be short-lived. The reality was far crueler than the novel, and she actually got it. Esophageal cancer.
   It was an incurable disease and soon she was unable to eat. O. Henry could only look at her with pity and tears. I thought I would walk ahead of her, but unexpectedly, she walked away first.
   O. Henry once again entered a lonely situation. Without Hai Naping’s company, he began to drink again. He often drinks alcohol 6 days a week and rushes to write a short story and submit it to a magazine for publication on the 7th day.
   In 1908, he published a collection of short stories “The Voice of the City” and wrote a novel “Tomorrow’s Last Ivy Leaf”. In this novel, the poor painter Johnsy was seriously ill. In the ward, he looked out the window at the ivy leaves on the opposite wall, which were constantly blown off by the north wind. He believed that the withering of the last leaf represented his own death, and he was about to die. Losing the will to live. After an old painter learned about it, he braved the heavy rain at night and used his spiritual brush to draw an ivy leaf that would never wither. Johnsy regained his will to survive and was full of hope for life. Died of pneumonia.
   After this story was written, it touched countless people. Tearful laughter is a tragic element, and placing it in a comic plot is another important aspect of the artistic style of O. Henry’s works, for which he is known as the poet laureate of Manhattan. The fatigue of years of writing and the unrestrained life caused his body to be seriously injured, and he collapsed while writing.
   He died of cirrhosis of the liver caused by alcoholism on June 5, 1910, and was buried in Asheville, North Carolina. He left no property for his daughter, but he left a novel and nearly 300 short stories for mankind. After his death, his reputation grew and he was known as one of the world’s three greatest short story masters, along with France’s Maupassant and Russia’s Chekhov.
   Life has come to an end at the age of 48, and what can measure life is far more than time. Just like O. Henry’s interpretation of love in the novel: “When love comes, no matter how great the sacrifice is, no matter how great the sacrifice is, the city is like a huge drifting beach, with sand and gravel constantly flowing and without roots. Today, it is still The gravel in the upper layer will be buried in the bottom layer tomorrow.”

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