This is the man who invented the term ‘banana republic’. In 1896, as William Sydney Porter faced trial on charges of misappropriation of funds at the First National Bank of Austin, he suddenly absconded to Honduras via New Orleans. Seven months in Honduras with the infamous train robber Al Jennings as companion, Porter composed his first significant literary work Cabbages and Kings set in the fictitious somnolent Central American country, Republic of Anchuria. This was his take on Honduras, which he called a banana republic. Porter’s ardent readings of childhood are set in motion as the work draws on allusions to the Walrus and the Carpenter in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. This ‘patched comedy’, as Porter called it, is an interweaving of multiple narratives suffused in wit and satire, the quintessential characteristic of any O Henry creation.
Eventually, when Porter heard that his wife Athol was dying of consumption (tuberculosis), he returned to Austin and surrendered before the court. In 1898, Porter was convicted to five years at the Ohio penitentiary, which triggered a period of fruitful artistic endeavours published in McClure’s Magazine with the assistance of a friend.
This was when Porter adopted the pseudonym O Henry so as not to reveal to the publisher that he was serving a sentence. The pen name is shrouded in mystery and plurality of opinion. In an interview to The New York Times, Porter explains that he came up with O Henry by randomly skimming through the names of fashionable socialites in a newspaper. Elsewhere, he says it stands for Olivier Henry. William Trevor, an eminent scholar, believes that the pseudonym immortalised Orrin Henry, a prison guard in the Ohio jail.
Whatever its origins, this name — evocative of wit, satire, humane characterisation and twisted endings — belonged to one of the greatest short story writers America has ever produced. The 153rd birth anniversary of O Henry merits a hark back to the man behind the artful, masterly endings that have constantly surprised his readers over the years.
Born to Dr Algernon Sidney Porter and Mary Jane, O Henry did not show conspicuous career ambitions and moseyed between different callings as and when opportunities arose. Beginning work at his uncle’s drugstore in North Carolina, in due course he became a licensed pharmacist. This training enabled him to serve at the prison drugstore, relieving him of the distress of having to live in the cell blocks.
Next, he moved to Texas and settled in a sheep ranch performing the odd jobs of a shepherd, ranch hand, sometimes even cooking and baby-sitting. Porter finally shifted to Austin with his friend Richard Hall and worked in different professions, including those of a banker and a journalist, to earn his living.
All the while, however, his artistic temperament expressed itself in sparks of creative fervour. While manning the drug store, Porter regularly captured the nuances of his townsfolk in animated sketches and caricatures. While on the ranch, he picked up broken Spanish and German from the heterogeneous mix of ranch hands. In Austin, Porter engrossed himself in drama groups, singing, and playing the guitar and mandolin. He was part of the Hill City Quartet, a band that performed locally and regaled the young belles of the town.
It was at this juncture that O Henry started composing short stories, at times contributing to magazines and journals, though without any seriousness of purpose. While working with General Land Office, whatever he observed served as inspiration for characters and plots, which he used in many of his compositions later. His first dedicated tryst with writing was in The Rolling Stone, where he penned satirical pieces and drew sketches of politics and life in general. Though this venture did not meet much success, it garnered attention from the editor of the Houston Post, for which O Henry formally began writing columns.
In 1902, after his stint in jail, O Henry shifted to New York, closer to his publishers. He called the city ‘Baghdad on the Subway’ featuring a pantheon of characters interacting with each other. O Henry’s creative expression finally took flight and he became a prolific contributor to New York World Sunday Magazine. Over a span of six years, he wrote almost 400 short stories, each brilliant captures of human nature pitted against fate, depicted with piquant witticism. The Four Million, which comprises such strokes of genius as ‘The Gift of the Magi’ and ‘The Cop and the Anthem’ was published in 1906. Roads of Destiny (1909) and Whirligigs (1910) stand out as two veritable collections of short stories conceived during this period.
O Henry’s works sing the sad tune of human desire and the fallibility of such desires, often of the working class. The backdrop is often unforgiving and unalterable fate, trapping us with snares of deception, coincidence and mistaken identity. His finesse lies in his portrayal of the commonplace and the quotidian engaged in their dignified struggles. He remains true to their rhythms and nuances of speech and proves to be an intelligent observer of human behaviour. O Henry’s romantic view of life as ever unpredictable and surprising is manifested in the unanticipated twists at the ends of several of his stories.
During his lifetime, The Sacrifice, Trying to Get Arrested and His Duty were adapted into silent feature films that enjoyed their share of success. The Cisco Kid was based on his short story The Caballero’s Way. In 1952, five of his short stories — The Cop and the Anthem, The Clarion Call, The Last Leaf, The Ransom of Red Chief and The Gift of the Magi — were adapted into an anthology film O Henry’s Full House. The writer has inspired Indian film-makers such as Rituparno Ghosh and Vikramaditya Motwane whose Raincoat and Lootera are based on The Gift of the Magi and The Last Leaf respectively.
Situated between Transcendentalism and the profligate jazz era in America, the works of O Henry are social markers of the time, eagerly studied by Indian college students even today. The true successor of Guy de Maupassant, his works remain fresh and vibrant owing to their minimalism and originality.