If His Life Were a Short Story, Who’d Ever Believe It?

Being locked up for embezzlement freed him to write, launching William Sydney Porter on a brilliant but boozy career as O. Henry

"If the life of William Sydney Porter were written into a short story," Bruce Watson notes, "literary critics would scoff. Imagine a frail North Carolina boy going West to live and loaf on a Texas ranch. Too artificial. Fancy a foppish bank teller, charged with embezzlement, fleeing to Honduras to hobnob with fugitives. Too contrived. Conceive of an ex-convict rising to literary renown in only nine years, then dying in a New York hospital with 23 cents in his pocket. Too sentimental. Sounds like some O. Henry story."

 Which, of course, it is. Though O. Henry is still honored by having the most renowned annual collection of American short stories named after him, his tales of urban living, often marked by wry humor and a surprise ending, tend to be dismissed by modern critics as hackwork. Even so, people still read O. Henry, especially that ultimate Christmas story, "The Gift of the Magi."

Often drunk, O. Henry was habitually late with his copy. As the deadline for this Christmas story approached, O. Henry failed to appear. Finally, the desperate editor sent an equally desperate illustrator to search out the writer. O. Henry had written nothing, did not know what he was going to write. The illustrator implored him for at least a clue as to what he should draw. O. Henry thought a moment, then said, "I'll tell you what to do.... Just draw a picture of a poorly furnished room.... On the bed, a man and a girl are sitting side by side. They are talking about Christmas. The man has a watch fob in his hand.... The girl's principal feature is the long beautiful hair that is hanging down her back. That's all I can think of now, but the story is coming." Eventually, the deadline long past, he wrote the story in three hours, helped along by his habitual bottle of Scotch and his agitated editor who waited on O. Henry's shabby couch for the copy.

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