Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Importance Of Austin In The Life Of O. Henry

William Sydney Porter, who was later to become very famous writing short stories under the pen name, O. Henry, was neither born in Austin, Texas, nor became well known for his writing while living in the city, but there is no doubt that his years living in Austin shaped his life in an extraordinary way.

William Porter was born in North Carolina in 1862, and while he was still a teenager, became a licensed pharmacist. In a time period when the disease tuberculosis (then called consumption) took many lives, many people from the eastern part of the United States who were afflicted, or thought they were, travelled west thinking that the drier air would help their condition. Such was the case with Porter, who moved to Texas in 1882 after developing a cough.

For the first few years in the state, he worked on a ranch a considerable distance south of Austin. While on the ranch, he performed a host of odd jobs, but also spent considerable time reading. As with many good writers, Porter was first and foremost a reader.

In the mid-1880’s, he made his way to Austin. In the ensuing 16 years he lived in Austin, he held many jobs, including as a draftsman at the Government Land Office meticulously drawing maps, and as the publisher of a newspaper he started called The Rolling Stone. The shaping of his destiny, however, came from neither one of these jobs, but, from other events, which subsequently occurred in Austin.

Among the happiest events in Porter’s life were his marriage to Athol Estes, and then, the subsequent birth of his daughter, Margaret. The later events, and the most unpleasant, were the circumstances around him being charged and convicted of embezzlement from an Austin bank (many think the charges were without merit), where he worked as a teller, and, the death of his wife from tuberculosis.

Upon his embezzlement conviction, he was sentenced to several years in prison, and was transported to a penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio, to serve those years. Given his pharmacy license, and his knowledge of pharmaceuticals, he was assigned to the hospital ward of the dismal prison, where he had plenty of time to write. Ashamed of his conviction, Porter began writing in prison under the pen name, O. Henry.

His many stories, published while he was in prison, became quite popular. By the time he was released from prison in 1902, he was quite a successful author. He continued that success when he moved to New York City, where he published many more short stories, known for their plot twists and ironic endings. The most notable of these stories, are the “The Gift of the Magi,” and “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

His heavy drinking, which first became apparent during the Austin days, became even more pronounced after his release from prison. Despite his literary success, he died broke in 1910, when he was just 47 years old. His death came as the direct result of his heavy alcohol consumption.

His daughter, Margaret, also became a writer and a promoter of her father’s memory after his death. Unfortunately, she too, like her mother, died relatively early in life of tuberculosis, and was buried next to her father in O. Henry’s birth state of North Carolina.

O. Henry’s home in Austin is a well preserved museum, with many of the original furnishings still present. Managed by the City of Austin, it is located downtown on East Fifth Street, although its original location was a little over a block away on Fourth Street. Today, the land which was the site of the home on Fourth Street is taken up by a hotel. There is no charge to get into the museum, and the museum employee who took me through the house was unbelievably knowledgeable about O.Henry’s entire life (not just the Austin events), his family, the house, and his writings. She was very thorough in her answers to my questions, and I was extremely impressed. While you should expect this from any docent at a historical site, such is not always the case.

Thus, while Austin was the home to O. Henry for only a third of his life, the experiences which took place in the city were exceptionally important to him. These events, both good and bad, although transpiring over a relatively short period of time in his life, shaped who he became, and served as the catalyst for him being one of the great short story writers of all time. That’s an irony that O. Henry would have appreciated.

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