Postbellum America, 1866-1913: 


William Sydney Porter (O. Henry), 1862-1910

By Jennifer Winborne 
Student, University of North Carolina at Pembroke 

After Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe, William Sydney Porter is the most read author in the world and bears the title “master of the short story”. William Sydney Porter, also known as O.Henry, was born on September 11, 1862 in Greensboro, North Carolina. His mother, Mary Jane Porter, died when he was three and his father, a medical doctor, began to care more about alcohol than his practice. His grandmother was given the task of raising him and a younger sibling. She also was responsible for their extensive education. Porter was an avid reader and, by age nineteen, had read a wide variety of books and articles that would later influence his literary works. He moved to Texas in 1884 to be with friends because they were concerned about a chronic cough that had plagued him from childhood. In Texas, he got married and obtained a job as a bank teller at one of the local banks. When faced with charges of bank fraud from the bank he fled to New Orleans and then to Honduras. There in Honduras he split his time between Trujillo and Roatan.  Little is known of his activities there, although his experiences in Honduras would later be incorporated into some of his stories. He returned to the states when word came that his wife, Athol, was losing her battle with tuberculosis. On his return he was convicted for bank fraud. He was sentenced to three years in an Ohio penitentiary, where he began writing short stories. Ashamed to be in prison, he hid this fact from everyone, even his own daughter, by adopting the alias O. Henry. 

Two themes that are trademarks of William Sydney Porter’s stories are his reversal of the narrative and his reversal of a character’s nature. In simple terms Porter begins a story in one direction and just when the reader thinks they can predict the ending, he sends it in a totally different direction. In his stories, people who are characterized as one thing, often are the complete opposite. An example of these two themes can be found in the short story The Princess and the Puma. Josefa O'Donnell, a princess, is a pistol wearing, roping, riding cowgirl, which is a total reversal of the princess archetype. In reading this story the reader thinks that the hero, Ripley Givens, will save the princess from a mountain lion that is crouched waiting to spring on her at a watering hole. Instead Porter sends the narrative in a whole new direction, where instead she supposedly saves him from the mountain lion and does not marry him at the end of the story. One technique that is typical of Porter is his surprise endings. In The Princess and the Puma, Josefa discovered that the mountain lion she shot was in fact a pet of Given’s farm and he was trying to save him, not her. In the end the reader discovered that the mountain lion had in fact been harassing several ranches and may not have been Given’s pet after all. These themes and techniques are typical of most of all Porter’s short stories. American Writers wrote, “The stories usually have a comic tone, to be sure, but distinctly uncomic possibilities often exist just at the fringes.” Although Porter was widely popular in his own time, today his reputation has suffered. Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume 78, said “Perhaps the reputation of no other American writer has undergone a more rapid and drastic reversal than that of William Sydney Porter.” It also says that while “Porter commanded a readership of millions” he now is not as interesting to readers as he is to critics in today's time. But although he may not have the popularity that he had in the 1900’s, his works are still considered literary classics are still read worldwide 

This website offers several links to numerous biographies of William Sydney Porter by several different sources. It also offers a list of certain books he published in his career as well as links to the O. Henry Museum in Texas and an article written by Bay Islands Magazine that tells of Porter's stay in Honduras. 
Litz, Walton A. American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies Supplement II Part One. Charles Scribner's Sons: New York, 1981.  
An extensive overview of O. Henry's life, literary motivations, and his development as an author.  This book gives numerous details and provides a list of related sources geared specifically for O. Henry and a bibliography of his works, including those he published for magazines. 
Kimbell, Ellen Bobby. Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Short- Story Writers 1880-1910: Volume Seventy-eight. Edward Brothers Inc.: USA, 1989. 
This source provides an overview of the life and literary career of William Sydney Porter, a.k.a. O. Henry. It also provides a complete list of works and letters written by William Sydney Porter. Along with that information it also provides references, biographies, and a bibliography of other sources on the Porter, as well as, information on where papers, manuscripts, and first editions of works by Porter can be obtained for use. 
Study Questions 
The Gift of the Magi  
  • In reading The Gift of the Magi, what is the overall theme that Porter is trying to portray in this work?
  • William Sydney Porter is famous for writing short stories with surprise plot twists. Identify what you think was the plot twist in The Gift of the Magi.
  • A critic of William Sydney Porter wrote that Porter is famous for the technique "after the thunder, the still, small voice." What do you think he meant by this statement and how does it pertain to The Gift of the Magi?
  • After reading The Gift of the Magi, explain why the title may be ironic and give reasons why.
  • Identify the main characters in The Gift of the Magi and analyze them. Think about their personalities and about the reasons that they did what they did in the story. Do you feel that you would do the same thing in their position? Why or why not?

    Major Works

    • Cabbages and Kings
    • The Four Million
    • The Trimmed Lamp and Other Stories of the Four Million
    • The Voice of the City
    • The Heart of the West
    • The Ransom of the Red Chief
    • The Gift of the Magi
    • The Princess and the Puma


    • Greensboro, NC
    • New York, NY
    • Austin, TX
    • New Orleans, LA
    • Honduras


    • Cartoonist
    • Pharmacist
    • Draftsman
    • Bank teller
    • Writer for Houston Daily Post
    • Prison pharmacist
    • Writer for New York Sunday World


    1862: born in Greensboro, NC 
    1881: licensed as a pharmacist and worked in his Uncle's pharmacy 
    1882: went to Texas to visit friends 
    1884: moved to Austin, TX 
    1887:  eloped and married Athol Estes 
    1888: son was born, died a few hours after his birth 
    1889: daughter born, Margaret Worth Porter 
    1889: illustrated J.W. Willbarger’s Indian Depredations in Texas 
    1891: became a teller at First National Bank in Austin, TX 
    1894: founded a humor weekly called the Rolling Stone 
    1895-1896: wrote for the Houston Daily Post  
    1896: found guilty for embezzling from First National Bank 
    1897: returned to Austin because of wife's poor health after fleeing to  New Orleans and Honduras 
    1897: Athol Estes dies after a seven year battle with tuberculosis 
    1898: declared guilty and sent to serve five years in federal penitentiary in Ohio 
    1897: McClure published “The Miracle of Lava Canyon” 
    1903: signed a contract with New York Sunday World  
    1904: Cabbages and Kings 
    1906: The Four Million 
    1907: married Sara Lindsay 
    1907: The Trimmed Lamp and Other Stories of the Four Million, The Heart of the West 
    1908: The Voice of the City 
    1910: died at age forty-eight in New York City from tuberculosis, The Ransom of the Red Chief published