Monday, May 7, 2012

O. Henry: Western writer


I came across this photo of O. Henry in a February 1904 issue of The Critic. A brief note describes his mysterious appearance among the New York literati:

Less than a year ago the readers of popular magazines began to be startled and delighted by certain fantastic and ingenious tales, mainly dealing with Western life and bearing the strange device "O. Henry" as a signature. In a short time people began to talk to each other about the stories, and very soon they began to ask who the author was.

It was then that a new problem fell upon this over-puzzled age,who is "O. Henry"? No one seemed to now the author's real name, and immediately vague and weird rumors began to be afloat and the nom-de-guerre was soon invested with as much curiosity as surrounds an author after his decease.

But, like most mysteries, when it was probed there was no mystery about it. "O. Henry's" real name is Mr. Sydney Porter, a gentleman from Texas, who, having seen a great deal of the world with the naked eye, happened to find himself in New York about two years ago, and there discovered a market where people would buy stories of his experiences.

Being of a lazy disposition he very naturally quitted active life and took to his desk. He signed the name "O. Henry" merely because he did not take his real self seriously as a maker of fiction. He really does shun notoriety—a most unusual characteristic among present-day writersand he disclaims any intention of having purposely created a mystery about his identity. But he is still not too old to become a professional.

It was a fabrication, no doubt invented by William Sidney Porter (1862-1910) himself. The account of his relocation from Texas neatly skips over his time spent in an Ohio prison for embezzlement. O. Henry's collection of western stories, The Heart of the West, published in 1907, was reviewed here a while ago.

Coming up: Woody Harrelson, Billy Crudup, The Hi-Lo Country (1998)


  1. It's always neat to see contemporary accounts of authors or reviews of their work, accustomed as we are to looking at it from so many years' distance. I think Henry is under-appreciated as a Western writer—Heart of the West is great, of course, but there's some even better Western stories scattered through his other collections that most people probably haven't heard of.

    1. O. Henry gets a mention by a character in an early Dane Coolidge novel, HIDDEN WATER, along with a couple other contemporary western writers. I think that was the first time I'd seen a reference to him as a western writer.

  2. Ingenious is the word for it. I'm amazed at his tales. AN influence on me, although I can't come close.

  3. Ingenious is right. I consider him an influence, though I don't come close.

  4. Being of a lazy disposition he very naturally quitted active life and took to his desk.

    Love that line.

  5. I follow your blog regularly and I'm learnin a lot about the Western Novel/Western Fiction. Unfortunately, in Europe it seems that we only get the movies.
    I'm doing a research paper for college and need to know some titles of novels whose theme is the search for gold, a person, an animal or a specific space.
    If you know any title about the Search/Quest motif,
    I would be happy to take note of it.
    My email is

    Thank you very much in advance.

    Best Regards,

    Le Chevalier

    1. Off hand, I'd say any novels having to do with exploring and early immigrant overland journeys. For example, Richard Wheeler's SNOWBOUND, a historical novel about Fremont's search for a route across the Rockies.

  6. And he was born in North Carolina (as a Tarheel, I thought I'd have to mention that)