The Development of the American Short Story: An Historical Survey

By Fred Lewis Pattee | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XVI
O. HENRY AND THE HANDBOOKS

I

The final major figure in the history of the American short story, the last individual able, single-handed, to influence the direction of its current, was "O. Henry," or, to use his own name, seldom mentioned now save in textbooks, William Sydney Porter. His swift rise to dominance has been one of the sensations of the new century. In 1899, when his first story appeared in McClure's, he was totally unknown; in 1910 he was dead, but in the eleven years he had captured the reading public with short stories alone as no other writer anywhere has ever done it, and he had made his pen name almost as familiar, in America at least, as "Mark Twain," the most widely known pseudonym in all literature.

Until he was thirty-five his life was unliterary and undistinctive. He was born in the little town of Greensboro, North Carolina, he was almost totally unschooled; at fifteen he was set to learn the drug business in his uncle's store, and at twenty, threatened with tuberculosis, he was sent to a Texas ranch, where, for a brief period, he caught a glimpse of the vanishing cowboy--this was his boyhood. Then for ten years he had lived in Austin, Texas, working in various ordinary capacities: office clerk, draftsman, bank teller, and finally newspaper man--editor of a comic journal that made haste to expire, and then, at Houston, columnist for The Daily Post.

And there he might have remained interminably, pouring his daily cupful into the bottomless pit of a Texas daily, had not good fortune in the guise of total annihilation forced his life suddenly into melodrama: accused of embezzling funds while employed in the Austin bank, he made a dash for South America by way of New Orleans and Honduras, lived for nearly a year with criminals and adventurers in various cities of refuge from extradition, and then, learning of the critical illness of his wife, returned to Texas, surrendered himself to the authorities, and was given five years in

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