Tragic in life and death- O Henry | Sunday Observer

Tragic in life and death- O Henry

O Henry, -(1862- 1910) –

Coincidentally born on ‘9-11’ (September 11 ) -and whose real name was William Sydney Porter, led an adventurous life, and wrote his exciting short stories, while in Jail.

During his short life of 47 years, he wrote stories with a “twist in the tale”, meaning that they had unexpected endings – endings which came in the last few lines of the story, often in the very last sentence, thus taking you, the reader, completely by surprise!

O Henry’s mother died when he was just three, during childbirth, and he himself suffered from Tuberculosis all his life. As a little kid he was an avid reader and would read everything he could get his hands on. He studied at a school run by his Aunt, and became a qualified Pharmacist.

Sri Lanka and many other countries with struggling Economies are sometimes mockingly referred to as “Banana Republics” - a name associated with a country which is a small, unstable, tropical Nation, with a narrow Agriculture-based economy. Well, it was O Henry who first coined this term, in his book -“Cabbages and Kings”, set in an imaginary country which he called ‘Anchuria’

In one of the stories (“The Admiral”), the Banana fruit was the entire basis of its country’s economy. According to a literary analyst writing for The Economist, “his phrase neatly conjures up the image of a tropical, agrarian country. But its real meaning is sharper: it refers to the fruit companies from the United States that came to exert extraordinary influence”. (Wickipedia). Thus O Henry was indirectly criticising the exploitative behavior of the American capitalists in Third World ‘Latin American’ Economies.

O Henry’s led his life in Texas, USA, where he started as a Pharmacist and then worked in a Bank. Here, he wanted to marry a wealthy 17 –year- old, Athol Estes, but her family objected to the marriage, because Athol was suffering from T.B. They eloped.

When his friend Richard Hall became the Texas Land commissioner, he obtained a job as a draughtsman, but it was a political appointment and O Henry resigned the day after Hall lost an election. He then went to work in a Bank, the First National Bank of Austin, (Texas), as a teller and bookkeeper. The bank was operated informally, and he embezzled funds - possibly because he could not make ends meet to support his family. Accused by the bank of embezzlement, he lost his job.

His wealthy father- in- law bailed him out, but he fled, (apparently on an impulse) to the Honduras, to avoid extradition to the USA, but alas for him, his wife, left behind in the USA and in failing health, prompted hid decision to return. He moved to Houston, where he started work for the Houston Post newspaper. While working there he was charged with the embezzlement at the previous Bank job, found guilty of embezzling $ 854, (a large amount, in those days), and sentenced to five years in Jail.

To appreciate O Henry, you need to read his work yourself but a classic example is his poignant love story- The gift of the Magi. In it, a young couple who are very poor, have no money to buy each other Christmas presents on Christmas day. But Della (the wife), has beautiful long hair down to her waist and husband James has an inherited a gold pocket- watch which is a family heirloom. On Christmas day they surprise each other- James has sold his watch to buy combs for her hair, but it’s gone, because she has sold her hair to buy him a Watch Chain for his watch.