Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
It is believed that Porter found his pen name while in jail, where one of the guards was named Orrin Henry. Other sources say that the name was derived from his calling "Oh Henry!" after the family cat, Henry.
His stories are famous for their surprise endings and ironic coincidences, but do not lose their interest after the surprise is known. His best are full of genial warmth and wistful sadness. The great ones, such as "The Gift of the Magi", "The Last Leaf", "The Skylight Room". "Springtime a la Carte", "The Third Ingredient", and "The Green Door" seem to get better with repeated rereadings.
Most of his stories are set in his contemporary present, the early years of the 20th century. Many take place in New York, notably those in The Four Million (a reference to the population of New York at that time). O. Henry had an obvious affection for the city, which he called "Bagdad-on-the-Subway." But others are set in small towns and in other cities. His famous story A Municipal Report opens by quoting Frank Harris: "Fancy a novel about Chicago or Buffalo, let us say, or Nashville, Tennessee! There are just three big cities in the United States that are 'story cities'—New York, of course, New Orleans, and, best of the lot, San Francisco." Thumbing his nose at Harris, O. Henry sets the story in Nashville.
His stories deal for the most part with ordinary people: clerks, policemen, waitresses. He opens The Four Million by observing that "Some one invented the assertion that there were only 'Four Hundred' people in New York City who were really worth noticing. But a wiser man has arisen—the census taker—and his larger estimate of human interest has been preferred in marking out the field of these little stories of the 'Four Million.'"
His most famous story, "The Gift of the Magi" concerns a young couple who are short of money but desperately want to buy each other Christmas gifts. Unbeknownst to Jim, Della sells her most valuable possession, her beautiful hair, in order to buy a platinum fob chain for Jim's watch; unbeknownst to Della, Jim sells his most valuable possession, his watch, to buy jewelled combs for Della's hair.
The Ransom of Red Chief concerns two men who kidnap a boy of ten. The boy turns out to be so obnoxious that the men ultimately pay the boy's father two hundred and fifty dollars to take him back.
O. Henry said "There are stories in everything. I've got some of my best yarns from park benches, lampposts, and newspaper stands."
The O. Henry Awards are yearly prizes given to outstanding short stories.
O. Henry story collections at Project Gutenberg:
- The Four Million includes
- "The Gift of the Magi"
- "The Skylight Room"
- "Springtime a la Carte"
- "The Green Door"
- Cabbages and Kings
- includes "The Third Ingredient"
- Sixes and Sevens
- The Trimmed Lamp
- Voice of the City
- Strictly Business
- includes "A Municipal Report"
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