Every few years, a revelation about some classic author or other sends shock waves through the literary community. Agatha Christie went missing for 11 days and no one is really sure what happened? Henry David Thoreau lived walking distance from town, threw frequent parties, and his mother did his laundry? Mary Shelley lost her virginity on her mother’s grave? That sort of thing. And while this story perhaps isn’t quite at that level, it is nonetheless consuming my every thought right now.
Known for his charming stories with surprise endings, including “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Last Leaf,” it should be no surprise that O. Henry’s life had some twists of its own life. When I went off in search of some biographical information, I half-expected to learn something distasteful, such as “he was from money and had no idea what it’s like to not be able to afford a Christmas gift for your beloved spouse!” or “he never experienced illness or the death of a loved one and had no idea what it would be like to try to keep someone alive!” but instead I found a complex man with a sometimes sad, sometimes bananapants life. Buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy post.
Born William Sidney Porter (he later changed his middle name to Sydney) on September 11, 1862, Henry’s mother died when he was 3 years old and he and his physician father moved in with his grandmother. He read voraciously, particularly loving the Edward William Lane translation of The Thousand and One Nights. He graduated elementary school and was tutored by an aunt until her death. Then he became licensed as a pharmacist in 1881 at the age of 19. He developed a persistent cough and moved to Texas, where he worked as a sheep rancher for his friend Richard Hall. His health improved in the southern air.
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