Saturday, September 1, 2012

IV. O. Henry: The American Writer

William Sydney Porter (aka O. Henry) left prison on July 24, 1901. While he was there, he published (with submission assistance from a friend in New Orleans) fourteen short stories which are considered among his greatest (including Whislting Dick’s Christmas Stocking, Money Maze and George’s Ruling).

He immediately traveled to Pittsburgh to reunite with his daughter. In April of 1902, he moved to New York City. From his room at the Hotel Marty, he impressed the editors of Ainslee’s Magazine 1902. Contracts would soon follow from McClure’s and New York’s Sunday World. By 1904, he was living on a handsome salary, for a writer, and publishing at a fantastic rate.

After his death, in 1910, one author notes O. Henry had been “the most popular short story writer in America” for some time. By 1916, he had passed “beyond the status of a one-nation writer with his rapid development into a best-seller in England.” Another author notes O. Henry’s popularity was “established” and his fame “assured.” O. Henry had become “the American writer.”

O. Henry’s personal life was far from perfect. He had a tendency to abuse alcohol (as did his father). His first wife had died of tuberculosis (as had his mother, when he was only three years old). In his final years, he had complications with his liver and diabetes. He died an untimely death, at 47 years of age.

But we also know this: William Sydney Porter was deeply ashamed about his prison record. The very fact that he had ever spent time in prison was hidden from his own daughter until well after his death. Many of Porter’s friends only knew him as O. Henry and most were completely unaware of his conviction. Porter didn’t loudly profess innocence, brag about his incarceration or - despite the fact that he was a writer - attempt to profit from his experience behind bars. He buried what he considered a shameful event as deeply as he possibly could, tried to move on in life, stayed clear of the law, and became known as one of America’s greatest writers.

Even the strongest supporter of retributive justice and “law and order,” and the most stringent skeptic of rehabilitation, cannot deny the radical transformation in the life of the man we know as O. Henry. In a time when presidents are distributing posthumous pardons, for symbolic purposes and to "clear the record." It makes perfect sense for a president to consider clemency to O. Henry, not only as a matter of grace (mercy), but in recognition of the reality of transformation (rehabilitation) and clear instances of merit.

On September 11, 2012 (the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of O. Henry's birth) the U.S. Postal Service will introduce the O. Henry stamp. And with good reason. The President of the United States should seriously consider a posthumous pardon as well.


I. O. Henry: The Early Years
II. O. Henry: Trial and Conviction
II. III. O.Henry: Prisoner No. 30664

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