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The Man Who Invented Manhattan
Fewer than half of O. Henry’s short stories actually take place in New York, but we still see the city through his eyes
December 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 8
The stocky young Southerner’s real name was William Sydney Porter, and he had a good reason to use a pseudonym. He had just gotten out of jail.
The man who was to live in literature as a chronicler of “Baghdad on the Subway” (sometimes “on the Hudson") was born in Greensboro, North Carolina, in the middle of the Civil War. He came of respectable stock: the grandfather on his mother’s side was the editor of the Greensboro Patriot; the father was a doctor and inventor. After his wife succumbed to tuberculosis (O. Henry was only three when his mother died, and tuberculosis was to stalk him for the rest of his life, taking his first wife and eventually his only daughter), Dr. Porter distracted himself with alcohol and inventions—a perpetual-motion machine, a steam-driven horseless carriage, a device for picking cotton. He grew vague, neglecting his medical practice and his young sons.
For rearing, the young Will was turned over to his father’s unmarried sister, Evalina, who ran the household and operated a small private school and who was a strong believer in oldfashioned Southern storytelling and reading aloud. O. Henry received the last of his formal education from her when he was fifteen.
Perpetual-motion machines are not likely to be large contributors to the family income, and Will helped by working in his uncle’s pharmacy. Suspected of carrying the family “weakness in the chest,” he was sent at twenty to Texas, to the son of another Greensboro doctor, a sheep rancher who had use for an extra hand. On the eve of Theodore Roosevelt’s “strenuous life,” the rugged outdoors were seen as a cure for any weakness.
Porter spent the next fifteen years in Texas, the setting for about forty of his early stories, first in the rough and tumble of the sheep ranch, then briefly once again in the profession he detested, pharmacy. He worked for two years as a bookkeeper for a real estate firm, four years as an assistant draftsman in the General Land Office. While at the land office he fell in love with a seventeen-year-old high school student, Athol Estes, whom he courted in part by helping her with her homework. Two years later they eloped and were married on July 5, 1887.
In 1891 he took the position that was to be his undoing, as paying and receiving teller with the Bank of Austin at a salary of one hundred dollars a month. Even by the freewheeling standards of the place and the time, the Bank of Austin was carelessly run. It had pushed one of Porter’s predecessors into early retirement, another into a suicide attempt. The bank operated on an honor system turned sloppy. Funds could be and were withdrawn and replaced as though they were kept in the bread box. For Porter it was a dangerous environment. He was a grasshopper, not an ant, when it came to money, and financial improvidence was to chase him all his life. Even in the decade of his greatest success, when the money flowed in regularly, he stayed on the edge, forced by what he called lupus americanus at the door to wheedle editors into giving him small advances. Never one to keep a careful eye on expenditures, he let money go as it would; generous to a fault, he was the wrong man to be expected to prove bank books at the end of a working day. Nor could he resist an informal loan to himself when he needed it. He would certainly have meant to pay it back.
In the meantime William Porter was on the way to becoming O. Henry. He had always liked telling stories. Aunt Lina’s campfire had given him practice, and later he liked to open up over drinks among friends. He was a good talker and gained a reputation for being witty. Soon after his marriage he started writing down his stories as a means to extra income. The large number of papers and magazines of the time made it relatively easy to get published. In any case he was successful on the spot, publishing small pieces in the Detroit Free Press and in Truth, a New York magazine. Naturally, he thought he could do more. In 1894, still a bank employee, he borrowed $250 on a note signed by two friends, bought a printing press, and started a humorous weekly, The Rolling Stone. He served as editor, principal writer, and staff cartoonist. While the magazine was still in its infancy, Porter’s bank suddenly came under pressure to tighten up its procedures, to make an example of some instance of laxity. The careless, good-natured Porter was fired and threatened with prosecution.
Porter may have used the bank’s funds to help finance the magazine. People thought so. At first he had its success to console him for his troubles with the bank. The Rolling Stone’s combination of a smart-alecky tone and the heavy-handed ethnic humor of the day pushed sales to more than a thousand copies a week. Encouraged, Porter tried to expand out of Austin into other Texas cities. They proved less receptive, and after a few months circulation faltered. If he did use the bank’s money to keep it going, it was a useless embezzlement because The Rolling Stone died in 1895 on its first anniversary.