American short story writer O. Henry was born William Sidney Porter (1862-1910). Incidentally, in 1898, Porter changed the spelling of his middle name from Sidney to Sydney. His short stories feature colorful characters, skillful unfolding of plot, realistic and witty dialogue, and often with a distinctive surprise plot twist ending (often referred to as the “O. Henry twist”). He was a prolific writer, having written more than 600 short stories, published in 13 separate collections of short stories. In the early 1900s, Porter was one of the most widely read and admired storytellers in the country. Two of his best-known short stories are the “The Last Leaf” and the holiday classic “The Gift of the Magi.”
Many people often wonder how Porter came up with the pen name “O. Henry” that seems to have no connection with his birth name, his place of birth (Greensboro, North Carolina), or his professions (pharmacist, bank teller, bookkeeper, and journalist). During his writing career, Porter used many pen names, including James L. Bliss, T.B. Down, Howard Clark, Olivier Henry, O. Henry, and S.H. Peters. Porter used the pseudonym for the first time in December 1899 for the short story titled “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking.” There are several accounts on the internet that attribute the pen name to individuals he met during his prison term in the Ohio State Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. (He was sentenced to five years in prison for embezzling funds from a bank where he worked as a bank teller and bookkeeper; he served only three, being released early for good behavior — and writing really great short stories). Another common fallacy is that he was named after a candy bar (read below). Yet another story claims that he derived the pen name from the name of a girlfriend’s cat. There is no evidence for any of these explanations.
In an interview with The New York Times in 1909 ( titled “O. Henry on Himself, Life, and Other Things”), Porter gave this definitive account:
It was during these New Orleans days that I adopted my pen name of O. Henry. I said to a friend: “I’m going to send out some stuff. I don’t know if it amounts to much, so I want to get a literary alias. Help me pick out a good one.” He suggested that we get a newspaper and pick a name from the first list of notables that we found in it. In the society columns we found the account of a fashionable ball. “Here we have our notables,” said he. We looked down the list and my eye lighted on the name Henry, “That’ll do for a last name,” said I. “Now for a first name. I want something short. None of your three-syllable names for me.” “Why don’t you use a plain initial letter, then?” asked my friend. “Good,” said I, “O is about the easiest letter written, and O it is.”…. “A newspaper once wrote and asked me what the O stands for. I replied, ‘O stands for Olivier, the French for Oliver.’ And several of my stories accordingly appeared in that paper under the name Olivier Henry.”
Despite some accounts on the internet, O. Henry was not named after the Oh Henry! candy bar introduced by the Williamson Candy Company of Chicago in 1920. Nor was the Oh Henry! candy bar named after the author. According to Nestle, this is the official story of the naming of the chocolate candy bar: “Way back when, there was a little candy shop owned by George Williamson. A young fellow by the name of Henry who visited this shop on a regular basis became friendly with the young girls working there. They were soon asking favors of him, clamoring Oh Henry, will you do this?, and Oh Henry, will you do that? So often did Mr. Williamson hear the girls beseeching poor young Henry for help, that when he needed a name for a new candy bar, he called it OH HENRY! and filed a trademark application the following year.” Now that would have made a wonderful O. Henry short story, don’t you think?
The O. Henry Award, established in 1918, is an annual American award given to short stories of exceptional merit was named after the author. The award, presented by the Society of Arts and Sciences, promotes the art of the short story. His love of language and wordplay was the inspiration for the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships established in 1978 that celebrates the often-maligned but wickedly funny pun. Punsters from around the globe travel to the O. Henry Museum in Austin, Texas each May to compete in the Punniest of Show, PunSlingers, and Most Viable Punster competitions.
One of the most common questions that librarians and booksellers hear is: “where can I find O. Henry? Is it organized under O or H?” The proper alphabetization of O. Henry is under “H” not “O” — remember the name is not spelled “O’Henry” but rather “O. Henry” as in Olivier Henry. Still, many bookstores stock O. Henry’s books in the “O” section of fiction. Oh Henry!
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For further reading: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/O._Henry