A Writer's Tale, Literary Liaisons

A Writer’s Tale- O. Henry

Once again, loyal readers, we find ourselves in the midst of the holiday season. And if you’re anything like me this time of year finds you indulging in certain annual traditions. And while I’m sure many of you share my penchant for eggnog and Die Hard, one of my more personal traditions is to re-read “The Gift of the Magi” a powerful story about love and giving that really helps me crystalize the important things in my life. And if this year someone tugs on your heartstrings the way I just did and you feel like bumming them out in revenge then you’re in luck because that Christmastime favorite’s author is the subject of this edition of A Writer’s Tale.
William Sydney Porter, hereafter referred to by his pen name O. Henry, is perhaps the most prodigious writer in American history. In his too brief life, he published over six hundred short stories. And while his impressive resume is a story in and of itself, it is not the story I wish to share with you today. No, the yarn I wish to spin has less to do with words and more to do with numbers.
You see before the name O. Henry became synonymous with American literature, William was just another talented young man trying to find his way in the world. As such he took on many jobs pharmacist, sheepherder, draftsmen. And, unfortunately for him, bank teller.
In 1891 O. Henry began working as a bank teller and bookkeeper for the First National Bank of Austin. The bank was not particularly well managed and O. Henry was better at writing books than keeping them. So, in 1894 when some rather large discrepancies arose, O. Henry was accused of embezzlement. He was fired, but not charged.
This would not have been all that interesting had it not been for a federal audit of the First National Bank in 1896, which led to O Henry being indicted by a grand jury.
Instead of standing trial he skipped bail and headed first to New Orleans then to Honduras. Have you ever heard the phrase “banana republic”? (or maybe you shop there and thought it was a funny name) Well, you have O. Henry, wanted fugitive from justice, to thank for that particular colloquialism; which refers to corrupt governments with weak economies heavily reliant on agricultural exports. Give him credit, it’s not every day an author gets to coin a phrase that gets put to steady use by the foreign service.
Sadly, our story has a rather morose ending. Instead of joining her husband in Honduras, O. Henry’s wife became terminally ill. Hearing of his wife’s illness O. Henry returned to Texas to be with her. She died and he was convicted of embezzlement and served three years of a five-year sentence in a federal penitentiary.
He did re-marry and enjoy great success after his incarceration. But his heavy drinking took a toll on his marriage, his work, and eventually his health. His wife left him, he stopped writing, and he died of cirrhosis in 1910 at the age of 48. A rather depressing end for a man whose stories continue to bring so much joy to so many.
There you have it, a way to effectively suck the life out of any holiday party you attend this year. When your friends sarcastically thank you for sharing this story, tell them there are plenty more pessimistic missives here at The Eclectic Eccentric. Until next time this has been A Writer’s Tale.

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