William Sidney Porter (Pen Name: O. Henry) Born: September 11, 1862 (Greensboro, NC) Died: June 5, 1910 (New York City, NY)
“Porter…remains an elusive, enigmatic figure who defies analysis and explanation.”Eugene Current-Garcia
From a young age, William Sydney Porter (who would later take on the pen name O. Henry) was exposed to the wonder that is literature. After his mother’s death in 1865, his emotionally unstable father moved their family (consisting of Porter, his father, and his brother) in with Porter’s grandmother and Aunt “Lina.” This Aunt “Lina” of his being the one credited with introducing him to literature through her tutelage.
Through the years, Porter worked as a pharmacist, a publisher, a draftsman, a husband and as a father. Everything was going alright for him until he was made to stand trial (1896), because of shortages in his accounts. In his effort to evade the law, Porter fled to New Orleans (July 6, 1896) and then onto Central America, where he stayed until January 1897.
Historians don’t know if Porter’s flight from the law was “premeditated or impulsive,” and Porter’s travels while evading the law are largely unknown. Even the most dependable sources give conflicting reports. We do know, however, that he came to Honduras on a small chartered vessel owned by one of the “three or four banana companies.”
Some of our only accounts come from a man named Al Jennings, a train robber who Porter met while hiding out with the “colony of missing men.” While his accounts can’t be considered the most reliable, they do give a bit of insight into Porter’s and his exploits while in Honduras. According to Jennings, some of the stories told in Porter’s famous Cabbages and Kings were his own exploits.
One of Jenning’s accounts has Porter and him being forced out of Honduras after causing political unrest by playing with guns. Though this is a fun story, many believe that Porter left Honduras reluctantly, because his wife, Athol, fell ill. Porter allegedly would have rather finished out his days in Central America, eventually bringing his family down to live with him.
Athol died after Porter’s return to the US. Porter was made to serve out his prison sentence after having fled for over a year. Porter was sentenced to five years in a federal penitentiary but released after three years in on good behavior (coincidentally, Porter started his professional career as an author during this time).
“On November 28, 1905 – seven years after his return to the states- McClure, Phillips, & Co. published his novel (really a loose framework of stories) entitled Cabbages and Kings, which is the primary source of information about his sojourn in Honduras.”i It was in the writing Cabbages and Kings that Porter coined the term “Banana Republic” to describe Honduras. The term, with its many negative connotations, would eventually come to be applied to much of Central America.
Porter spent the rest of his life writing and in 1907, he married his high school sweetheart Sara Lindsey. Unfortunately, his energy and motivation for life began declining as he got older and on June 5, 1910, Porter died after battling a serious illness of six long months.
Current-Garcia, Eugene. O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). Twayne Publishers, Inc. (1965) New York.
Long, E. Hudson. O. Henry: The Man and His Works. A.S. Barnes and Company, Inc. (1949) New York
McLean, Malcolm D. “O. Henry in Honduras.” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, no.3, (1968): 39-46. Accessed February 6, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27747601.
i Malcolm D. McLean, “O. Henry in Honduras,” American Literary Realism, 1870-1910, no. 3, 11(1968) p. 40.