Who is O. Henry?
William Sydney Porter (September 11, 1862 – June 5, 1910), better known by his pen name O. Henry, was an American writer known primarily for his short stories, though he also wrote poetry and non-fiction. His works include “The Gift of the Magi“, “The Duplicity of Hargraves“, and “The Ransom of Red Chief“, as well as the novel Cabbages and Kings. Porter’s stories are known for their naturalist observations, witty narration, and surprise endings.
Porter’s legacy includes the O. Henry Award, an annual prize awarded to outstanding short stories.
Porter used a number of pen names (including “O. Henry” or “Olivier Henry”) in the early part of his writing career; other names included S.H. Peters, James L. Bliss, T.B. Dowd, and Howard Clark. Nevertheless, the name “O. Henry” seemed to garner the most attention from editors and the public, and was used exclusively by Porter for his writing by about 1902. He gave various explanations for the origin of his pen name. In 1909, he gave an interview to The New York Times, in which he gave an account of it:
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.
William Trevor writes in the introduction to The World of O. Henry: Roads of Destiny and Other Stories (Hodder & Stoughton, 1973) that “there was a prison guard named Orrin Henry” in the Ohio State Penitentiary “whom William Sydney Porter … immortalised as O. Henry”.
According to J. F. Clarke, it is from the name of the French pharmacist Etienne Ossian Henry, whose name is in the U.S. Dispensary which Porter used working in the prison pharmacy.
Writer and scholar Guy Davenport offers his own hypothesis: “The pseudonym that he began to write under in prison is constructed from the first two letters of Ohio and the second and last two of penitentiary.”