Since the start of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, pharmaceutical companies have vied to develop a safe and effective vaccine so life can get “back to normal”. At the same time, politicians vilified them for their high profits and patients resented the exorbitant prices of prescription drugs.
A little over a century ago a pharmacist wrote a story that millions still read and love today, a tale that taught us the true meaning of giving and Christmas.
(This post and part 2 to follow use affiliate links, which if you choose to use for a purchase, will generate a small reward to support this blog.)
William Sydney Porter
William Sydney Porter was born on (ironically) September 11, 1862. His father Algernon Sidney Porter was a medical doctor. When William was 3 years old, his mother died of “consumption” (an old term for tuberculosis, a lung infection still common in many parts of the world).
He grew up in Greensboro North Carolina where he clerked for his uncle’s pharmacy, Morley Drug Store. At 19 years of age he earned a pharmacy license (although it apparently required no special education or training.)
William developed a chronic cough which caught the attention of Dr. James Hall. He invited William to go with him to Texas to visit his son’s ranch, thinking this would help resolve the cough. William recovered and worked on the ranch for 2 years.
marriage and children
William married a young woman, Athol and they had two children-a son, who died in infancy, and a daughter Margaret. Now with a family he needed a reliable source of income so he took a job as a teller at National Bank of Austin. This proved to be a decision that would change the course of their lives.
media and money
In addition to his bank job, William started a newspaper called The Rolling Stone.(Apparently the current magazine of the same name is not related. ) When it went bankrupt, he worked as a reporter for the Houston Post.
Unfortunately some accounting discrepancies at the bank led to accusations of embezzlement against William. Although the charge was likely unjustified, fearing prosecution, he fled Texas, first to Louisiana, and then to Guatemala, without his wife and child.
In his absence, Athol contracted (also ironically) tuberculosis which spun out of control. He returned to Texas to care for her until her death in 1897. He was arrested and convicted of embezzlement; he served 5 years in a federal prison. Upon release William moved to New York City, never to return to Texas.
prison, publishing, and poison
His time in prison was not wasted. As a licensed pharmacist, he was allowed to work as a druggist in the prison hospital, enjoying a better quality of life than most prisoners. Working the night shift gave him time to develop his writing talent. Under a pen name (since he didn’t want to reveal he was an inmate), he began writing and publishing short stories.
After his release from prison William began publishing yearly collections of his short stories. People enjoyed his tales because they dealt with common people in ordinary circumstances but with endings that were unexpected and surprising. Whether humorous or tragic, his tales taught lessons about life in a way that left his readers pondering their own responses to life’s ups and downs.
In 1906 he published a collection called The Four Million which contained a story that became his most read and beloved of all. As in many of his stories, he used irony to create an unexpected ending to what would otherwise have been a sweet but predictable love story.
His writing successes-and failures-inflicted a price; his chronic and excessive alcohol use turned into an addiction and a disease. After writing more than 600 short stories, William Sydney Porter died of alcoholic liver cirrhosis in 1910. He was 48 years old.
What is irony?
Even though William died 110 years ago, he is still very much alive through the words he wrote. He even has a Facebook page. And the man who once published a magazine has one named after him.
You’ve probably guessed this famous writer’s name, that is his pen name- William Sydney Porter became O. Henry.
(Spoiler alert: the link will give away the ending, so don’t follow it now, wait for part 2 of this post. )
According to Literary Terms.net
“The most common purpose of irony is to create humor and/or point out the absurdity of life... life has a way of contradicting our expectations, often in painful ways.
Irony generally makes us laugh, even when the circumstances are tragic. We laugh not because the situations were tragic, but because they violate our expectations.
The contrast between people’s expectations and the reality of the situations is not only funny, but also meaningful because it calls our attention to how wrong human beings can be.
Irony is best when it points us towards deeper meanings of a situation.”
In the sequel to this post I talk about those deeper meanings O. Henry wanted us to grasp.
The four Gospels- Matthew, Mark, Luke, John- relate the life of Jesus, but only Matthew and Luke tell the story of his birth and their versions differ. Luke tells about the trip to Bethlehem and the shepherds’ visit. Matthew misses the Bethlehem journey and the shepherds, but from him we meet the wise men- the Magi.
sharing the HEART of health in literature
I compiled this brief biography of O. Henry from several different sources, all of which generally relayed the same events and timeline, some with details not mentioned in others. All can be easily found by a simple internet search. This was one of my favorite sources.
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