Today is the birthday (1862) of William Sydney Porter, usually known by his pen name O. Henry, whose short stories are known for their wit, wordplay, warm characterization, and clever twist endings. I was a big fan of O. Henry’s stories from my early days as an immigrant in the U.S. in the 1970’s. He and Damon Runyon are probably my favorite U.S. authors. O. Henry’s life is as colorful as his stories.
As a child, in Greensboro, N.C., Porter was always reading: everything from classics to dime novels. His favorite works were Lane’s translation of One Thousand and One Nights, and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. He graduated from his aunt Evelina Maria Porter’s elementary school in 1876. He then enrolled at the Lindsey Street High School. His aunt continued to tutor him until he was fifteen. In 1879, he started working in his uncle’s drugstore and in 1881, at the age of nineteen, he was licensed as a pharmacist. At the drugstore, he also displayed his artistic abilities by sketching the townspeople.
Porter traveled with Dr. James K. Hall to Texas in March 1882, hoping that a change of air would help alleviate a persistent cough he had developed. He took up residence on the sheep ranch of Richard Hall, James’ son, in La Salle County and helped out as a shepherd, ranch hand, cook and baby-sitter. While on the ranch, he learned bits of Spanish and German from the mix of immigrant ranch hands. He also spent time reading classic literature. Porter’s health did improve and he traveled with Richard to Austin in 1884, where he decided to remain and was welcomed into the home of the Harrells, who were Richard’s friends. Porter took a number of different jobs over the next several years, first as pharmacist then as a draftsman, bank teller and journalist. He also began writing as a sideline.
Porter led an active social life in Austin, including membership in singing and drama groups. He was a good singer and musician. He played both the guitar and mandolin. He became a member of the “Hill City Quartet,” a group of young men who sang at gatherings and serenaded young women of the town. Porter met and began courting Athol Estes, then seventeen years old and from a wealthy family. Her mother objected to the match because Athol was ill, suffering from tuberculosis. On July 1, 1887, Porter eloped with Athol to the home of Reverend R. K. Smoot, where they were married.
The couple continued to participate in musical and theater groups, and Athol encouraged her husband to pursue his writing. Athol gave birth to a son in 1888, who died hours after birth, and then a daughter, Margaret Worth Porter, in September 1889. Porter’s friend Richard Hall became Texas Land Commissioner and offered Porter a job. Porter started as a draftsman at the Texas General Land Office (GLO) in 1887 at a salary of $100 a month, drawing maps from surveys and field notes. The salary was enough to support his family, but he continued his contributions to magazines and newspapers.
In the GLO building, he began developing characters and plots for such stories as “Georgia’s Ruling” (1900), and “Buried Treasure” (1908). The castle-like building he worked in was even woven into some of his tales such as “Bexar Scrip No. 2692” (1894). His job at the GLO was a political appointment by Hall. Hall ran for governor in the election of 1890 but lost. Porter resigned in early 1891 when the new governor, Jim Hogg, was sworn in.
The same year, Porter began working at the First National Bank of Austin as a teller and bookkeeper at the same salary he had made at the GLO. The bank was operated informally and Porter was apparently careless in keeping his books and may have embezzled funds. In 1894, he was accused by the bank of embezzlement and lost his job but was not indicted. He then worked full-time on his humorous weekly called The Rolling Stone, which he started while working at the bank. The Rolling Stone featured satire on life, people and politics and included Porter’s short stories and sketches. Although eventually reaching a top circulation of 1500, The Rolling Stone failed in April 1895 since the paper never provided an adequate income. However, his writing and drawings had caught the attention of the editor at the Houston Post.
Porter and his family moved to Houston in 1895, where he started writing for the Houston Post. His salary was only $25 a month, but it rose steadily as his popularity increased. Porter gathered ideas for his column by loitering in hotel lobbies and observing and talking to people there. This was a technique he used throughout his writing career. While he was in Houston, the First National Bank of Austin was audited by federal auditors and they found the embezzlement shortages that had led to his firing. A federal indictment followed and he was arrested on charges of embezzlement.
Porter’s father-in-law posted bail to keep him out of jail. He was due to stand trial on July 7, 1896, but the day before, as he was changing trains to get to the courthouse, an impulse hit him. He fled, first to New Orleans and later to Honduras. While holed up in a Trujillo hotel for several months, he wrote Cabbages and Kings, in which he coined the term “banana republic” to describe the country, a phrase subsequently used widely to describe a small, unstable tropical nation in Latin America with a narrowly focused, agrarian economy. Porter had sent Athol and Margaret back to Austin to live with Athol’s parents. Unfortunately, Athol became too ill to meet Porter in Honduras as Porter had planned. When he learned that his wife was dying, Porter returned to Austin in February 1897 and surrendered to the court, pending an appeal. Once again, Porter’s father-in-law posted bail so Porter could stay with Athol and Margaret.
Athol died on July 25, 1897, from tuberculolosis. Porter, having little to say in his own defense, was found guilty of embezzlement in February 1898, sentenced to five years in prison, and imprisoned on March 25, 1898 at the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus, Ohio. While in prison, Porter, as a licensed pharmacist, worked in the prison hospital as the night druggist. He was given his own room in the hospital wing, and there is no record that he actually spent time in the cell block of the prison. He had fourteen stories published under various pseudonyms while he was in prison, but was becoming best known as “O. Henry,” a pseudonym that first appeared over the story “Whistling Dick’s Christmas Stocking” in the December 1899 issue of McClure’s Magazine. A friend of his in New Orleans would forward his stories to publishers, so they had no idea the writer was imprisoned. Porter was released on July 24, 1901, for good behavior after serving three years.
Porter reunited with his daughter Margaret, now age 11, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Athol’s parents had moved after Porter’s conviction. Margaret was never told that her father had been in prison—just that he had been away on business. Porter’s most prolific writing period started in 1902, when he moved to New York City to be near his publishers. While there, he wrote 381 short stories. He wrote a story a week for over a year for the New York World Sunday Magazine. His wit, characterization, and plot twists were adored by his readers, but often panned by critics. Porter married again in 1907, to childhood sweetheart Sarah (Sallie) Lindsey Coleman, whom he met again after revisiting his native state of North Carolina.
Porter was a heavy drinker, and his health deteriorated markedly in 1908, which affected his writing. In 1909, Sarah left him, and he died on June 5, 1910, of cirrhosis of the liver, complications of diabetes, and an enlarged heart. After funeral services in New York City, he was buried in the Riverside Cemetery in Asheville, North Carolina. His daughter, Margaret Worth Porter, who died in 1927, was buried next to her father.
Cabbages and Kings was his first collection of stories, a loosely linked collection set in a dismal central American backwater town. It was followed by The Four Million which opens with a reference to Ward McAllister’s “assertion that there were only ‘Four Hundred’ people in New York City who were really worth noticing. But a wiser man has arisen—the census taker—and his larger estimate of human interest has been preferred in marking out the field of these little stories of the ‘Four Million.'” To O. Henry, everyone in New York counted. He had an obvious affection for the city, which he called “Bagdad-on-the-Subway.” O. Henry’s love of all people is palpable throughout his writing. Grab a candy bar and read one of his stories today. It won’t take you long and, chances are, you’ll smile at the twist at the end — now known lovingly as “the O. Henry twist.”
In 1920 a candy bar called Oh! Henry was introduced and was very popular for some time. It is still available in limited quantities. It is a milk chocolate coated, layered bar with fudge on the bottom and caramel studded with peanuts on top. No one knows for sure where the name comes from, but one obvious speculation is that it is a play on the name O. Henry as an homage to the writer. Let’s just say that’s true and go from there.
There are dozens of recipes for Oh! Henry bars floating around that have very little to do with the candy bar except that they taste like peanuts and have a layer of chocolate. Here’s one such that reminds me of the chocolate topped rice krispie squares I used to love at church suppers as a boy. It is very simple and requires no baking, so would be a good recipe to make with children
No Bake O’Henry Bars
1 cup sugar
1 cup white corn syrup
1 cup crunchy peanut butter
5 cup rice krispies
1 cup butterscotch chips
1 cup chocolate chips
Bring the sugar and syrup to a boil in a pan.
Remove from the heat and add peanut butter and rice krispies.
Press the mixture into a 9×13 inch pan.
Melt together the butterscotch and chocolate chips. Spread over the top and cool completely before cutting into bars.
Yield: 26 bars
This is a perfectly good recipe. Others like it use Graham crackers or rolled oats in place of the rice krispies. It is an easy recipe to play with. The trouble is that it has very little to do with the original Oh! Henry bar. Here is my version that is much more complicated, but richer and closer to the original. I have named it for the author. You can play with this recipe too, to suit your tastes. I prefer a dark chocolate coating for example and salted peanuts.
¼ cup butter
1 ¼ cups brown sugar
¼ cup milk
½ cup smooth peanut butter
½ tsp vanilla extract
1 ¾ cups confectioners’ sugar
butter for greasing
Butter a 12×10 inch baking pan, line with parchment paper, and butter it well.
Melt ¼ cup of butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat.
Stir in the brown sugar and milk. Bring to a boil and boil for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.
Remove from the heat. Stir in the peanut butter and vanilla.
Pour over the confectioners’ sugar in a large mixing bowl. Beat until smooth
Pour into the baking dish. Chill.
Caramel and peanut layer.
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup butter
½ cup light corn syrup
1 cup sugar
3 tbsp water
½ cup peanuts (salted or unsalted to taste)
Cut the butter into small pieces and place in a microwave proof bowl with the cream. Heat in the microwave on high for one minute or until the butter is melted and the cream is warm. Set aside.
Place the water in a medium pan. Add the corn syrup. Then add the sugar, being careful that none splashes on the side.
Heat to a fast boil on medium-high heat.
Cover and let boil for one minute. (This step is very important to prevent crystallization.)
Remove the lid and place a sugar thermometer. Continue boiling until the mixture reaches 320°F/160°C.
Add the butter and cream mix a little at a time, stirring constantly. The bubbling of the boiling mix can be violent, so be careful not to add too much of the butter and cream at a time.
Heat to 240°F/115°C. Remove from heat and add the peanuts. Let cool slightly.
Pour over the chilled fudge and chill.
1 lb chocolate chips
Remove the chilled fudge and caramel layers from the pan carefully and cut into bars.
Insert a toothpick into the end of each bar.
At this point it is vital to work quickly. It is extremely important not to let the chocolate heat too much or for too long, otherwise it will not set up when cooled.
In the top of a double boiler, or a metal bowl over a pan of boiling water, melt the chocolate.
As soon as it is barely melted start coating the bars. Dip them quickly and place on wire racks to cool.
Yield: 30 bars