O. Henry on the Secrets of Writing Short Stories: Rare Audio Recording

Today is the 150th anniver­sary of the birth of the short sto­ry writer O. Hen­ry. He was born William Syd­ney Porter in Greens­boro North Car­oli­na on Sep­tem­ber 11, 1862, and his life was not easy. He chose the pen name “O. Hen­ry” while he was in the pen­i­ten­tiary.

Trained as a phar­ma­cist, Porter came down with tuber­cu­lo­sis in his ear­ly twen­ties and moved to the dri­er cli­mate of Texas, where he worked as a ranch hand, a drafts­man for the Texas Land Office, and a clerk at the First Nation­al Bank of Austin before strik­ing out on his own as a writer and launch­ing a humor mag­a­zine called The Rolling Stone. When the mag­a­zine fold­ed the fol­low­ing year, Porter took a job as a reporter, colum­nist and car­toon­ist at the Hous­ton Post. Mean­while, though, Fed­er­al inves­ti­ga­tors were look­ing into short­ages in Porter’s accounts from his days at the bank in Austin, and in Feb­ru­ary of 1896, when he was 33 years old and had a wife and a young daugh­ter to sup­port, Porter was arrest­ed and charged with embez­zle­ment.

While being brought to Austin for tri­al, Porter man­aged to elude his cap­tors and hop a train to New Orleans, where he arranged pas­sage on a freighter bound for Hon­duras. Despite the appear­ance of guilt Porter would always main­tain his inno­cence, say­ing that his flight from jus­tice was brought on by pan­ic. He com­pared him­self to the pro­tag­o­nist of one of Joseph Con­rad’s clas­sic nov­els, a sailor who aban­doned a ful­ly loaded pas­sen­ger ship that he thought was sink­ing. “I am like Lord Jim,” he said, “because we both made one fate­ful mis­take at the supreme cri­sis of our lives, a mis­take from which we could not recov­er.”

When Porter got to Cen­tral Amer­i­ca he began mak­ing plans for his fam­i­ly to join him there, but soon learned that his wife was dying of tuber­cu­lo­sis. He returned to Texas and was with his wife when she died. A few months lat­er he was sen­tenced to five years in a fed­er­al pen­i­ten­tiary in Ohio. While behind bars, Porter began writ­ing short sto­ries in earnest. To dis­guise his iden­ti­ty he used a series of pen names, even­tu­al­ly set­tling on “O. Hen­ry.”

Porter was released from prison in 1901, two years ear­ly for good behav­ior. He moved to New York to write sto­ries under his new name for mag­a­zines. From there he sky­rock­et­ed to suc­cess. Between 1904 and his death in 1910, he pub­lished some 300 sto­ries and ten books. “O. Hen­ry worked at whirl­wind speed,” writes Vic­to­ria Blake in the Barnes & Noble Clas­sics edi­tion of Select­ed Sto­ries of O. Hen­ry, “pro­duc­ing more over a short­er peri­od than any oth­er writer of his time and cul­ti­vat­ing a lit­er­ary demand unmatched by any­one, any­where in the his­to­ry of Amer­i­can let­ters.”

Some of the very same ele­ments that made O. Hen­ry’s sto­ries so pop­u­lar in his lifetime–the sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty, the “twist” endings–have caused them to age poor­ly since his death. A few of his sto­ries, like “The Gift of the Magi,” are still wide­ly read, but his rep­u­ta­tion has been sur­passed by more mod­ern writ­ers like Ernest Hem­ing­way, James Joyce and Sher­wood Ander­son. A lit­tle of his for­mer pres­tige is revived every year with the award­ing of the O. Hen­ry Prize for the best short fic­tion.

For his 150th birth­day we bring you what is said to be a rare record­ing of O. Hen­ry’s voice. Although the date and authen­tic­i­ty are an open ques­tion, the record­ing was appar­ent­ly made on an Edi­son cylin­der some­time between 1905 and the writer’s death in 1910. It was includ­ed in the vinyl record The Gold­en Age of Opera: Great Per­son­al­i­ties, 1888–1940. Here is a tran­script:

This is William Syd­ney Porter speak­ing, bet­ter known to you, no doubt, as O. Hen­ry. I’m going to let you in on a few of my secrets in writ­ing a short sto­ry. The most impor­tant thing, at least in my hum­ble opin­ion, is to use char­ac­ters you’ve crossed in your life­time. Truth is indeed stranger than fic­tion. All of my sto­ries are actu­al expe­ri­ences that I have come across dur­ing my trav­els. My char­ac­ters are fac­sim­i­lies of actu­al peo­ple I’ve known. Most authors spend hours, I’m told even days, labor­ing over out­lines of sto­ries that they have in their minds. But not I. In my way of think­ing that’s a waste of good time. I just sit down and let my pen­cil do the rest. Many peo­ple ask me how I man­age to get that final lit­tle twist in my sto­ries. I always tell them that the unusu­al is the ordi­nary rather than the unex­pect­ed. And if you peo­ple lis­ten­ing to me now start think­ing about your own lives, I’m sure you’ll dis­cov­er just as many odd expe­ri­ences as I’ve had. I hope this lit­tle talk will be heard long after I’m gone. I want you all to con­tin­ue read­ing my sto­ries then too. Good­bye, folks.

Relat­ed con­tent:

John Stein­beck­’s Six Tips for the Aspir­ing Writer

James Joyce Reads ‘Anna Livia Plura­belle’ from Finnegans Wake

Rare 1959 Audio: Flan­nery O’Con­nor Reads ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’

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Comments (3)
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  • Richard Watkins says:

    The almost the­atri­cal speak­ing style, and even the very mod­ern choic­es of words, make this record­ing feel like it was record­ed decades lat­er than 1905–1910. Since the “date and authen­tic­i­ty are open to ques­tion,” I would ques­tion whether this record­ing is actu­al­ly that old and, for that rea­son, whether it is even O.Henry him­self. Plen­ty of record­ed com­pi­la­tions of famous authors made for sale in mid-20th cen­tu­ry (like the one ref­er­enced, cir­ca 1940) fre­quent­ly used recre­ations of famous scenes or actors por­tray­ing well known, but at the time deceased, fig­ures from his­to­ry, so this could be an enact­ment, with delib­er­ate scratch­es, pops and muf­fled sound qual­i­ty, rather than the authen­tic voice. Is there fur­ther ver­i­fi­ca­tion?

  • Mike Springer says:

    When I wrote that “the date and authen­tic­i­ty are an open ques­tion” I was try­ing to be clear that the prove­nance of the record­ing is unknown, so it’s cer­tain­ly open to inter­pre­ta­tions such as yours. I found ref­er­ences to the record­ing, along with tran­scrip­tions, on the Web sites of a cou­ple of his­tor­i­cal organizations–the Austin His­to­ry Cen­ter and the Greens­boro His­tor­i­cal Museum–and both seemed to take the authen­tic­i­ty for grant­ed. The vinyl record I refer to was not made cir­ca 1940, but is a col­lec­tion of var­i­ous record­ings, most­ly of opera, which were pur­port­ed­ly made between 1888 and 1940. (So you could just as well say it was cir­ca 1888.) But I think your skep­ti­cism is under­stand­able. I had the same thought about the the­atri­cal­i­ty of the speak­ing voice.

  • david says:

    you guys should make that movie clear­er so you can actu­al­ly under­stand

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