Literary Daybook, April 25

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
April 25, 2002 11:00PM (UTC)
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Today in fiction

On April 25, 1933, Victor Dean dies falling down the iron staircase at Pym's Publicity.
-- "Murder Must Advertise" (1933)
by Dorothy L. Sayers

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1898, William S. Porter -- the drugstore clerk, cowboy, fugitive, bank teller, cartoonist and future "O. Henry" -- began a five-year prison sentence for embezzlement. Porter had published several stories prior to his prison term, but the 14 written behind bars represent a new style and quality, and began his rise to popularity. Porter hoped a pseudonym would keep the disgrace of his conviction from his 9-year-old daughter, who was told that he was away on business. Why Porter settled on "O. Henry" is variously explained: As a drugstore clerk in his teens, Porter would have known of the famous French pharmacist, Etienne-Ossian Henry, whose name appeared in the drug dispensary guide as O. Henry; he took the name from one of his prison guards, Orrin Henry; while courting a young lady he called a stray cat over with "Oh Henry!" and then later wrote about the incident, signing the unpublished piece, "O. Henry"; as a ranch hand in his early 20s, he knew the cowboy song "Root, Hog, or Die," and found it apt:

"Along came my true lover about twelve o'clock/ Saying Henry, O Henry, what sentence have you got?"


Porter may or may not have been guilty of taking $5,000 while working as a bank teller, but he certainly appeared so when he fled to Honduras. He turned himself in when he heard that his wife was dying -- she was his model for the wife in "The Gift of the Magi," one devoted to him throughout his many misadventures -- and received a five-year sentence, from which he was released after three for good behavior. Prison allowed him not only the time to write but association with many characters with stories to tell. And it did not overly cramp his style: He was so popular and well-connected in the prison hierarchy that he and bank robber Al Jennings were able to run a secret Sunday dinner club, with roast beef, wine and place cards. Porter was a man who liked to sprinkle a little perfume on his handkerchief, and for his release in 1901 he somehow finagled a good suit, a new derby and pigskin gloves.

Within two years he was established in New York City, living and writing in the style that would make him famous, and kill him by age 47 of cirrhosis of the liver: whiskey, hotel rooms, deadline-dodging, walking the streets of "Baghdad-on-the-Subway" to find "at every corner handkerchiefs drop, fingers beckon, eyes besiege, and the lost, the lonely, the rapturous, the mysterious, the perilous, changing clues of adventure are slipped into our fingers."

-- Steve King


To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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