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he played his childish pranks on young and old and told his marvellous yarns of knightly adventure or Indian ambuscade, every father and mother and boy and girl felt that he was different from others of his kind. As he approached manhood, his "somnolent little Southern town" recognized in him its most skilful cartoonist of local character and its ablest interpreter of local incident. Molière has been called "the composite smile of mankind." O. Henry was the composite smile of Greensboro.
In the second stage of an O. Henry story the lines begin suddenly to dip toward a plot or plan. Still water becomes running water. It is the stage of the first guess. Background and character, dialogue and incident, sparkle and sly thrust, aspiration and adventure, seem to be spelling out something definite and resultant. You cannot guess the end but you cannot help trying. In terms of his life this was O. Henry's second or Texas period. Had he died at the age of twenty, before leaving Greensboro, he would have left a local memory and a local cult, but they would have remained local. A few would have said that with wider opportunities he would have been heard from in a national way. But when letters began to come from Texas telling of his life on the ranch and later of his adventures in local journalism, and when "W. S. Porter" signed to a joke or skit or squib in Truth or
Up to Date or the Detroit Free Press became more and more a certificate of the worth while, those of us who remained in the home town began to prophesy with some assurance that he would soon join the staff of some great metropolitan newspaper or magazine and win national fame as a cartoonist or travelling correspondent.
The third stage of an O. Henry story is reached when you find that your first forecast is wrong. This is the stage of the first surprise. Something has happened that could not or would not have happened if the story was to end as you at first thought. You must give up the rôle of prophet or at least readjust your prophecy to the demands of an ending wholly different from that at first conjectured. This stage in the life was reached in 1898, when misfortune, swift, pitiless, and seemingly irretrievable, overtook him. His life had hitherto developed uniformly, like the advance of a rolling ball. It had permitted and even invited some sort of conjecture as to his ultimate place in the work of the world. But now his destiny seemed as incalculable as the blind movements of a log in the welter of the sea.
The fourth and last stage in an O. Henry story, the stage of the second surprise, is marked by light out of darkness. Lines of character and characterization, of hap or mishap, converge to a triumphant conclusion.
We are surprised, happily surprised, and then surprised again that we should have been surprised at first. Says Nicholas Vachel Lindsay:
He always worked a triple-hinged surprise
To end the scene and make one rub his eyes.
The end was inherent in the beginning, however, though we did not see it. But the greatest surprise and the happiest surprise is found in the last stage of O. Henry's life. This was his New York period, the culmination of tendencies and impulses that we now know had stirred mightily within him from the beginning. Eight years had passed, however, years of constant and constantly deepening development, and not a word had drifted back to the home town from him or about him since 1898. His pencil sketches were still affectionately cherished and had grown in historic value as well as in personal significance as the years had passed. They furnished a bond of common memory and happy association wherever Greensboro men foregathered, though the fun and admiration that they occasioned were mellowed by the thought of what might have been. Now came the discovery, through a photograph published in a New York magazine, that O. Henry, variously styled "the American Kipling," "the American de Maupassant," "the American Gogol," "our Fielding à la mode," "the Bret Harte of the city,” “the
Y. M. C. A. Boccaccio," "the Homer of the Tenderloin," "the 20th century Haroun Al-Raschid," "the discoverer and interpreter of the romance of New York," "the greatest living master of the short story," was Will Porter of Greensboro. No story that he has written quite equals this in reserved surprise or in real and permanent achievement.
The technique of the story, however, is the technique of the life. But the life is more appealing than the story.
WILLIAM SYDNEY PORTER, better known as O. Henry, was born in Greensboro, Guilford County, North Carolina, September 11, 1862. He died in New York City, June 5, 1910. Before the Porter family Bible was found, his birth year varied from 1867 to 1864, from "about the close of the war" to a question mark. There is no doubt that O. Henry used the author's traditional right to mystify his readers in regard to his age and to the unessential facts of his life. An admirer once wrote to him begging to know by return mail whether he was a man or a woman. But the stamped envelope enclosed for reply remains still unused. "If you have any applications from publishers for photos of myself," he wrote to Mr. Witter Bynner, "or 'slush' about the identity of O. Henry, please refuse. Nobody but a concentrated idiot would write over a pen-name and then tack on a lot of twaddle about himself. I say this because I am getting some letters from reviewers and magazines wanting pictures, etc., and I am positively declining in every case.'
There has thus grown up a sort of O. Henry myth.