Micah Mattix, assistant professor of literature and writing at Houston Baptist University and books editor of The City, curates one of my new favorite morning highlights–the Prufrock newsletter. And this morning, Mattix points me to a short post about William Sydney Porter’s, or O. Henry’s, death on this day in 1910:
O. Henry died on this day in 1910, aged forty-seven. His death from alcoholism was the farthest thing from a surprise ending, though the previous year he had made a desperate attempt to get sober, healthy, and out of debt. Although already separated from his new wife, Henry knew that his only chance at reforming his New York ways was to accept her invitation to Asheville, North Carolina — her hometown, and not far from his birthplace of Greensboro. Henry’s plan involved drying out, patching up, and writing the novel he’d promised both himself and Doubleday, whose $1,500 advance he’d already spent.
The drying and patching progressed, but the novel, following all too closely Henry’s proposed story-of-my-life theme, went into procrastination limbo. When a Broadway producer offered him a $500 advance to turn one of his short stories into a play, Henry forgot the novel, spent the new advance, and then couldn’t deliver the script for the play either. Instead, he sold the stage rights to the producer, who soon had someone else turn “A Retrieved Reformation,” based on a crook who does manage to change his ways, into an international hit. This persuaded Henry that he might have other stories that could be dramatized: he took the producer’s new advance of $1,250 and headed back to New York.
As far as can be determined, Henry never wrote a word of the new play, and neither the producer nor most of Henry’s old friends heard a word from him. Preferring to unretreive his Asheville reformation quietly, he drank himself to death alone. But his last months are sprinkled with a handful of now-legendary farewell lines, the sort an earlier Henry would have built a tale upon. “The train for happiness is late,” he told a friend not long before leaving Asheville. When he checked into the hospital, he emptied his pockets, saying, “Here I am going to die and only worth 23 cents.” When, on the last night, the nurse turned out the light, he had her turn it back on, saying, “I don’t want to go home in the dark.”
O. Henry has held a special place in my heart since reading “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief” in my seventh grade “Gifted and Talented” class with the wonderful Sandra Cox. (I hope the school no longer calls the program by this name, and looking back, I’m surprised the name passed muster in the late 1990s.) “Gift of the Magi” seems to be O. Henry’s most popular short story, but I’ve always held a fondness for the lesser-known “Ransom of Red Chief,” where two men kidnap the son of a wealthy southerner. Consistent with O. Henry’s trademark surprise endings, the kidnappers ultimately get fed up with the boy and pay his father to take him back instead of the other way around–collecting a ransom from him.
I enjoyed the tale because I could see this happening to me when I was in middle school. Despite my good behavior, compared to that of my some of my childhood friends, my parents frequently threatened to send me to Hargrave, the military academy in Chatham about half an hour from our home. I knew they would never act on the punishment, but that they would make the threat made it seem as if maybe I weren’t the perfect son. Maybe it wasn’t “human for anybody to give up two thousand dollars for that forty-pound chunk of freckled wildcat” like me.
Today, however, I reflect on O. Henry with joy and sadness–joy that his storytelling legacies survived the past decade and that Mrs. Cox introduced me to them and sadness that O. Henry died in such lonely and depressing circumstances. Because his birthplace was in Greensboro and because he spent time in Asheville are perhaps other reasons why I’ve held a fondness for him–both locations are close to where I grew up and where I now live. Though O. Henry died in New York City after leaving Asheville, I wish I, or someone, could have been there with him in his final hours.
“I don’t want to go home in the dark,” O. Henry said in his last night to his nurse. This statement reminds me of a passage in Fitzgerald’s (another Asheville short-term resident) This Side of Paradise. Eleanor, a new love interest of Amory’s, begins:
“Well—I’m not afraid of the dark, so I put on my slicker and rubber boots and came out. You see I was always afraid, before, to say I didn’t believe in God—because the lightning might strike me—but here I am and it hasn’t, of course, but the main point is that this time I wasn’t any more afraid of it than I had been when I was a Christian Scientist, like I was last year. So now I know I’m a materialist and I was fraternizing with the hay when you came out and stood by the woods, scared to death.”
“Why, you little wretch—” cried Amory indignantly. “Scared of what?”
“Yourself!” she shouted, and he jumped. She clapped her hands and laughed. “See—see! Conscience—kill it like me! Eleanor Savage, materiologist—no jumping, no starting, come early—”
“But I have to have a soul,” he objected. “I can’t be rational—and I won’t be molecular.”
Contra to Eleanor’s newly adopted philosophy–that all life and being can be explained in terms of matter–Amory evokes Christian existentialism and William Barrett’s Irrational Man. “Faith can no more be described to a thoroughly rational mind than the idea of colors can be conveyed to a blind man,” writes Barrett. “Contrary to the rationalist tradition, we now know that it is not his reason that makes man man, but rather that reason is a consequence of that which really makes him man.”
I’m glad the nurse turned on the lights for O. Henry, who had a soul, who wasn’t rational, and who wasn’t solely molecular. And in a trademark surprise ending, that he had these three characteristics both killed him and saved him.
 Mrs. Cox now enjoys a wonderful retirement, living at Smith Mountain Lake and traveling the world.