O. Henry Essay, Research Paper
Honors English II 10th-7th period
March 30, 1998
O. Henry led a life comprised of love, deception, losses, pain, and delight. He draws these aspects of his life into his talent of writing. One can find a description of O. Henry’s life experiences in virtually all of his works. He describes his fears and longings, his triumphs and losses. One can consider a prime example of him incorporating his life into his art to be “The Last Leaf.” O. Henry utilizes his trademark styles of a sacrificial theme, fear of illness, and twist on the fatalistic tone in that work.
William Sidney Porter’s eventful life began on September 11, 1862 in Greensboro, North Carolina. He later changed his name to the famous pseudonym, O. Henry. When Porter was three years old, tragedy struck his family. His mother, ravaged by pneumonia, died in her sleep (”O. Henry,” Short Story Criticism 153). Dr. Porter moved his children in with his mother and sister, who were made responsible for the education and upbringing of William Porter and his brother (”O. Henry,” Short Story Criticism 153). As Porter grew up, he became a pharmacists assistant, and then went on to obtain his pharmacist’s license in 1881 (”O. Henry,” Short Story Criticism 153). Harry Hanson describes Porter as “pale, anemic, and sickly.” and accredits that, along with his omnipresent fear of death by pneumonia, to why he moved to a sheep ranch in Southwest Texas, which was endowed with a better climate than North Carolina (viii).
At the age of 22, Porter became a bankteller in Austin and married (”O. Henry,” Short Story Criticism 153). During this career, Porter bought out a weekly humor paper in 1894 and named it The Rolling Stone (”O. Henry,” Short Story Criticism 153). The paper’s content primarily consisted of Porter’s original work (”O. Henry,” Short Story Criticism 153). Once Porter was slapped with embezzlement charges, he fled Austin for New Orleans, then subsequently for Honduras. Eventually, Porter found out of his wife’s sickness, and he gave up his freedom in Honduras to come to her aid (”O Henry,” Short Story Criticism 153). Porter’s wife died and Porter surrenderd to police and the police sentenced to five years in the Ohio Federal Penitentiary (”O. Henry” Short Story Criticism 153). While in the Penitentiary, Porter worked the twelve-hour midnight shift in the Penitentiary pharmacy (”O. Henry” Short Story Criticism 153). Porter’s first professional story sale occurred before his confinement and he continued submitting stories throughout his imprisonment under a false address (”O. Henry” Short Story Criticism 153). This time that Porter spent in jail left him insecure and fearful that he would encounter an ex-convict out in public while out with friends that did not know of his shady past (”O. Henry” Short Story Criticism 153). After Porter’s imprisonment, he lived with his wife’s parents before moving to New York City in 1902, at the urging of Ainslee’s Magazine editors who thought that he would be successful in the New York City magazine industry. Porter’s life became steadier, as he had contracts with several magazines, yet he was plagued by debt. Porter was considered kindly, considerate, and generous. Porter believed that there “were stories in everything,” and he would often walk about at night and invent stories about the people he saw (Hanson, v). In life and
in death, he the most popular American short-story writer, a perfect model of the genre (”O. Henry” Short Story Criticism 154).
“The Last Leaf” can relate to Porter’s life clearly. He wrote the collection of work that “The Last Leaf” appeared in (The Trimmed Lamp) in 1904-5. The story details the life and near-death of “Johnsy” and her roommate Sue. Johnsy was struck by pneumonia suddenly. Johnsy is timing her eminent death with the amount of leaves left o the vine outside of her window. Johnsy is convinced that, when the last leaf falls, she will also die. The doctor attributes her health decline to her poor attitude. It is at this point in the plot where Porter introduces Old Behrman, a down and out alcoholic mediocre painter. Eventually, all of the leaves fall from the vine, save the one last leaf. Through torrential wind and rain, the last leaf still lingers on the vine. Johnsy’s health improves, and she is no longer downtrodden and pale, but ambitious and hearty. Later in the denouement, the two young friends find that Old Behrman contracted pneumonia from being out in the cold, painting an image of a vine with one leaf on it on Johnsy’s window. He gave up his life for Johnsy’s, and his life finally had purpose.
The story of “The Last Leaf” parallels Porter’s life through themes, fears, and fatalistic twists. Porter sacrificed his freedom from jail to come to the aid of his ailing wife. This parallels to the story when Old Behrman gives up his life for Johnsy (”O. Henry” Twentieth Century Literature Criticism 185). Both men
make the ultimate sacrifice to sustain someone else’s life and youth (”O. Henry” Twentieth Century Literature Criticism 186). O. Henry was frightened of death from pneumonia, as his mother died of it. In the “Last Leaf,” both the hero and victim falls sick from the fatal disease. He portrays his fears through that work. As for the fatalistic tone, he puts a happy, twist ending on it, just as his life, while tragic, always worked out for the better.
With his use of sacrificial themes, fear of pneumonia, and a twist on the fatalistic tone, O. Henry draws parallels from his life into his story, “The Last Leaf.” He displays his life, his fears, and his perspectives of life in his work continuously throughout the story. Porter reflects his life in his work clearly, intentional, and unabashedly. The way he lets his life shine through in his work can be admired, as he bares his soul to all of his constant readers.