O. Henry's Only Interview

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The following article was the only autobiographical interview with William Sidney Porter ever conducted. It was featured in the New York Times 4 April 1909. The copy of this article is housed in the "Autobiographia" Folder of the Greensboro Public Library's O. Henry Collection.

"'O. HENRY' ON HIMSELF, LIFE, AND OTHER THINGS; For the First Time the Author of 'The Four Million' Tells a Bit of the "Story of My Life." New York Times. New York, N.Y.: April 4, 1909. Page SM9.

 

    O. Henry, Afrite--Chef of delight!
    Of all delectable conglomerate
    That stay the starved brain and rejuvenate
    The Mental Man: The aesthetic appetite--
    So long anhungered that the "inards" fight
    And growl gutwise--its pangs thou dost abate
    And all so amiably alleviate,
    Joy pats its belly as a hobo might
    Who haply hat attained a cherry pie
    When one of these spells comes on I no seeds--
    Nothin' but crisped crust, and thickness of it,
    And squshin'-juicy, and yes mighty nigh
    Too dratted drippin'-sweet for human needs,
    But for the sosh of milk that goes with it.
    JAMES WHITCOMB RILEY.

     

(These lines of "greeting and acclaiming"--hitherto unpublished--were inscribed by the Hoosier poet on the fly-leaf of "Neighborly Poems" which was then dispatched to O. Henry.)

AFRITE -- CHEF" -- James Whitcomb Riley did more wisely than he knew when he tagged O. Henry with that label. The poet was thinking of him only as a literary genius who with pen wand conjures from his ink pot "delectables conglomerate.'' But the label has a further warrant, in fact. Like the old genii of the Arabian Nights, O. Henry is an elusive being with definitely prescribed rules of materialization. The first and last of these rules is that, so far as the public is concerned, all he will do is to materialize between the covers of magazine and book the "delectables conglomerate," while he himself remains invisible behind the pen name.

In spite of the fact that for the past six or seven years O. Henry has been one of the most popular short-story writers in America, acclaimed by many--and some of the occupying high seats in the literary tribunal--as one of the greatest of this country's tellers of short tales, he has, with two slight, almost negligible, lapses, maintained this rule of retirement. While he has let his light shine brightly before all men, he has kept himself hid under a bushel.

For the first of the lapses from this rule the author was in all probability not himself responsible. It became known that O. Henry in every-day life is Sydney Porter. This is a fact that might have leaked from a hundred and one different sources.

And for the second lapse he is not solely responsible, for it was only after much and long-continued importunity from his editors that he finally permitted the publication of his photograph.

* * *

But the story of himself--his whence and his how--this teller of tales refused to relate for publication. Even in friendly conversation he could be inveighed into giving but detached incidents, never a complete chapter from "The Story of My Life."

Many are the interviewers who have sought him, but he has turned a deaf ear to their siren song. Even to the conservative inquiries of that mildly inquisitive publication, "Who's Who in America," which wants but the barest skeleton of a celebrity's life, he replied that there has been nothing in his life that could interest the public.

"We'll have to rely then on such information as we can gather from other sources," said Who's Who threateningly.

"You're welcome," answered O. Henry.

This is the meagre fruit gathered by Who's Who from other sources:

    Henry, O., (pen name of Sydney Porter,) author: born in Texas: has been cowboy, sheep herder, merchant, miner, druggist, and extensive traveler. Author: "Cabbages and Kings," 1905; "The Fourt Million," 1906; "The Trimmed Lamp," 1907. Contributor to leading magazines and daily and Sunday newspapers."

The public's appetite for personalities, however, is not a thing that a mere author can quietly wave to one side. "Who is the man O. Henry," it asked, "who is delighting us with his short stories? What kind of a life has he led to know so much of the top and bottom side of things? It must have been an interesting one. Tell us, O newspapers! tell us of it."

* * *

And so the paragraphers got busy. If the real O. Henry persisted in living in quiet retirement, why, then, an O. Henry would be pieced together out of magnified bits of gossip, anecdotes that had been retold by a friend of a friend of the author. Needless to say, the figure thus created was a romantic one--romantic now that he has money in his pocket, acquired a white shirt and collar and become "one of us" but a figure that scarce "one of us" would find romantic or care to choose for a companion back in the unwashed days. This O. Henry of anecdote has passed through all the down-at-the-heel occupations, tramp, tintype artist, book agent, penny-a-liner, hard-luck prospector, cowboy, and ineffectual merchant. And then, suddenly, as it happens in fairy tales, he burst into print and became one of the popular authors of the day.

To Interview this Afrite-Chef--that was the task assigned to a Times reporter about six weeks ago. For five weeks the reporter, armed with what he thought would be an "open sesame" to the author's sanctum, a letter of introduction from the latter's publishers, Doubleday, Page & Co., sought diligently but found him not.

But last Monday, through the aforesaid publisher’s connivance, the reporter was guided to the authors workshop in the neighborhood of Madison Square--a neighborhood that has been the background of many of his stories of life in the modern Bagdad on the Hudson. O. Henry himself opened the door.

"I've been tracking you for over a month," said the reporter closing the door behind him.

"I know you have," replied the author weakly.

* * *

"And now you'll admit that you’re cornered."

"I'm afraid I'll have to." O. Henry subsided into a chair opposite the reporter. "What is it you want me to talk about?"

"Yourself."

"No, no. It's got to be something more stimulating than that. Ask me what I think about Shakespeare. Go on. I'm in the attitude." O. Henry pressed a reflective hand against his brow to quiet its dynamic throbbings.

"You insist upon me talking about, myself, do you? Well, let me ask you a question. Are you going to draw a pen picture of me?"

The reporter admitted that he might make the attempt.

"Then let me ask you to say that I look like a healthy butcher, just that, and no adornments."

The reporter can heartily subscribe to the adjective but not to the noun in this phrase or self-portraiture. O. Henry surely does look "healthy"--short, stocky, broad-shouldered, ruddy-faced, clear-eyed, and none of his hair missing. He has none of the wan intellectuality, none of the pale aestheticisms that are conventional parts of the make-up of the literary lions that disport themselves at afternoon tea parties, One can readily see that he is the natural father of "the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating," which moral reflection is the thread upon which most of his stories are strung.

* * *

One more "aside" before the interview is again taken up. O. Henry has a way of smiling with both mouth and eyes when he says something that you are quite sure is the truth and of looking solemnly straight-faced when he says something that you more than half suspect I offered as a possible key to the remarks that follow.

"You were about to remark about yourself?" suggested the reporter.

"Just this much: A lot of stories have been printed about me, and none of them are true. It's been said that I was once a cattle thief. The nearest I ever got to that distinction was going down on a friends ranch to learn the cattle-raising business. Another story is that I’ve been a miner. I never saw a mine in my life. Then there's the yarn that I was a tintype artist. So far as this is concerned, I must admit that I once had a tintype taken with my arm draped gracefully over a lady's shoulder.

"Then there is that infernal newspaper over in Pittsburg that printed the story that when I first began to write I blew into its office, looking like a tramp, offered manuscripts for sale, and before blowing out again borrowed a dollar. That story is an embroidered fib. Why, I was the best dressed man in the office unless it was the editor, whose shoes were a little more pointed than mine.

"It was a year after the story was printed before I saw it. Then I made a special trip over to Pittsburg. I sent in my card to the editor.

"'Sir,' said I when I at last found myself face to face with this libeler of my solvency, 'Sir, I have come over to lick you.'

"'But wasn't it a bully good story?' asked the editor.

I admitted that it was, and instead of licking him we went out and lunched together.

"No, Sir, all stories to the contrary notwithstanding, there never was a time that I couldn't dig down into my pocket and find coin therein; I never rode a mile unless it was in a Pullman."

"All that you've said so far about yourself has been of a negative character--the things that you were not; now won't you tell some of the things that you have been?"

"Well, I was born--that is a good point to start at--in Greensborough, N.C."

"How old, if it's not too delicate a question?"

"Let me see: I was born in 1867." The author produced a pencil and figured on a scrap of paper. That makes me 42, almost 43 years old, but put it down 42. As for my ancestors, some of them were Governors of the State."

"Did you go to college?"

"No; that is one handicap that I went into this work of writing without. I went to Texas when I was quite a youngster. Delicacy of health and not of purse was the cause of the trip. I spent two and half years on the ranch of Lee Hall, the famous ranger. He was a friend of my family’s, and I was a guest at his ranch. I was studying the cattle business, with the idea of taking it up. Then it quit raining; the pastures dried up; and I quit the cattle and sheep-raising business. That's the nearest I ever came to being a cowboy or sheep herder."

* * *

"Then what did you do?" asked the reporter, for O. Henry had lapsed into silence as though his whole story had been told.

"Why, then, I got a job on the Houston Post. I had a daily column, for which I received $15--a week. Within two weeks my salary was jumped $5, and two weeks later it was raised to $25 a week. That impressed me as quite munificent. But the editor said to me one day: 'My boy, within five years you’ll be earning a hundred dollars a week on a New York newspaper.'

"What preparation did I have for this work? An academy education and books. I did more reading between my thirteenth and nineteenth years than I have done in all the years since. And my taste was much better then. I used to read nothing but classics. Burton's 'Anatomy of Melancholy' and Lane's 'Arabian Nights' were my favorites.

"As a youngster I always had an intense desire to be an artist. It wasn't until I was twenty-one that I developed the idea that I'd like to write. After about a year on The Houston Post I got an opportunity to exercise both of these artistic yearnings. Brann had been publishing his Iconoclast at Houston and failed. I bought out the whole plant, name and all for $250, and started a ten-page weekly story paper. Being an editor, I of course resigned from The Post. The stories are mostly humorous. The editor did most of the writing and all the illustrating. Meanwhile Brann had gone to Waco. He wrote and asked if I wouldn't let him have his Iconoclast title back. I didn’t think much of it and let him have It. My paper was accordIngly christened The Rolling Stone. It rolled for about a year and then showed unmistakable signs of getting mossy. Moss and I never were friends, and so I said good-bye to to The Rolling Stone."

* * *

"And after The Rolling Stone?" asked the reporter.

"Then a friend of mine who had a little money--wonderful thing that, isn't it, a friend with a little money--suggested that I join him in a trip to Central America, whither he was going with the intention of going into the fruit business. Well, it takes a long time and costs a lot of money to learn how the little banana grows. We didn't have quite enough of the latter, and so never did learn the whole secret of banana’s development.

"See any revolutions? No, but I discovered plenty of the finest rum you ever saw. Most of the time I spent in knocking around among the Consuls and the refugees.

"The banana plantation faded into nothing; I drifted back to Texas. In Austin I got a job in a drug store. That was a rotten two weeks. They made me draw soda water, and I gave up."

"And after the two weeks at the soda fountain, then what?"

"Let me see after the soda water, I think there came the high ball stage. I went to New Orleans and took up literary work in earnest. I sent stories to newspapers, weeklies, and magazines all over the country. Rejections? Lordy, I should say I did have rejections, but I never took them to heart. I just stuck new stamps on the stories and sent them out again. And in their journeying to and fro all the stories finally landed in offices where they found a welcome. I can say that I never wrote anything that, sooner or later, hasn't been accepted.

"As for rejections, take 'The Emancipation of Billy,' as good a story as I ever wrote--it was rejected no less than thirteen times. But, like all the rest, it finally landed.

"It was during these New Orleans days that I adopted my pen name of O. Henry. I said to a friend: I'm going to send out some stuff. I don't know if it amounts to much, so I want to get a literary alias. Help me pick out a good one.' He suggested that we get a newspaper and pick a name from the first list of notables that we found in it. In the society columns we found the account of a fashionable ball. 'Here we have our notables,' said he. We looked down the list and my eye lighted on the name Henry, 'That'll do for a last name,' said I. 'Now for a first name. I want something short. None of your three-syllable names for me.' 'Why don’t you use a plain initial letter, then?' asked my friend. 'Good,' said I, 'O is about the easiest letter written, and O it is.'

* * *

"A newspaper once wrote and asked me what the O stands for. I replied, 'O stands for Olivier the French for Oliver.' And several of my stories accordingly appeared in that paper under the name Olivier Henry.

"After drifting about the country I finally came to New York about eight years ago. I have Gilman Hall, now one of the editors of Everybody's Magazine, to thank for this fortunate step. Mr. Hall, then the editor of Ainslee's Magazine, wrote me saying that if I would come to New York he would agree to take $1,200 worth of stories annually at the rate of $100 a story. This was at a time when my name had no market value.

 

Yes, since I came to New York my prices have gone up. I now get $750 for a story that I would have been glad to get $75 for in my Pittsburg days.

"Editors are just like other merchants--they want to buy at lowest prices. A few years ago I was selling stories to a certain magazine at the rate of 5 cents a word. I thought there was a chance that I might get more, so I boldly asked the editor for 10 cents a word. 'All right,' said he, 'I'll pay it.' He was just waiting to be asked."

"What advice would you give to young writers?"

"I’ll give you the whole secret of short story writing. Here it is. Rule I: Write stories that please yourself. There is no Rule II. The technical points you can get from Bliss Perry. If you can't write a story that pleases yourself you’ll never please the public. But in writing the story forget the public.

"I get a story thoroughly in mind before I sit down at my writing table. Then I write it out quickly; and, without revising it mail it to the editor. In this way I am able to judge my stories as the public judges them. I've seen stories in print that I wouldn't recognize as my own.

"Yes, I get dry spells. Sometimes I can't turn out a thing for three months. When one of those spells comes on I quit trying to work and go out and see something of life. You can't write a story that's got any life in it by sitting at a writing table and thinking. You've got to get out into the streets, into the crowds, talk with people, and feel the rush and throb of real life--that's the stimulant for a story writer.

"When I first came to New York I spent a great deal of time knocking around the streets. I did things then that I wouldn't think of doing now. I used to walk at all hours of the day and night along the river fronts, through Hell's Kitchen, down the Bowery, dropping into all manner of places, and talking with any one who would hold converse with me. I have never met any one but what I could learn something from him; he's had some experiences that I have not had; he sees the world from his own viewpoint. If you go at it in the right way the chances are that you can extract something of value from him. But whatever else you do, don't flash a pencil and notebook; either he will shut up or he will become a Hall Caine.

"People say I know New York well. Just change Twenty-third Street in one of my New York stories to Main Street, rub out the Flatiron Building, and put in the Town Hall and the story will fit just as truly in any up-State town. At least, I hope this can be said of my stories. So long as a story is true to human nature all you need do is change the local color to make it fit in any town North, East, South, or West. If you have the right kind of an eye--the kind that can disregard high hats, cutaway coats, and trolley cars--you can see all the characters in the Arabian Nights parading up and down Broadway at midday.

"And now will you please publish to a waiting world the news that Mr. O. Henry is in a hopeful mood, that he expects to do better in the future?"

"Any plans to announce?"

"Yes: you may say that I am now at work upon my first novel. It will be published in the Fall. In this connection you may quote me as saying that it is going to be a good one. I've always had a desire for style. In this novel I'm going to give particular attention to style, also to character and plot. These really are the essential things in a novel. Tell the world that this novel will be worth a dollar and a half of any man's money."