Will the Real O. Henry Please Stand Up: How an Author's Biography can Help Readers See the Big Picture

Literature Across Cultures

This year, we finished up our summer Reading & Literature class with a classic O. Henry story. Many international students were excited to read the original story. They told the Knovva Academy staff about how they had been exposed to variations of O. Henry stories, which were adapted to their respective languages and cultures.

The story read in the class was ‘Gift of the Magi’, which tells about an exchange of gifts between a young married couple. The classic “O. Henry” surprise twist at the end of the story is that each person gave up on his and her favorite material object in order to buy a fitting gift for the other. The man sells his prized watch to buy a fancy set of hair combs, and the wife sells her hair to buy a chain for the husband’s watch. In the end, both the husband and wife realize that their gifts are useless now that they have sacrificed something of their own.

One of the main questions that arose from a discussion of this story, was the relevance of the name of the story. Surely the story revolves around gifts, but only at the end of the story is there a small reference to the Magi. These quasi-mythical figures, the Magi, have a long history, but in the Christian tradition, they are the wise men known for bringing gifts to Jesus when he was born.

Literacy & Background Info

Seeing this passing reference, brought up a universal question about literature: is background information necessary to understand or to enjoy a story fully? With this question about background information in mind, the students were more surprised to discover biographical information about the author of the story.

“O. Henry” is actually one of many pen-names used by William Sydney Porter. Besides his writing, Porter worked in many jobs, most notably at a bank. Then, when the bank he worked for was audited, a case of embezzlement was discovered. After being charged with committing this crime, Porter fled the country, but eventually returned and went to prison.

In prison, Porter found himself in an especially difficult situation. His wife had passed away, and he had a daughter to support. From prison, Porter created a number of pen-names, with which he wrote stories that he then forwarded to a friend who helped get them published. The first O. Henry story was published while Porter was still serving his sentence. Thus, the birthplace of some of America’s most popular stories -- known for their good-natured characters and moral messages -- were a prison cell

The Need for Background Information

Knowing this strange setting from which the O. Henry stories emerged, we can return to our question: How does this biographical information affect our understanding of the stories themselves.

On the one hand, it seems resourceful and even sweet that even in prison a father would seek out a means to continue to support his daughter. O. Henry clearly did not need the money he received from publication while in prison for himself. Yet, the thought of prison as their birthplace tinges these stories, known for being wholesome, with a bit of seediness. If Porter did, in fact, commit the embezzlement, perhaps he himself was not such a good-natured character like those found in his stories. Perhaps, Porter -- the sinister criminal -- was so good at writing his now famous stories because he is an expert of emotional manipulation

Overall, this biographical information could lead to many conclusions. Furthermore, there’s a question of whether or not we should consider it at all while trying to understand the story. We, at Knovva Academy, care less about which line of inquiry is best, or even which answer is the right one. Instead we believe that a close reading, some historical background, and an inquisitive group of learners can lead to a great discussion. 

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