In 2012, the U.S. Postal Service commemorates the 150th anniversary of the birth of O. Henry (the pen name of William S. Porter, 1862-1910) with a stamp in its Literary Arts series. The short stories of O. Henry are beloved for their irony and skillful unfolding of plot; often, they end with a surprise twist. This prolific author wrote nearly 300 tales, most in the final eight years of his life. By the time of his death, he was the most widely read storyteller in America and was internationally admired.
The dominant sense of comedy is unmistakable in O. Henry’s work. One of his most popular stories, “The Gift of the Magi,” tells of a young married couple on Christmas Eve: Della has one treasure, her long hair, which she has cut off and sold to buy Jim a chain for his heirloom watch — which he, in turn, has sold to buy her a fine set of combs. This tale suggests that human goals can be frustrated despite good intentions, yet Jim and Della are seen as admirable because of the sacrifices they make for love.
Explanations for how he chose his pen name vary, and Porter gave different answers when people asked. “O. Henry” may be a condensation of “Ohio State Penitentiary,” where Porter served a sentence for embezzlement before becoming known as a writer.