O Henry’s Chairs

Mandira Chattopadhyay, DuBois, PA

e-mail: mchattopadhy@bsu.edu

If you are a keen observer walking past O Henry’s house, you could not but help notice the glow of happiness it casts over the busy streets of downtown Austin; you could not help but look up at this little house and dream about O Henry, known as William Sydney Porter, living with his beloved wife.

Most readers know Porter under the pen name “O. Henry.”   His reputation as a master of short stories remains even after a century and a half.  Growing up in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1862, Porter held a number of jobs from drug store clerk to cartoonist. He relocated to Texas in 1882 and got by as a ranch hand, a bank teller and a journalist.  During the last decade of his life Porter created hundreds of short stories that comprise his legacy. His stories are known for their surprise endings.  They are set in the various regions where he lived from New York and Texas to Latin America, and hold a mixture of humor and pathos.  A few are considered classics of the genre.

“The Gift of the Magi,” for example, tells of a husband and wife, who sell their most prized possessions in order to buy presents for each other.  His focus on entertainment can sometimes make the stories feel contrived, and the pressures of publication sometimes show in his work.  It is widely believed that Porter produced “The Gift of the Magi” in just a few hours.

I was simply fascinated when I came across O Henry’s tiny little house tucked away between towering modern structures in downtown Austin.   I initially heard of O Henry’s house from the bus driver of the tourist bus as I toured Austin.  He noted the contrast of the simple home from the pomp and grandeur of contemporary downtown Austin of Dell and IBM.  As I returned to my hotel from the tour, an impulse pushed me toward the house, because I wanted to see to it with my own eyes.  .

On my walk there I passed the fancy restaurants and open cafes that line the block.  Suddenly amidst the glass boxes and modern facades, I spied a lovely Queen Anne house lost amongst the modern downtown.  I heard the house had been moved already once where now sits a big hotel.  The house was only a few years old when the Porters rented it in 1893, when it sat on 308 East Fourth St., a few blocks from its present location.  Kerosene lamps only lighted it since it was still without gas or electricity.  It was a rental in 1930 when it was going to be torn down to make way for other warehouses that had taken over that part of the city.  The owner of the house was persuaded to save it, and it was moved to one of Austin’s original parks and deeded to the city.  In 1934 it was restored and opened as a museum with some of Porter’s furniture.  In 1994-95, further restoration repaired the exterior, the roof, and the front porch, along with four brick chimneys.

Entering the house, I felt the solemn but sweet organ notes that O Henry played were still in the air.  As I came in I noticed the photographs of his wife and family on the mantle. The narrow hallway in the house displayed the Rolling Stone, the paper he published in Austin, and some of his books.

I flipped through one of his books and turned to his own account of his marriage.  O Henry implored the Dear Fairy to make their wedding night longer: “Just an hour, dear fairy, so we can remember how the grass and the poplar trees looked and the bow of those bonnet strings tied beneath the chin [of Mrs. Porter] . . .” Out the window, I could see one of the city’s many horse-drawn carriages pass.  I thought of the happy couple eloping one moonlit night in a borrowed carriage, joking with each other, laughing in spite of her parent’s objections to the match and dreaming of their bright future, which they never expected to be clouded so soon.

In the back of the house I saw a little kitchen with some of the utensils he used.  The furniture was chipped and bruised.  Each plank in the floor shrieked O Henry’s presence.  It seemed incredible that I was able to walk in his room.  A cold musty smell came out of the rotten woodwork of the house, but the rich odor of the sweet relationship with his wife still lingered there.  As I traversed the room, I still could discern the love and the outstretched arm of his beloved wife.  That spirit seemed to hover there.   Their love reminded me of the grand love of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz  Mahal as declared in Taj Mahal.   ♦

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