It happened today - July 24, 2015
On this day in 1901 (I’m apparently on an alcoholic writers binge this week) I read that O. Henry was released from prison.
That’s weird, I thought. He was such a popular and beloved author. What was he doing in jail?
Turns out he went to jail for embezzling from a bank in Austin before he became famous. He actually fled justice, going to Honduras (where he invented the term “banana republic”), came back because his wife was dying of “consumption” a.k.a. tuberculosis, went to jail in 1898 where he had a fairly comfy gig as the night pharmacist, published a variety of stories under pseudonyms while incarcerated, was released on good behaviour after three years, reunited with a daughter who didn’t know he’d been in prison, began writing full time and married a childhood sweetheart.
So far it reads much like one of his stories, as notable for their heartwarming uplift as their surprise endings. Including the improbably comic fact that he only wound up working in the bank he apparently stole from because he lost a government job in Texas in 1891 when his patron was defeated for governor by the legendary “Big Jim” Hogg who really did name his daughter “Ima” (but did not, urban legend notwithstanding, have another daughter named “Ura”).
Unfortunately the O. Henry story does not end happily. Despite his popularity as a writer, he drank away his second marriage and his life, dying of cirrhosis of the liver and related complications in 1910 at age 47.
It seems so odd that writers gifted not merely with technical ability, witty turns of phrase or compelling characters, but with genuine moral insight, able to write stories that improve the lives of millions of readers, should not infrequently be themselves miserable and a burden to others.
Here I am tempted to quote critic Cyril Connolly’s cynical and depressing aphorism that “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.” But it is not true that great art and a decent personal life are at odds, in parenting or anywhere else.
Good artists can be good parents, or bad ones, just as bad artists can be either. Likewise good artists can be good friends, brave soldiers, honest businessmen and everything else admirable as well as being sodden skunks. Indeed, Connolly’s maxim isn’t just better suited to wild Romantic visions of transvaluing all values than to O. Henry’s heartwarming message. It’s a feeble excuse for being a jerk just because you have creative ability.
No one, artistic or otherwise, has any right to say that to explore their talent properly in fiction, business, politics or any other field they have to be an irresponsible wretch.
Henry would have made short work of such a character in his fiction. And he should have in his life as well.
I hope you can still read his work with genuine pleasure knowing he did not. As I hope I can.