The Surprising Ending of O. Henry

William Sydney Porter - O. HenryIt is, of course, the 12th anniversary of 9/11. And it is now “Patriot Day,” which is an especially stupid name because we already have “Patriots’ Day,” which celebrates the Battles of Lexington and Concord. But it is an offensive holiday even still. It became a holiday immediately after 9/11 during the time when George Bush Jr was saying things like, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” The idea most clearly is that either you go along with whatever harebrained policies the government decides on or you are not a patriot. That, of course, goes entirely against the founding principles of this country. I remember in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, I did not feel any sense of pride and patriotism. It was a horrible event. But almost immediately, it led us on a terrible journey that ended with rights infringed upon, widespread torture, and many tens of thousands of deaths—most of them entirely innocent. So to me, 9/11 is a symbol of a terrible attack on our country and how we then reacted to it in about the worst way possible. It does not honor our dead.

In 1522 the great naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi was born. He was the major force behind the Bologna botanical garden. Poet James Thomson was born in 1700. British composer William Boyce was born in 1711. Here is his Overture No. 4 in D Major:

The astronomer (and mystic) James Hopwood Jeans was born in 1877. Author D. H. Lawrence was born in 1885. I’ve never much liked him but I’m sure I would like him more if I could be scandalized by his work as readers where during his lifetime. Modern composer Harry Somers was born in 1925.

Songwriter Alan Bergman is 88 today. With his wife Marilyn, he wrote the song “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers.” And, I’m sorry, but I still rather like it. I like pop music that at least tries to be adult. And the Bergmans have been married for 55 years as of this year.

The film director Brian De Palma is 73. Playwright Gerome Ragni is 71. He co-wrote Hair. The great guitarist Leo Kottke is 68. Here he is on Austin City Limits about 20 years ago:

The fine screenwriter Tony Gilroy is 57. He also directs. I’ve only seen Michael Clayton, but as mainstream films go, it is about as good as it gets. Here is perhaps the best scene in the film with the great Tom Wilkinson:

Actor John Hawkes is 54. Dance music (I guess) creator Moby is 48. And singer Harry Connick Jr is 46.

The day, however, belongs to the great writer William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry, who was born in 1862. He is mostly remembered today for the surprise endings of his stories. You know the kind of thing: the psychologist helps a boy who claims to see dead people only for it to be revealed that the psychologist himself is dead. No wait… How about this: a couple each sells their most valuable possession to buy the other something for that possession. It’s old hat now, but I’m sure at the time it was every bit as affecting as The Sixth Sense. What’s more, “The Gift of the Magi” still works as a Christmas story—a lot better than most Christmas stories.

What I especially like about Porter is that his past is unclear. Maybe he embezzled from a bank he worked at. Or maybe he was just incompetent. This same dynamic is true of Cervantes who may have stole tax receipts or maybe just screwed up. Regardless, they both spent time in jail and then went on to do their best work. And all of that work came relatively late in their lives. Of course, it didn’t come that late for Porter, who died as a result of his heavy drinking at the age of 47.

Happy birthday William Sydney Porter!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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