One of my favorite things about traveling to new cities is running into unexpected historic literary sites. A recent trip to Austin, Texas introduced me to the fascinating life of the witty and satirical writer, O. Henry.
The home in which he lived for a few years in the 1890s has been converted into the charming O. Henry museum, preserving the legacy of a writer who collected characters and experiences as content for his many short stories and musings.
“The most important thing, at least in my humble opinion, is to use characters you’ve crossed in your lifetime. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.”
Austin surely provided plentiful inspiration for O. Henry, with its wild west vibe and countless watering holes. It’s a city that knows how to eat, drink and be merry, which is surely one of the reasons the young writer decided to spend some time there in the late 1800s.
It’s said that he reveled in Austin’s social scene, where he joined theatrical and singing groups. He met his wife and the two moved into the Austin house in 1893 where they lived for several years with their young daughter. During this time, O. Henry worked as a banker and was accused of embezzlement. Rather than face the music, he fled the country, returning several years later when he heard that his wife was dying. After her death, he served several years in prison and then moved to New York where he wrote short stories later to become classics, including “The Gift of the Magi.”
That story features a penniless young couple trying to surprise each other with the perfect gift. Perhaps this little cottage served as the backdrop? Echoes of youthful hopes and dreams permeate the walls. A gown worn by O. Henry’s wife is displayed in the bedroom and a writing desk begs to be used. The only known recording of his voice plays on a Victrola – expressing the desire to be heard “long after I’m gone.”
Thanks to the preservation of houses like his, O. Henry’s wish came true.
Known for writing stories that end with a twist, O. Henry had a knack for illuminating the absurd truths of life. Perhaps this is the greatest surprise ending – more than a century after his death, visitors to Austin continue to wander into his one-time home. It’s an ending he could never have expected.
“Many people ask me how I manage to get that final little twist in my stories. I always tell them that the unusual is in the ordinary, rather than the unexpected. And if you start thinking about your own lives, I’m sure you’ll discover just as many odd experiences as I’ve had.”