Rediscovering O. Henry’s Lost Manuscript

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In a literary twist suitable for the master of surprise endings, a lost manuscript by William Sidney Porter, aka O. Henry, has been recovered. The handwritten manuscript, written under the pen name Del Oliver, contains a story about marriage called “As Others See Us.” The story features absinthe, a battle axe, and—you guessed it—a signature O. Henry twist. Selected pages will be displayed in Austin’s O. Henry Museum as part of the exhibit “As Others See Us: O. Henry’s Unpublished Manuscript.”

The museum’s education coordinator (and Observer contributor) Michael Hoinski says that with a leap of faith “As Others See Us” becomes believably autobiographical. “There’s no date associated with the manuscript,” he says, “but we believe it to be written around 1908-1910. That was when O. Henry was married to his second wife.”

According to Hoinski, O. Henry was known as a pretty heavy drinker, especially toward the latter part of his life. “There’s a quote [in the story] that goes, ‘I am an artist in drinking and I have seldom met another.’ Basically, you have this alcoholic [main character] who thinks he’s a professional alcoholic and he’s hiding his vice from the world when it’s actually unraveling in front of those around him … he seems to be married to a woman who dotes on him, but he’s so consumed with his drink that he’d almost rather be left alone.”

Hoinski says the manuscript may shed light on O. Henry’s relationship with his second wife, which has not been well documented. “What’s generally written is that they got along really well,” Hoinski says. “This could tell us otherwise.” Informational panels will discuss the personal nature of the manuscript, as well as Porter’s use of pen names, as part of the museum’s exhibit.

Visitors to the museum will learn that this internationally known literary figure got his start in Austin. Although O. Henry is largely considered a New York writer, Hoinski says Austin is where the writer really “cut his teeth.” Visitors can see the house O. Henry lived in, as well as the only known recording of O. Henry’s voice, which is displayed on an iPad in the museum.

In this 2-minute recording, an enthusiastic O. Henry discusses why he loves the short story form. “You gotta come to the museum to see that,” Hoinski says.

O. Henry’s best-known works include the frequently parodied “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Cop and the Anthem” and “The Ransom of Red Chief.” Hoinski calls O. Henry a “technician” whose mastery of the short story form allows him to touch on universal themes in an accessible way. As far as the twist endings: “It works, but there’s a lot of times when you’re reading the story and you know the twist ending is coming and he almost paints himself into a corner … the twist endings can be really believable or less believable,” Hoinksi says.

The O. Henry Museum is dedicated to preserving and interpreting O. Henry artifacts, and will be displaying the lost manuscript until May 4, 2014. Transcripts of the story will be available for museum-goers to read. The museum is open and free to the public Wednesday through Sunday from 12 to 5 p.m.