By Carol Howard
On the eve of Thanksgiving in 1907, the author William Sydney Porter—known as O. Henry to readers—married his second wife in Asheville’s First Presbyterian Church. Ten years a widower, the forty-five-year-old Porter had recently become reacquainted with Weaverville resident Sara Coleman. The couple had first met as children, when Sara paid summer visits to family in Greensboro, Porter’s hometown.
During the courtship with Sara, Porter published some of his finest stories, including two that address aging and frailty—conditions the author himself was experiencing with growing discomfort—and that are aptly set during autumn’s turn toward winter. With the paradoxical mix of irony and earnestness characteristic of Porter’s writing, both tales center on Thanksgiving themes of abundance, sacrifice, poverty and gratitude.
Porter’s “The Last Leaf” is set in New York’s Greenwich Village. As winter approaches, a destitute young painter with pneumonia lies in bed and stares out of the window. Counting the autumn leaves as they drop from the tree growing against the wall of the building next door, she tells her roommate that when the last leaf falls, she will die.
Alarmed by the woman’s depressed state of mind and a doctor’s grim prognosis, the roommate consults their neighbor, who is also an artist. Feeling unequal to the crisis, and having wasted forty years churning out mediocre work while awaiting creative inspiration, the aging artist nonetheless declares, “Some day I shall paint my masterpiece, and we shall all go away from here.” The next morning, after a night of wind, rain and snow, the ailing woman peers out of the window, only to discover a last leaf still clinging to the tree. She takes this apparent miracle as a sign that she should be thankful for her life and begins to recover.
In an ironic plot twist—the signature device that Porter called a “snapper”—readers learn that the older man has given his own life in saving his younger neighbor but, in the process, has actually fulfilled his lifelong dream. He has spent the cold, wet night outside, developing a fatal case of pneumonia, while painting a perfect leaf—his masterpiece—on the wall next to the tree across the way.
Porter’s other seasonal New York story, “Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen,” centers on what has become an annual tradition in which a rich old man watches a poor old man eat a Thanksgiving dinner the former has paid for. By the tenth year, the two men are so bound to their custom that the poor man cannot bring himself to confess that he has already feasted on a charity meal earlier that day. In the surprise ending, the poor man has been hospitalized for overstuffing himself with two feasts, while the once-rich man, now indigent, is hospitalized for malnutrition. The central irony is that both men’s ailments are caused by their mutual unwillingness to forsake tradition or to breach the class divide by sharing a meal together.
Porter’s longstanding preoccupation with the theme of impoverishment would continue to be played out in his own life in New York after his marriage to Sara Coleman, as he relapsed into the same chronic debt that troubled many of his fictional characters. His health deteriorated rapidly, and he died in New York less than three years after the marriage. Sara brought his remains back to Asheville to be interred in Riverside Cemetery. Visitors to Porter’s grave may find it puzzling that the headstone is sometimes covered in coins totaling one dollar and eighty-seven cents. In fact, that sum represents the paltry savings a family has on Christmas Eve in his most famous short story, “The Gift of the Magi,” another tale about generosity and sacrifice.
Carol Howard is associate provost at Warren Wilson College.