This past summer I spent part of my vacation in Asheville, North Carolina, a city I’d long wanted to visit for its cultural and literary draw.
One of the places I visited was one of writer Tom Wolfe’s boyhood homes that the town preserved as a memorial to him. There is also a small museum next to the house containing a lot of memorabilia from his short, yet very productive, life.
I also have an odd fascination with cemeteries, especially old and unique ones, so I stopped by Riverside Cemetery to find Wolfe’s grave. Since he, along with other well-known people, is buried there, the city provides a handy marked paper map of the cemetery in a container near the main gate. As I scanned the information on the map, I was astounded to find O. Henry’s name on the list of “celebrities” buried there.
In my pre-trip planning for Asheville, I hadn’t seen anything about O. Henry in reference to that city. As I’ve since learned, that’s because he wasn’t from there, and it wasn’t his desire to be buried in Asheville. However, once he was dead, his second wife, Sara Coleman Porter, made the decision for him. She was from Asheville, so she put him in the ground in Asheville despite his family’s objections.
O. Henry’s real name was William Sydney Porter, and that’s what’s inscribed on his small tomb marker; however, since he was known in the literary world as O. Henry, there is a small sign bearing that name pointing the way toward his gravesite. The map also lists him as O. Henry, and that’s the only reason I even knew he was buried in the same cemetery as Tom Wolfe.
Ironically, and quite fittingly in a sad sort of way, O. Henry’s stories are so well-known and loved because of their ironic and oddly humorous endings, and I was struck by that irony as I learned that he had no plans or desire to be buried on a hillside in a large yet obscure cemetery in a town he’d barely spent any of his life in. He was the master of ironic story endings, and then his own story ended with a very literal “plot” twist.
If you’ve never read any of O. Henry’s hundreds of short stories, or if you’ve forgotten how they tend to end, then you need to read a few. The classics are “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Cop and the Anthem,” and “The Ransom of Red Chief.”
Years back, I directed and coached a one-act team to conference championship with a play based upon several O. Henry stories. I recall the judges being very impressed by the teenage actors’ understanding of what many consider to be much more mature and even difficult literature; however, I’ve always thought of O. Henry’s work as being thoroughly relatable. Who amongst us hasn’t worked and worked for something only to have it backfire on us in some unforeseen way? Daily life deals us the most ironic twists and turns.
Sadly, for William Sydney Porter, death brought him his final ironic twist in the unlikely and unwanted (according to many sources) burial in a place he never called home.
For me, the discovery of his gravesite was an unexpected, yet quite welcome, twist at the end of a long day of literary sightseeing.
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This month’s reading selection is “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy.