18 September 2012

150th Birth Anniversary of O. Henry..




First Day of Issue: September 11, 2012

On September 11,  2012, the U.S. Postal Service commemorated the 150th anniversary of the birth of O. Henry (the pen name of William S. Porter, 1862-1910) with a stamp in its Literary Arts series. The short stories of O. Henry are beloved for their irony and skillful unfolding of plot; often, they end with a surprise twist. This prolific author wrote nearly 300 tales, most in the final eight years of his life. By the time of his death, he was the most widely read storyteller in America and was internationally admired.

In the stamp art, the author’s portrait is set against a background image of the elevated rail in New York City, where many of O. Henry’s stories were set. The portrait is based on a photograph of the author as a young man that dates to the late 1880s.


The dominant sense of comedy is unmistakable in O. Henry’s work. One of his most popular stories, “The Gift of the Magi,” tells of a young married couple on Christmas Eve: Della has one treasure, her long hair, which she has cut off and sold to buy Jim a chain for his heirloom watch — which he, in turn, has sold to buy her a fine set of combs. This tale suggests that human goals can be frustrated despite good intentions, yet Jim and Della are seen as admirable because of the sacrifices they make for love.

Explanations for how he chose his pen name vary, and Porter gave different answers when people asked. “O. Henry” may be a condensation of “Ohio State Penitentiary,” where Porter served a sentence for embezzlement before becoming known as a writer.

The O. Henry Prize Stories, an anthology published annually since 1919, testifies to his continuing influence on American letters. After his death, his friends established the yearly collection to honor him and to encourage the ongoing development of the art of the short story.

O. Henry: A Stamp With a Twist

Some writers use a pen name to keep their identity a secret from the public, but William S. Porter actually used a pen name to hide his identity — and a criminal record — from his publishers, as well. In fact, he first signed his works “O. Henry” when writing short stories from Ohio State Penitentiary where he was sent after being found guilty of embezzlement despite his innocent plea.

At a time when some of New York's elite said there were only four hundred people worth knowing, Porter wrote about and for everyone — defiantly addressing the entire city's population with the stories of the “Four Million.” Funny, heartwarming, and usually optimistic, his stories are famous for their unexpected “O. Henry twist” at the end.

Calling Porter a “quirky” member of the American literary canon, art director Ethel Kessler felt that his stamp should present its own twist on the familiar pattern of the Literary Arts series. She found what she was looking for in the distinctive portrait style of illustrator Cap Pannell. Instead of producing photorealistic paintings, Pannell employs a method of printmaking called mono printing, in which he draws on paper placed over an inked plate to create an offset image. A unique characteristic of this method is that no two prints are ever exactly alike. “There’s always a big surprise,” Pannell explains. “I don’t have complete control over the image until I scan it into the computer where I clean it up and apply color."

At first, Pannell and Kessler considered depicting specific O. Henry stories in the background of the stamp. One of the most famous, “The Gift of the Magi,” describes a young couple who both make sacrifices to give each other Christmas gifts. But the only obvious images of the story were the gifts themselves — combs and a watch chain.


Another favorite story, “The Ransom of Red Chief,” was easier to illustrate. In the story, kidnappers capture a small redheaded boy who likes to pretend to be a Native American chief. The child is so difficult, however, that instead of demanding a ransom, the kidnappers pay his father to take him back.

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