After Twenty Years


O. Henry

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on After Twenty Years can help.

After Twenty Years Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on O. Henry's After Twenty Years. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of O. Henry

Born on September 11, 1862, in Greensboro, North Carolina, O. Henry was a popular American writer of short fiction. In his younger years, William Sydney Porter lived in Austin, Texas, working a variety of odd jobs such as being a sheep rancher, pharmacist, and bank teller. During this time, he led an active social life and was famous for his wit, storytelling, and even singing. He also was an avid reader and wrote consistently, which his wife, Athol Estes, encouraged him to pursue professionally. This prompted him to become a successful writer for the Rolling Stone and later columnist and cartoonist for the Houston Post. However, in 1898 he was indicted and arrested for embezzlement— which took place during his time as a bank teller— and sentenced to 5 years in prison. It was here that Porter began writing and publishing his original short stories in earnest; he also decided upon his future pen name, O. Henry. In 1902 Porter was released and moved to New York City, where he launched a prolific and successful career writing short stories. Until his death in1910, he published nearly 400 stories and wrote more than a story a week for the New York World Sunday Magazine. Among other things, his stories were famous for their so-called “twists in the tale” in which everyday people suddenly found themselves in ironic and unlikely situations.
Get the entire After Twenty Years LitChart as a printable PDF.
After Twenty Years PDF

Historical Context of After Twenty Years

Writing in the era of American Realism, O. Henry’s stories often reflected the realities he saw around him. Though the works were of course fictional, the characters themselves were based on the sort of “real” working-class people whom O. Henry encountered in the world, particularly people in New York City. In fact, the title of his first collection, The Four Million, riffs on a quote by Ward McAllister, who claims that, with the advent of the census, there are now four million people of interest in New York. In this way, O. Henry’s interest in everyday people can be thought of as a response to the conditions of modernity, conditions which began to reveal the interest and diversity of “regular life.” Though he was a realist, this interest of O. Henry’s reveals him to be an early proponent of one of Modernism’s central ideas —that art should have real, ordinary people as its subject, not just the wealthy or important. Furthermore, it is also possible to see the influence of Porter’s own life in his work, such as his time in prison or his time working as a rancher out West. These experiences seem present not just in his focus on “ordinary” people, but also in his interest in shady, down-and-out characters and the improbable circumstances which transform their lives. As someone who went from being a prisoner to a successful cosmopolitan fiction writer, O. Henry was certainly more aware than most of the peculiarities and improbabilities of American life.

Other Books Related to After Twenty Years

“After Twenty Years” comes out of O. Henry’s first collection of short stories, titled The Four Million. This collection features some of O. Henry’s most famous short stories, such as “The Gift of the Magi,” “The Cop and the Anthem,” “The Green Door,” and “Springtime à la Carte.” Like “After Twenty Years,” these stories all feature regular, realistic American characters who find themselves in ironic or improbable circumstances, elevating their lives to near-fantastic status. The stories also often end with twist endings, for which “The Gift of the Magi” is the perfect example. These themes are consistent across most of O. Henry’s many collections, such as in Whirligigs, a collection published in 1910. This collection features one of O. Henry’s most famous stories, titled, “The Ransom of Red Chief,” in which two kidnappers ironically pay the father of the boy they kidnapped to take him back from them. Like many of O. Henry’s stories, the reader’s expectation is flipped on its head, revealing how the ordinary can become extraordinary with just a little twist of fate. O. Henry’s contemporary, fellow short story author Kate Chopin, was likewise known for twist endings in such stories as “Désirée’s Baby.”
Key Facts about After Twenty Years
  • Full Title: After Twenty Years
  • When Written: 1906
  • Where Written: New York
  • When Published: 1906
  • Literary Period: Realism
  • Genre: Short Story, Mystery
  • Setting: New York City
  • Climax: Bob is arrested and discovers that the police officer was his old friend, Jimmy Wells.
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for After Twenty Years

Romantic Novelization. In 1907, after his first wife’s death, O. Henry married his childhood sweetheart, Sarah Lindsey Coleman. Also a fiction writer, she wrote a fictionalized account of their relationship in her novella, Wind of Destiny.   

Prison Perk. Despite O. Henry’s time in prison, there is no record that he ever actually had to stay in a cell. As a licensed pharmacist, he was given opportunity to work in the prison hospital and was thus given a room in the hospital wing.