Ashlyn Explores Austin

When exploring the hidden gems of Austin, Texas, one may be led downtown to the home, which happens to double as a museum, of William Sydney Porter, otherwise known as O. Henry- a prominent author famously known for his short stories such as “The Gift of Magi.”

Mr. Porter’s home is a Queen Anne-style cottage built in the mid-1890s. Amazingly, much of the original furniture is still preserved there for the public to see! The house is covered in vintage wallpaper, giving each room a different feel than the next, contrasting with most modern homes today. Interestingly, when the home was donated to the city for historic preservation, it was moved from its original location in a middle-class neighborhood to its prime location today.

Although this was Mr. Porter’s home, it was not where he constructed his famous short stories. He did most of his writing in prison for a felony of embezzlement, which he committed while working at the First National Bank. During his three years in prison, Mr. Porter wrote around 380 short stories that were published after his release, which launched his writing career, established him as an author, and later led to him becoming the famous author we regard him as today. Due to negative connotations attached to convicted felons, Mr. Porter began using his pen name, O. Henry, to prevent people disregarding his work due to serving time in prison.

The story of Mr. Porter’s past and aspiring short story author was fascinating to learn about while visiting the museum! However, the museum touched not just on Mr. Porter’s most talked about life, such as his ascent as an author; it also touched on more intimate parts that the average fan might not know. For example, Mr. Porter had a passion for music. The museum had a handwritten sheet of music titled “Main Street,” with the original notes and lyrics that he wrote on display. During his time in Austin, one could find him writing sheet music for piano, acting in the Austin Musical Union, or playing in a string instrument band, the Hill City Quartette.

I always find a little memento of Sam Houston in every museum I visit. For instance, this museum’s connection to Sam Houston was an old desk that Mr. Porter used during his time in Austin. The desk belonged to his great uncle, Adolphus Sterne, who was good friends with Sam Houston. This is one reason Mr. Porter valued this desk so much was because of the rich history behind it.

During his life, Mr. Porter was a man of many trades as he was an aspiring writer to support his family. He worked as a pharmacist, a bookkeeper, and a drafter to make ends meet. When he worked at a local drugstore, he was found to be excellent at sketching his customers. This led him to work at the Texas General Land Office for about four years, where he was tasked with drawing maps of Texas counties. He started working at the First National Bank to provide more financial support for his family, which led to his embezzlement and, ultimately, to his arrest.

One inspirational thing you can take from the legacy of the life of Sydney Porter is that every event in his life led to the next, and in the end, that is what got him to where he needed to be successful. This helps give me some perspective that not every bump in the road must be bad; it can be all about what you make of it.

NASSR, 2023–Romanticism and Justice at SHSU

The LEAP Center is always on the hunt for quality events, and when we heard the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism was being hosted at SHSU–and that the lead organizer was Dr. Michael Demson–we knew we’d found one.

The Conference is taking place over three days, March 30-April 1, with dozens of panels, workshops, entertainment, tours, and other interesting and entertaining programs. LEAP assisted with one of these, a tour of the Huntsville Unit for a group of students, conference attendees, and SHSU staff. Mostly, though, we just enjoyed the conference, benefitting from the great work of Demson and an entire conference committee from individuals across campus and, in fact, from campuses across North America.

The meat of the conference was from the plenary speakers and the panels, both virtual and in-person, with approximately 200 people attending.

LEAP students attended a few of these, including the first-day plenary speaker, Professor Doran Larson, who, among his many titles, is the Director of the American Prison Writing Archive, and he was introduced ably by Professor Michael Demson.

Professor Larsen discussed the distinct themes in prison writing, noting how little they had changed over time, a reflection of the horrible state, as he sees it, of our prison system.

His presentation generated much interest and discussion.

The conference picked up the next day, with a full day of panels, which we were able to attend. We saw great panels featuring professors not only from the United States, but from around the world. All of the panels helped us learn about justice, literature, and many different cultures.

We even learned about Finnish literature from SHSU’s own Dr. Helen Halamari, with her husband Dr. Rob Adams in attendance.

This was our favorite panel. Interesting fact: not only is Dr. Halamari a TSUS Regents Professor, she also has a Ph.D., and four different Master’s Degrees.

Many kudos to Dr. Demson and the great staff (Deanna Briones, Sarie Fuller, Yahneed John, Brittany Johnson, Jerin Milan, and Rhonda Owens) who helped bring this conference to SHSU.