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Fierce Bierce

Ambrose Bierce

From the newspaper wars of San Francisco to the literary salons of Los Gatos, Ambrose Bierce was a 20th-century cynic in 19th-century California

By Richard von Busack


CYNIC: A blackguard who whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

AMBROSE BIERCE, turn-of-the-century California's most notorious and acid-tongued writer, once dispatched a hapless author with a review that consisted solely of the sentence "The covers of this book are too far apart." Roy Morris' outstanding new biography, Ambrose Bierce, Alone in Bad Company, happily avoids that withering judgment and provides a welcome opportunity to reconsider America's first true cynic.

Cynicism as a literary stance is most often traced to the disillusionment of World War I. Bierce, already nicely disillusioned by the Civil War, anticipated the misanthropic modernist mood of writers like Ernest Hemingway and H.L. Mencken. Although Bierce's devastating short stories about the war between the states--most notably "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"--and his wickedly jaundiced The Devil's Dictionary are his most lasting literary legacies, he earned his living and his reputation in the trenches as a journalist and critic for William Randolph Hearst's muckraking Examiner. Curiously, the devil's lexicographer himself sought diversion from San Francisco's cutthroat newspaper wars by escaping to Los Gatos and the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Bierce's journalism was a scandal in its time, just as it would be a scandal in ours. "This is Echoland, home of the ditto maniac," he wrote--100 years before the advent of Rush Limbaugh. In avoiding what his audience wanted to hear echoed, Bierce devoted himself to roasting in print the fools, hypocrites and monied pigs of his age.

There have been rumblings of late that the press ought to be more polite, that it has overstepped its bounds since Watergate. Do daily newspapers really need to get duller? Bierce's specter is a reminder of the other side of journalism--a tradition of public-minded mean-spiritedness that is as dangerous as it is endangered.

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The Ambrose Bierce Appreciation Society: Very comprehensive collection, including a short biography, lists of Bierce's works, film and TV adaptions, works available online, and a detailed bibliography.

The Devil's Dictionary: A searchable version of Bierce's biting classic. Just enter a word and you'll get a list of appropriately wicked definitions.

The Devil's Dictionary: For those who prefer to browse, here's a plain text version. It's about 400k to download.

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Social Sponges
and Adiposing Dames

BIERCE'S forebears were zealous Christians who regarded the problem of slavery as the focus for the crucial battle between darkness and light, and young Ambrose volunteered at age 19 for service in the Union army. From the author's entry into the Civil War, as critic Edmund Wilson writes in Patriotic Gore, Bierce lived "between war and war [the Mexican revolution, into which Bierce disappeared] ... his life hardly more than a dream of escape from a paralyzing, inescapable doom."

After the war, Bierce held a number of jobs "with varying degree of success," as Morris writes. His hopes for a military commission at San Francisco's Presidio dashed, he took up writing, distinguishing himself as a master of invective. Eventually, Bierce was recruited by the young William Randolph Hearst, who made him nationally famous as a star editorial columnist.

For a man noted mostly for his satirical mettle, Bierce had a fondness for rural retreats. He was in the South Bay in the late 1880 and 1890s, come to Los Gatos to shake his asthma, on the theory that the air was better in the mountains. Bierce's particular case was so severe he used to take chloroform for it. Asthma is triggered as easily by emotional as environmental stimulation. Rage can bring it on; so can happiness. It leaves a sufferer gasping for air like a landed fish.

Bierce nursed his asthma at various local spots, including Los Gatos' El Monte Hotel in 1897 and at the Jeffreys Hotel in the Santa Cruz Mountains town of Wrights. The El Monte (which was located at the corner of East Main and Pleasant streets in Los Gatos and burned down in 1909) served as a regular base for the author. Even if the hotel didn't please--and it was a nicer resort than Morris gives it credit for--the countryside ought to have had some effect. An earlier biographer of Bierce, Carey McWilliams, writes:

    There were redwoods and pines, and an infinite variety of ferns and forest flowers, and in the distance the Santa Clara Valley was full of an unnameable magic when, at dusk, the shadows involved it and the lights of San José gleamed. ... But strangely enough, none of this splendid stillness of the forest ever got into his work save by a mischance. He was preoccupied.

Instead of nature, Bierce wrote about the society types that inhabited the hotels, the parlors crowded with "the elocution chap, the comic and the funny dog, the social sponge, the adiposing [adipose means fat] dame, the kitten-playful virgin of half a hundred years." In these hotels, he was visited by local poets, writers and fans, as well as by a few literary groupies.

He had some local friends: a drinking chum named Dr. C.W. Doyle in Santa Cruz, Josephine McCrackin of the Monte Paraiso ranch, and Una Hume of Glen Una, part of the family that ran the Los Gatos gas and electricity monopoly before PG&E bought it up. With poet Herman Scheffauer, another Los Gatos acquaintance, Bierce conspired to write a poem that they tried to pass off as a lost work by Edgar Allen Poe. Notes Morris, "The hoax fell flat, and so did the friendship."

Alone among local writers of note--from Twain to Steinbeck to Wallace Stegner to Amy Tan--Bierce is in no danger of being called oversentimental, a common criticism of California authors. Alfred Kazin's advice to the California writer, in his New York Times piece on Steinbeck, was to leave Eden--and, presumably, go to Hell. Bierce, in any case, would have no truck with the idea of local writers. He once griped, "If the provincial writer could as easily obtain recognition at home he would stay there. ... If there is an idler and more barren work than the rating of writers according to merit, it is their classification according to birthplace."

Ambrose Bierce
The Ambrose Bierce papers, Stanford University Libraries

William Randolph Hearst's Chained Bulldog: Ambrose Bierce glowers at the camera with the same steely stare he reserved for the fools and gasbags who crossed his path.


Railing Against the "Railrogues"

IT'S SAID that what journalists have in common with artists is that both need patrons. Bierce's patron literally turned up on his front porch one day in 1887 when William Randolph Hearst solicited him for the Examiner. Bierce would work for Hearst for the next 20 years, for most of that time writing a column titled "Prattle." His scalding pen is best seen in his noted satirical glossary, sampled from the column, The Devil's Dictionary (The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary, edited by Ernest J. Hopkins and published by Doubleday in 1967, is the best version of this often-abridged book). Here are a few of Bierce's fiendish aphorisms:

    ABDOMEN, n. A shrine enclosing the object of man's sincerest devotion.

    MARRIAGE, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.

    PLOW, n. An implement that cries aloud for hands accustomed to the pen.

    POCKET, n. The cradle of motive and the grave of conscience.

    SAINT, n. A dead sinner revised and edited.

From his perch at Hearst's papers, Bierce proved the power of well-aimed cynicism by hounding the powerful. His most notable targets over the years were the Big Four "railrogues": Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, Collis Huntington and the tycoon whom he addressed in print as "$tealand Landford" or "£eland $tanford."

Bierce was particularly incensed by the spectacle of these lords of the Southern Pacific poor-mouthing themselves, trying to get extensions on the payment of government loans. Even while Stanford was, metaphorically speaking, showing the Senate the linings of his pockets, he was also arranging the $30 million endowment of a university to memorialize his son.

Eventually, an exasperated Huntington, in Washington to get an extension on some $75 million owed to the federal government, tried to bribe Bierce, asking him to name his price. Bierce's response, "My price is seventy-five million dollars. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend the Treasurer of the United States."

This, Bierce's finest hour, could be contrasted to his most fallible moment, his little poem on the subject of the assassination of the governor of Kentucky. Bierce gibed that the bullet that had pierced Governor Goebel was speeding out to down President McKinley. McKinley was indeed shot by an anarchist later on. Hearst's printing of the poem dogged him for the rest of his life, costing him several elections and untold wealth in advertisement revenues.

It was a monument to Hearst's loyalty that he didn't fire Bierce for the poem but instead put up with the writer's tantrums and frequent resignations. Even under plush conditions, and a big salary by the standards of the time, Bierce, sick of being Hearst's "chained bulldog" kept resigning until his resignation was accepted once and for all.

Late in life, personal tragedy struck the famous Prattler. He unhooked himself from his wife over a trifling pretense, and his two sons died very badly: one of drink and the other of a self-inflicted wound. The muted reception to a too-generously edited Collected Works, published between 1909 and 1912, was the last straw. It was a received like the 12-volume literary white elephant it was. Bierce was ready for the grave. But where, exactly, that grave might be, is a famous mystery.

Bierce is popularly supposed to have vanished in Mexico during that country's revolution, and this disappearance has been a source of speculation for decades. Morris suggests that Bierce might have killed himself on the rim of the Grand Canyon, as the old man had once proposed to do. His research proves the unlikelihood of Bierce wandering around as an unnoticed Old Gringo (as novelist Carlos Fuentes imagined his fate).

I have also heard of a corrido, a Mexican ballad, not mentioned by Morris and in any case no doubt a latter-day fraud, that offers a different explanation. In the song, Bierce chooses a quick method of euthanasia, insulting Pancho Villa at his dinner table, calling him a barbarian whose company he, Bierce, can stand not a moment longer. Villa pretends to take the insult as a joke and then, later, orders Bierce shot at dawn. It's a scenario that fits the man, if not the facts.

Ambrose Bierce
Courtesy Los Gatos Weekly-Times

Salon Culture: Ambrose Bierce sought relief from his asthma and held court for his admirers at the El Monte, Los Gatos' poshest turn-of-the-century hotel.

War and Remembrance

BIERCE, WHO wrote only one novel himself, a wretched symbolist mess titled The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter, once defined the form as "A short story padded." The majority of his own short stories are of such a distinctly macabre quality that he has no real disciples. "If we try to read these stories in bulk," Edmund Wilson noted, "they get to seem not merely disgusting but dull." His characters, Wilson continues are "helpless butts of sadistic practical jokes, and their higher faculties are so limited that they might almost as well be trapped animals."

But there was one thing that Bierce respected, and that was the soldiers of the Civil War. Morris' focus on Bierce as a soldier gives a theme to the author's wandering life. Bierce's memoir, "What I Saw at Shiloh," published in San Francisco, Christmas 1881, broke an unofficial conspiracy of silence. As Morris notes, the leading historical magazine in the United States, the North American Review, had published only one article on the American Civil War in the 1870s. Harper's America's leading general-interest magazine, had published only two all during the same decade.

"What I Saw at Shiloh" contains none of the typical floridness of the 19th-century author. Bierce breaks from a grisly description of a few of the 30,000 casualties at the battlefield with the comment, "Faugh! [the sound of spitting in disgust]. I cannot catalogue the charms of these gallant gentlemen who had got what they had enlisted for." More than 100 years ago, Bierce was writing at the fissure between the old and the modern literature. He exchanged the metaphorical beauty of sacrifice for a cold description of literal dead meat.

The Vietnam War, a similarly dicey subject, claimed Tobias Wolfe, Michael Herr, Philip Caputo and Tim O'Brien as chroniclers. Bierce was all of those figures at once for the Civil War. As Morris notes, the other major writers of the time--Henry Dean Howells, Mark Twain and Henry James--all found various ways of avoiding the conflict. Only Walt Whitman, in The Wound-Dresser, looked with the same clear eyes on the carnage.

Bierce was in the thick of the fighting, and was gravely wounded, his head "broken like a walnut" by a bullet at the Battle of Kenesaw Mountain. A selection of Bierce's tales has been compiled by Dover Press and published as Civil War Stories. In it, you'll find the aspects of Bierce that will still be fresh 100 years from now. His account of battles he took part in," writes Wilson, "are the most attractive of his writings, because he was able to combine a ceaseless looking death in the face with a delight in the wonders of the world."

"A delight in the wonders of the world"--not the first quality one thinks of when considering Bierce's masterpiece, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." The first page and a half--during which the condemned, Peyton Farquhar, is yet unnamed--offers a clear description of a military hanging: how it is done, who stands where and who gives the orders, how gentlemen are not exempt from the noose. Farquhar, after his escape, his senses supernaturally alert, notices something that would have been commented upon in the camps of the Civil War: the gray eyes of a sharpshooter. He remembers that he'd heard all of the most famous sharp-shooters have gray eyes.

Bierce was an orderly to officers and knew what it was like to be "an object of lively interest to some thousands of admiring marksman." In his other stories, Bierce folds in details of his own service (Owl Creek is near Shiloh). Like the terrified soldier in "The Mockingbird," Bierce knew about picket duty and being a sentry, which meant, as he describes, standing in a dark forest at 3am waiting to hear a twig snap.

At times, Bierce rises above the horror of it all to find a certain elusive grace, as in his beautiful story "A Son of the Gods." Bierce was writing in a present-tense prose that must have been extraordinarily experimental at the time, though radio and television broadcasting have since got us used to it. The title character is "a military Christ" who draws the fire of the enemy by riding too close to a forest where they are hiding. The narrator thinks the beribboned officer a fool for riding a white horse--guaranteed to attract snipers. After the officer meets his preordained fate, the narrator rebukes himself: "It is not permitted to you to think of it as an instance of bravado, nor, on the other hand, a needless sacrifice of self. ... How to ascertain if the enemy is there? There is but one way--somebody must go and see."

More commonly, as in the incredible "Chickamauga," the witness sees the inglorious wounded rather than the glorious dead. Bierce, at the grisliest moment in his prose, shows us the the sight of a living causality with his jaw blown away: "The unnatural prominence of nose, the absence of chin, the fierce eyes gave this man the appearance of a great bird of prey crimsoned in throat and breast by the blood of its quarry." The young warrior who sees this sight is unshaken, since he is "the product of centuries of warfare ... the son of a heroic race." He is a speechless, deaf, perhaps idiotic child.

The soldiers Bierce fought with were the only people he ever respected, but even they were good for a laugh now and again. Later, in The Devil's Dictionary, he cracked a grim inside joke punning on the use of the verb "to shoot." In British English, it can mean "to throw away." Flying over forts and battleships, a flag means the same thing as the sign you'd see in vacant lots in England: "Rubbish may be shot here."

Bierce was not overcome with the urge to save human rubbish, who, if they had eyes to read with, could have learned all there was to learn about war from his writing. Bierce was scarcely anti-war. In the end, he could only expect to see the art of war decline further; as he wrote years later, "A modern battle is a quarrel of skulkers trying to have all the killing done a long way from their persons." It's a good thing he didn't live to see the ICBM. War itself had disappointed him; it was never as glorious as it was supposed to be, and progress was only going to make it less glorious.

Ambrose Bierce
The Ambrose Bierce papers, Stanford University Libraries

Literary Lion at Play: Bierce (right) in Los Gatos with poet-hoaxer Herman Scheffauer and a young admirer.


The Controversialist

COMPARED TO the war stories, Bierce's other work is minor, though studded with sharp aphorisms still free from rust today and a good guide for modern-day journalists in danger of losing their edge. Bierce was hated for his unflinching qualities in a flinching time--he probably had, says Morris, "more enemies than any man alive."

His crime coverage would be considered unprintably sick today. Describing the suicide of an unemployed laborer who cut his throat because he couldn't find work, Bierce writes, "He immediately found all the work he wanted: he had to work very hard to breathe." (And Bierce the asthmatic would have known exactly how hard that kind of work was.) Expanding on the subject of suicide, about half a century before Dorothy Parker wrote her famous "You Might As Well Live," Bierce gave tips to the incipient self-murderer: "Razors are good in their own way. A pistol is objectionable; it makes too much noise and wakes baby. Shotguns are vulgar, hangings will do in a stretch, and arsenic may be taken in a pinch."

As a critic, Bierce was even crueler. His criticism was, a friend said, like watching the torture of butterflies. Morris quotes one of the wittier examples: One poet's work had, in Bierce's view, "the ripple of a rill of bedroom furniture flowing down a staircase." For all his cruelty, Bierce was an honest critic. When the nation went wild for "The Man With the Hoe," by San Jose's own Edwin Markham (there is a junior high school in Willow Glen named after Markham), Bierce stood his ground on the poorness of the verse even at the cost of a friendship.

Through speedy writing, Bierce was a man who ended up with a number of deeply held conflicting opinions. Such are the effects of regular deadlines. Bierce could, at different times, be a populist and an elitist, an anti-feminist and a practitioner--if not, perhaps, a believer--in sexual freedom. He could be both pro-Chinese and anti-Semitic.

While fighting the monopoly capitalism of the Big Four, he wrote in favor of trusts and against the abolition of poverty: "Poverty and crime are Nature's great teaching schools." Socialism, he wrote, "unleashes the hounds of hate," as if he'd never been anywhere near that particular kennel.

Edmund Wilson claimed that, like Voltaire, Bierce had "a chaos of clear ideas"; Bierce called himself "a controversialist"--a lover of controversy for the sake of controversy:

    The controversialist should therefore confine his efforts and powers to the accomplishment of two main purposes: 1. Entertainment of the reader. 2. Personal gratification. For the first of these objects, no rules can be given; the good writer will entertain and the bad one will not, no matter what is the subject. The second is accomplishable (a) by guarding your self-respect; (b) by destroying your adversary's self-respect (c) by making him respect you, against his will, as much as you respect yourself.

This advice to a young writer reads like the art of war. It shows that Bierce never really left the military. At war for war's sake, Bierce, took differing positions, provoked for the sake of provoking, retreated in order to attack again: "Wit stabs, begs pardon--and turns the weapon in the wound."

He'd pick fights, attacking Columbus, George Washington and the American flag cult, calling the latter "the vestigial idolatry of the cave-dweller ... to the conception of abstractions, he [the flag-worshipper] comes unfairly equipped, but he can see a tinted rag." Or, if that failed to get a rise out of the readers, why not go after canines instead? Bierce's famous apostrophe to dogs: "Smilers, defilers, reekers and leakers."

Bierce as a great refuser is a more inspiring spectacle than the ideas he acquiesced to. In our century, we've had more experience with how iconoclasm, especially those in the realm of arts, can be easily turned into the worship of the individual, the Son of the Gods, the man on the white horse--the Fascist, to name him.

Bierce was a heartless and cynical writer in a country that prizes warmth and innocence above all things. Bierce was always willing to see the wrong side of a matter, always known for his inability to smell a rose without thinking of the fertilizer that fed the roots. In the 300-year history of the press, we've seen reporters trying ever harder to legitimize themselves, to seek equality with the company of the great instead of sharing the worm's-eye view. An equal is privy to secrets that a worm never knows, but the worm gets a better view of his trodden fellow worms and the sole of the boot.

Bierce is part of an undercurrent of journalism that would have stayed underground, except for an unrepeatable accident of history named William Randolph Hearst. Bierce was H.L. Mencken's predecessor and superior. Reading more than a little Mencken today, your eyes cross from the crankiness, the drollness, the peevish nostalgia for the good old days of the 1890s. Bierce had nostalgia's number; it was, he wrote, "Man throwing a longing look backwards to the barbarism to which eventually he will return."

His instincts were those of the pamphleteer and the self-published 'zine and yes, the Web page. His books were all small-press items, even the collected works. Bierce's suggestion that a hog ought to run for president, 100 years before Abbie Hoffman, shows a strong charge still coursing through the modern underground.

And it is in the underground that Bierce's type of writing will flourish. The press will become more respectable, and the CEOs of communications conglomerates will shudder at the thought of Bierce's excesses, his dependence on opinion and hunches, on suspicion and malice, on prejudices. Secretly, all of these contrarian qualities will tip off lesser writers to greater discoveries.


Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company by Roy Morris Jr., Crown; 306 pages; $30 cloth.

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From the August 29-September 4, 1996 issue of Metro

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