Ambrose Bierce and The Devil’s Dictionary
Born into a high-minded if hardscrabble abolitionist family with 13 kids (all given names beginning with the letter A), Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842–circa 1914) enlisted as a private at the very start of the Civil War. He would rise to the rank of sergeant and then brevet major and topographical officer under the command of General William Babcock Hazen. Bierce received an astonishing 15 commendations for bravery under fire and saw ferocious combat through nearly the entire length of the war, including at Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Kennesaw Mountain—where he was nearly killed when his skull was “broken like a walnut” by a Confederate bullet. Bierce concluded that the war was nothing more than a meaningless and murderous slaughter, devoid of virtue or purpose. His ordeal gave birth to a lonely, stoic, and bitter constitution, a sensibility that was the impetus of his career as a journalist, short story writer and poet. Bierce resolved that his future program would be to make “war upon every man with a mission.”
Ambrose Bierce became famous as a contributor or editor of a number of Bay Area newspapers and periodicals, including The San Francisco News Letter, The Argonaut, the Overland Monthly, The Californian and The Wasp. Before becoming the most acerbic, pernicious, disturbing and gloriously hateful son-of-a-bitch in Gilded Aged America, Bierce was on the best of terms with the Bohemian crowd that made old San Francisco a sort of American Bagdad, including many close friends of a young Aimée Crocker. He was a founding member of the Bohemian Club and in 1876 club secretary.
Bierce later characterized the San Francisco bohemian as “a lazy, loaferish, gluttonous, crapulent, dishonest duffer, who, according to the bent of his incapacity—-the nature of the talents that heaven has liberally denied—-scandalized society, disgraces literature, debauches art, and is an irreclaimable, inexpressible and incalculable nuisance.”
Bierce’s rancor and bravado knew no bounds. In a time of widespread graft and corruption, he relentlessly skewered adversaries in high places. As a journalist, he claimed a sterling, unbiased reputation. He wrote, “I keep a conscience uncorrupted by religion, a judgment undimmed by politics and patriotism, a heart untainted by friendships, and sentiments unsoured by animosities.”
War with the Central Pacific
Bierce had the audacity to challenge the deep pocketed lobbyists employed by the Nob Hill railroad magnates including Uncle Charley Crocker. His emphatic opposition to the Central Pacific Railroad spanned some thirty years. Bierce believed that the barons not only jointly owned the California legislature through bribery and intimidation, but a sizable share of the U.S. Congress. He claimed that the Associates “the Big Four” (Crocker, Huntington, Hopkins and Stanford) bought California’s two senate seats by bribing the legislature to appoint men they supported. Another accusation: the Associates made sure that they had friends in the press by purchasing advertising in newspapers and magazines across the state at several times the going rate. Once the publication had become dependent on their subsidy, they threatened to withdraw their patronage if the editor failed to support their interests.
Bierce referred to the barons as “public enemies and indictable criminals.” He campaigned indefatigably for public ownership of the railroads. When the Big Four claimed to have the right to charge all that the market could bear, Bierce retaliated. “If they had really set up the railroad on their own and operated in a truly free market, perhaps. But Congress had enriched the railroad men with public subsidies, public loans, and public land. The federal government had exercised the right of eminent domain on their behalf and had provided US Army troops to protect their holdings.”
The relentless Ambrose Bierce demanded the railroad pay the federal government all money due to the last penny, pay all state and local taxes without litigation, abolish rebates for favored companies, end subsidies of newspapers and government officials and most important, accede to a schedule of rates to be set by the state railroad commission. His efforts culminated in Washington, D.C., when he was sent by William Randolph Hearst for the Examiner in 1896 to cover the funding bill debate in Congress, during which Collis Huntington was seeking to receive an enormous extension of the time limit for repayment of debts. The railroads’ advocates hoped to get the bill through Congress without any public notice or hearings.
When Bierce caught wind of the scheme, he wrote over sixty articles in protest. Of the partners, Huntington had a reputation for being the most ruthless in pursuing the railroad’s business. He is famous for saying, “Whatever is not nailed down is mine. Whatever I can pry loose is not nailed down.” Bierce was himself a fierce and formidable character. He habitually dressed in black, carried a loaded revolver under his coat, and displayed a human skull and a box of ashes on his desk — the remains, he said, of former friends. Bierce held a pessimism and a distaste of humanity that ran so deep as to be pathological.
When the angered Huntington confronted Bierce on the steps of the Capitol and told Bierce to name his price, Bierce’s answer ended up in newspapers nationwide, “My price is one hundred thirty million dollars. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States.” Bierce’s coverage and diatribes on the subject aroused such public wrath that Huntington was driven out of the Capitol and forced to withdrawal the measure.
Bierce eviscerated Uncle Charley. “What drives men who are millionaires many times over to continue to pursue wealth with lies, bribes and theft,” Bierce questioned. When Bierce learned that Charles Crocker, who he once described as “ninety-nine kinds of knave,” was considering moving to New York, an elated Bierce had some parting words:
Godspeed from a people whose generous encouragement he had punished by plunder — from a state whose industries he has impoverished, whose legislation he has sophisticated and perverted, whose courts of justice he has corrupted, of whose servants he has made thieves, and in the debauchery of whose politics he has experienced a coarse delight irrelative to the selfish advantage that was its purpose — from a city whose social tone he has done his best to lower to the level of his own brutal graces, and for whose moral standards he has tried to substitute the fatty degeneration of his own heart.
After Oscar Wilde’s San Francisco appearances during his 1882 American lecture tour, Aimée Crocker met the great playwright several times socially. They became fast friends and she sang his praises for decades. Bierce was not impressed:
That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde, has ensued with his opulence of twaddle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck, to the capital edification of circumjacent fools and foolesses, fooling with their foolers. He has tossed off the top of his head and uttered himself in copious overflows of ghastly bosh. The ineffable dunce has nothing to say and says it — says it with a liberal embellishment of bad delivery, embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitude, gesture and attire. There never was an impostor so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft. Therefore is the she-fool enamored of the feel of his tongue in her ear to tickle her understanding… The limpid and spiritless vacuity of this intellectual jelly-fish is in ludicrous contrast with the rude but robust mental activities that he came to quicken and inspire. Not only has he no thought, but no thinker. His lecture is mere verbal ditchwater—-meaningless, trite and without coherence. It lacks even the nastiness that exalts and refines his verse…
Bierce later skewered fellow wordslingers and literary geniuses, Walt Whitman and James Whitcomb Riley. When Riley claimed to do his writing on an empty stomach, Bierce claimed that reading his poetry “empties ours!”
Bierce wrote a long, scathing poem about Aimée’s first husband Porter Asher in his book Black Beetles in Amber called the “Van Nessiad.” Porter Ashe was renowned as an inveterate gambler who trained and bet on horses, dogs and pugilists. When Porter sought to build stables on his estate without the permission of the city and against the wishes of his neighbors, Bierce held that the property didn’t need stables for horses as it already housed an ass.
More than thirty years before his death, Bierce composed what he thought was the perfect gravestone inscription:
Here Porter Ashe is laid to rest
Green grows the grass upon his breast.
This patron of the turf, I vow,
Ne’er served it half so well as now
Bierce concluded his poignant epitaph to Bohemian Club “High Jinks” Sire, Olympic Club president and writer William Greer Harrison:
…All silent now, nor sound nor sense remains,
Though riddances of worms improve his brains.
All his no talents to the earth revert,
And Fame concludes the record: “Dirt to dirt!”
This particular nasty barrage was a counter attack to a prevailing push back from literary figures in the Bay area. They were fed up from decades of Bierce vitriol. When the Jewish poet David Lesser Lezinsky shot himself on Independence Day in 1895, Bierce was widely accused of contributing to his demise by mocking the sensitive young writer. William Greer Harrison joined in the criticism through a series of angry letters published in the San Francisco Call. Harrison presented a completely Biercian encapsulation referring to him as, “a stuttering ape, a shambling idiot, an ill-visaged ‘maphrodite, a literary monstrosity… ” He then concluded, “Ambrose Bierce is merely a literary eunuch, his utterances the windy spasms of an uneasy frog, and his criticisms the sour output of a disgruntled mule.”
After the death of former friend and publisher of the Argonaut, Frank Pixley, Ambrose Bierce wrote yet another blistering epitaph: “Here lies Frank Pixley… As usual.”
In 1901, Bierce encountered a career altering backlash. He wrote a poem that seemed to predict or even call for President William McKinley’s death by an assassin’s bullet. Months earlier, the governor-elect of Kentucky, William Goebel, had been assassinated. This caused the cynic Bierce to write these lines before William McKinley’s tragic demise:
The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Can not be found in all the West;
Good reason, it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier.
When McKinley was assassinated shortly thereafter, Hearst newspapers, the publishers of the poem, were banned from the Bohemian Club forcing Bierce to resign his membership. This incident would also end Hearst’s ambitions for the US presidency.
A group of 14 exiled reporters, editors, and other Hearst newsmen, in the spirit of true Bohemians and asserting freedom of the press, resigned in protest to the censorship, formed their own club, and called it “The Family.” They built a summer home south of the city, “The Family Farm” in a town called Woodside and a church “Our Lady of the Wayside.” Porter Ashe was a founding member.
Admirers can’t come up with enough superlatives to praise Ambrose Bierce. Poet Edwin Markham, said of him: “He is a composite mind—-a blending of Hafiz the Persian, Swift, Poe, Thoreau, with sometimes a gleam of the Galilean.” Cultural critic H. L. Mencken anointed the works of Bierce as “the most brilliant stuff, first and last, that America has ever produced,” and referred to his tomb, The Devil’s Dictionary, as, “the true masterpiece of the one genuine wit that These States have ever seen”
The Devil’s Dictionary is a collection of acidic, elegantly wrought definitions of common words. This Swiftian tour de force is among the most eccentric books in American literature, and it retains its intensely disturbing quality. Some entries:
ACQUAINTANCE, n. a person whom we know well enough to borrow from, but not well enough to lend to.
DIPLOMACY, n. the patriotic act of lying for one’s country.
HAPPINESS, n. an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of others.
RELIGION, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.
Kindly, white-whiskered old veterans of the domino tables at The Family Club told stories about the unprinted version of The Devil’s Dictionary ending with the definition of “Heaven”: “Copulation without culmination.”
In Bierce’s works of fiction, there is little room for sentimentality, hopefulness, or empathy. He wrote horror yarns, ghost tales, and sci-fi fables. He wrote realistically of the terrible things he had seen in the war in such stories as “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “A Horseman in the Sky,” “One of the Missing,” and “Chickamauga.” His grimly realistic cycle of 25 war stories compiled in Civil War Stories has been called, “the greatest anti-war document in American literature.” Literary critic Ryan Holiday includes Civil War Stories in his list of 24 Books You’ve Probably Never Heard of but Will Change Your Life. (The list also incidentally includes William Seabrook’s Asylum). In 2005, author Kurt Vonnegut said that he considered “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” the “greatest American short story” and a work of “flawless… American genius.”
However, when fellow humorist Mark Twain was asked to read and review long-time friend Ambrose Bierce’s not-so-bestseller, Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California by Dod Grile (his pseudonym), publishers Chatto & Windus had no idea they’d get such a scathing report back. Twain calls Nuggets and Dust “the vilest book that exists in print” and ends with what might be the most simultaneously hilarious and hurtful review of all time, “There is humor in Dod Grile, but for every laugh that is in his book there are five blushes, ten shudders and a vomit. The laugh is too expensive.”
By late 1913, Bierce was divorced and free to pursue a wandering writer’s life. So, at the age of 71, he embarked on a trip to visit famous battle sites of the Civil War, then crossed into Mexico which was in the midst of their own civil war. After this leg of his journey, his whereabouts and fate become murky. It was reported that he went to Mexico to join Pancho Villa’s revolutionaries or as a war correspondent. The exact reason for his trip there is unknown. He wrote a foreboding note to his niece Lora: “Goodbye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs.”
His final letter was dated Dec. 26, 1913, postmarked Chihuahua. In it, he said he expected to leave the next day, partly by rail, for Ojinaga, where Villa was poised to attack a cornered federal army. His disappearance sparked investigations, wild speculations, but no answers.
Ambrose was never heard from again. His daughter initiated an investigation, but no conclusive trace of Bierce’s last days ever turned up.