“The world is my country, to hate rascals is my religion” he once said, and for more than forty years—before he mysteriously vanished—he blasted away at the delusions, pretentions, posturings, hopes, dreams, foibles, and institutions of all mankind. His name was Ambrose Bierce …
April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
Both during his life and since, Bierce’s audience has been a limited one, and the chief reason is that he was such a bitter cynic and such a savage satirist. In the preface to The Devil’s Dictionary he declared that “enlightened souls … prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment,” but even in our own purportedly sophisticated day, most people feel indignant at satire of their own foibles. If sharp satire ever becomes popular, Bierce will enjoy a Renaissance.
There is some evidence that this has already begun. The young, who have always enjoyed seeing fun made of their parents’ verities, if not their own, are buying paperback copies of The Devil’s Dictionary (along with reissues of Bierce’s horror tales and science fiction), but whether their taste for satire and iconoclasm will outlast their youth may be questionable.
Satirists such as Bierce are usually considered cruel and insensitive, unable to feel or even understand love and idealism. The young are often better able to comprehend that exactly the opposite may be the case and that cynicism is not infrequently the child of excessive idealism. A half century after his mother had assured Bierce that there was a Santa Claus and he had believed her, only to be disillusioned, he was still furious about it.
Among the victims of attacks by Bierce (envy was often chiefly responsible for their choice) was Mark Twain, of whose marriage to a rich bourgeoise Bierce declared: “It was not the act of a desperate man—it was not committed while laboring under temporary insanity … it was the cool, methodical, cumulative culmination of human nature working in the heart of an orphan hankering for someone with a fortune to love—someone with a bank account to caress.”
Bierce could write knowledgeably about marrying for money because he was about to derive benefits from doing so himself. He chose for his bride Ellen “Mollie” Day, the socially prominent and beautiful daughter of a rich mining engineer. She would bear Bierce three children and would love him until she died, but it is doubtful that he ever loved her. One may wonder why Mollie—a bright and courageous and popular young woman—would marry such an obviously selfish misanthrope and outspoken misogynist. She was apparently misled by his wit and his seeming sense of justice. In one of his “Town Crier” columns he wrote: “Mollie—tell your mother not to relax her efforts to keep you from writing to us. The chances are that the old lady is right.”
Mollie and Ambrose were married on Christmas Day, 1871, and their wedding present from her father was enough money to travel to England and stay for many months. In London, Bierce was almost as happy as he had been in the army, and his admiration of England was one of the very few lasting loves of his life. He assembled a group of Fleet Street drinking companions that included Tom Hood, Augustus Sala, and the lyricist W. S. Gilbert. Their incessant japing and verbal dueling sharpened his wit, and with their help he was soon selling articles as fast as he could write them.
When Mollie’s pregnancy and Bierce’s attacks of asthma led them to move to Bristol, then in 1873 to Bath, and in 1874 to Warwickshire, Ambrose nevertheless spent as much time, and often more, up in London drinking with his friends as he did at home with his wife and sons—Day, born in December, 1872, and Leigh, born in early 1874. Bierce’s taste for domesticity was always limited, but it virtually disappeared when his mother-in-law came over to join the protracted honeymoon.
In order to stretch out that honeymoon in England for as long as possible—it finally ended after three years—even his father-in-law’s generous gift had to be supplemented and, to give the Devil his due, much of Bierce’s time in London was spent earning money. One short-lived job was serving as flack and hatchet man for the exiled but still rich Empress Eugenie and her much reduced Second Empire court at Kent.
Following her mother, Mollie returned to America in the spring of 1875, and, once arrived there, she wrote that she was again pregnant. Ambrose reluctantly followed her to San Francisco in September, his wit refined, his slings and arrows polished from use. For the next twenty years (except for a brief and unsuccessful try at gold mining) he served as a “West Coast Samuel Johnson.” In the weekly Argonaut and later in the Wasp , Bierce attacked with sting and style whatever and whoever incurred his easily triggered wrath, including such local millionaires as Leland Stanford (whose name he spelled £eland Stanford) and Collis P. Huntington, but at the same time wrote in defense of Jews, Negroes, and even the Chinese. But he was no lover of the common man, and never did he try to play the reformer. In fact all reformers, radicals, Socialists, and finally the muckrakers were among his most favorite targets, uncurable and fatuous optimists whose various solutions to the world’s inescapable ills were all, in his view, “bosh,” destined to leave unchanged the ills they sought to cure, whether these were wage slavery or women’s inequality, racism or alcoholism.