Satan’s Lexicographer

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It was especially in regard to the uselessness of trying to protect or educate what he called the “booboisie” that Mencken agreed with his friend Bierce. “The longer I live the more I am convinced,” Mencken wrote the muckraker Upton Sinclair, “that the common people are doomed to be diddled forever.” Bierce was and always remained a staunch conservative, but he avoided the pretense and piousness with which most followers of that faith clothe themselves.

In March, 1887, young William Randolph Hearst came diffidently to Bierce’s apartment in Oakland to try to induce the famous wit to revive his popular “Prattle” column. Hearst was convinced, and correctly, that Bierce’s excoriations would enliven the Examiner , which Hearst was determined to build into as powerful a force as Pulitzer’s New York World . He promised Bierce that his work would not be altered and that it would run on the editorial page, thus offering Bierce the ideal platform from which to attack all his favorite enemies and particularly their common enemy, Collis Huntington’s Southern Pacific Railroad, referred to throughout California as “the octopus” long before Frank Norris’ 1901 novel.

Bierce went to work for Hearst at once and could not have been happier to be fighting again, for in the felicitous phrase of his biographer Richard O’Connor, his favorite role was that of a “lion against the Christians.”

Despite the warnings of the Examiner ’s libel lawyers, Hearst usually gave Bierce the absolute freedom, from editing that he had promised him. When he did not, Bierce inevitably resigned—only to be rehired immediately at an increased salary. In one “Prattle” column Bierce complained about a California product: “The wine of Arpad Haraszthy has a bouquet all its own. It tickles and titillates the palate. It gurgles as it slips down the alimentary canal. It warms the cockles of the heart, and it burns the sensitive lining of the stomach.”

Told by the libel lawyers that even Hearst insisted he run a retraction, Bierce did: “The wine of Arpad Haraszthy does not have a bouquet all its own. It does not tickle and titillate the palate. It does not gurgle as it slips down the alimentary canal. It does not warm the cockles of the heart, and it does not burn the sensitive lining of the stomach.”

Throughout his career and since, Bierce’s critics have maintained that his attacks were too personal, too ad hominem . His own answer to the charge is the most instructive: “I care nothing for principles. … What concerns our happiness and welfare, as affectable by our fellow men, is conduct. ‘Principles, not men,’ is a rogue’s cry; rascality’s counsel to stupidity, the noise of the duper duping his dupe. … Sin … is already universally known to be wicked. … Sin is not at all dangerous to society; what does the mischief is the sinner. … I would no more attack it than I would attack an isosceles triangle. … I have no quarrel with abstractions; so far as I know they are all good citizens.”

Perhaps the most telling attacks on Bierce himself came from his old drinking companion and sometime fellow-Hearstling, Arthur McEwen, who charged that Bierce “had been for half a lifetime knocking over sparrows with an elephant rifle. … He is most at home when breaking butterflies on the wheel, when torturing poor poetasters and female scribblers of verse, who but for him would remain unheard of. He is matchless in his petty trade of village critic and scold … what is left is a millionaire’s lackey, whose soul is cankered with disappointment at his own emptiness, and whose narrow mind is ulcerated with envy of writers who are out of livery.”

The charge that many of his enemies were weak and would have remained forever unknown had he not immortalized them is incontrovertible, but he also attacked giants quite as fearlessly, for example when in 1896 he went to Washington, D.C., to lead Hearst’s war on the Funding Bill which Collis P. Huntington had had introduced into the Congress and which, if it passed, would have spared Huntington the bother of repaying to the United States government some $75 million he owed.

Among the great robber barons, Huntington was in one way the most appealing. Unlike Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Stanford, and Gould, he was absolutely candid. “Everything that is not nailed down is mine,” he boasted, “and anything I can pry loose is not nailed down.” He was equally open about his methods, most especially bribery, as about his goals.

None of Bierce’s invective surpasses that which he leveled at Huntington: “Mr. Huntington is not altogether bad. Though severe, he is merciful. He says ugly things of the enemy, but he has the tenderness to be careful that they are mostly lies.”

Because, like all of those to whom Bierce contemptuously referred as the “railrogues,” Huntington had found that direct and generous bribes were the most effective means of getting whatever he wanted, he concluded that Bierce too was for sale. In February, 1896, on the steps of the Capitol he offered the writer a series of ascending sums to stop writing about the Southern Pacific, and to each offer Bierce shook his head disdainfully.