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“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
“Well, name your price!” snapped Huntington. “Every man has his price.”
Bierce’s wit was worthy of this high point of his life. “My price is $75,000,000. 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.”
Although Bierce defeated Huntington’s outrageous plan, Bierce himself was defeated in every aspect of his domestic life. No writer could have invented a more shamelessly selfish husband and father. He very rarely saw, let alone lived with, his wife, yet when he learned that a rich Dane had written her an adoring love letter, he separated from her permanently, never speaking or writing to her again although he knew her to be innocent of any real wrongdoing. She had wounded his vanity. They were never divorced, perhaps because as he once wrote: “A bad marriage is like an electric thrilling-machine: it makes you dance, but you can’t let go.”
In 1889 his oldest son, Day, committed suicide at the age of sixteen, and in 1901 his other son, Leigh, who for a time was also estranged from his father, died of pneumonia at twenty-seven. Bierce’s only other child, Helen, was never allowed to be close to her father. When once a woman was so foolish as to ask his advice on rearing children, Bierce snarled: “Study Herod, Madam,study Herod!”
If Bierce had no gift at all for family life, he was at least marginally better at friendship, although fallings out, recriminations, reconciliations, and further fallings out were essential exercises in his daily life. His epigrams, his verses, and his fables repeatedly express his doubts about friendship and loyalty:
A Lion who had caught a Mouse was about to kill him, when the Mouse said:
“If you will spare my life, I will do as much for you someday.”
The Lion good-naturedly let him go. It happened shortly afterwards that the Lion was caught by some hunters and bound with cords. The Mouse, passing that way, and seeing that his benefactor was helpless, gnawed off his tail.
There were usually around him aspiring young San Francisco writers to whom he was generous with help and advice so long as they acknowledged him and only him as their master. He was especially happy to play that role when the disciple was a beautiful young woman who was willing to offer herself as the quid pro quo for his help. “When God makes a beautiful woman, the Devil opens a new register.”
Evidently the chief reason he stayed most of the time in San Francisco and refused opportunities to work in New York was that as long as he remained out West he was the biggest fish in the pond. From there he offered criticism of the great literary figures he envied most, including not only such effete Easterners as “Miss Nancy Howells” and “Miss Nancy James,” but also the increasingly famous local novelist Jack London. The longest literary form Bierce used himself was the short story, so it is perhaps not without significance that he defined the novel as “A short story padded.”
Bierce fell out with Hearst over the Spanish American War, which he considered a bullying and unworthy enterprise, but he had no faith in peace. He corrected that “inferior lexicographer” Dr. Johnson, maintaining that patriotism is not the last resort of a scoundrel but the first, and he declared: “The world is my country, to hate rascals is my religion.” He was quite as cynical about international as about national politics, and he was well aware that national boundaries are not divinely determined.
He maintained fiercely that the purported heroism of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Rider charge up San Juan Hill was so much “bosh,” that the battle’s real heroes were the black soldiers of the Tenth Cavalry. He had a running feud with T.R., who had alleged that McKinley’s murderer, Leon Czolgosz, had been motivated by a piece of Bierce’s doggerel in the New York Journal . Bierce’s chief complaint against Roosevelt was that the President had ended the Russo-Japanese War. Bierce was convinced that sooner or later Japan’s ambitions would lead to a Pacific war with the United States.
In 1908 Bierce finally ended his career as a Hearst employee and concentrated on the preparation of his Collected Works , which were published by his friend and biographer Walter Neale. And so the old soldier and cynic might have ended his days in Washington, where he had moved in 1898, relaxing at the bar of the Army and Navy Club and exchanging mots with Percival Pollard and H. L. Mencken and suggesting that Mencken start a new women’s magazine and call it The Smart Sex . But strangely enough his greatest and most mysterious adventure still lay ahead.