Satan’s Lexicographer

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On April 25, 1913, he wrote Mencken: ”… I shall go West later in the season—or rather Southwest—and may go into Mexico (where, thank God, there is something doing) and to South America … if, in Mexico, I do not incur the mischance of standing against a wall to be shot.” At seventy-one he was tired, he told his daughter, of “a country that is on the eve of prohibition and women’s suffrage. … I’m going to buy a donkey and hire a peon. I can see what’s doing; perhaps write a few articles about the situation. … From there I can go to South America, cross the Andes and ship to England. This fighting in Mexico interests me. I want to go down and see if these Mexicans shoot straight.” And to his nephew’s wife, Lora, he wrote: “If you should hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!”

Bierce had already taken a farewell trip to California in 1912; next he toured the sites of Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Kenesaw Mountain in the Southeast; he instructed his secretary to burn all letters she received from him thereafter; he revisited New Orleans; and in November, 1913, he entered Mexico at Ciudad Juarez and received credentials as an observer with the rebel armies of Pancho Villa.

In his last letter, dated December 26 in Chihuahua City, he said he was going to see the fighting at Ojinaga. Then he disappeared forever.

For years thereafter, Americans who had never even heard of Bierce, let alone read his work, were treated in their Sunday supplements to new and fantastic “revelations” about his disappearance: He had been shot for insulting Villa; he had fought bravely with Villa’s forces, but was shot when he suddenly tried to desert and join Carranza; he had gone secretly to London to advise Lord Kitchener on tactics for the stalemated Western Front; he was living incognito in South America.

 

It is of course not impossible that he was shot for insulting someone—that having been his chief business and pleasure for so many years that he did it automatically without thinking, and a Mexican victim may have been unaware that an insult from Bierce was a kind of benediction. But more likely he was simply murdered for the $1,500 he was carrying or choked to death of asthma in the dust of some battle.

The final determination of his literary reputation lies still in the future, and his best legacy may be the advice he offered to the readers of his “Town Crier” page as he left for London in 1872: “Be as decent as you can. Don’t believe without evidence. Treat things divine with marked respect—don’t have anything to do with them. Do not trust humanity without collateral security; it will play you some scurvy trick. Remember that it hurts no one to be treated as an enemy entitled to respect until he shall prove himself a friend worthy of affection. Cultivate a taste for distasteful truths. And, finally, most important of all, endeavor to see things as they are, not as they ought to be.”