Satan’s Lexicographer

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If Ambrose Bierce, America’s first exponent of black humor, crudest epigrammist, and most terrifying teller of horror tales, is now finally coming into his own, it is because thinking Americans are finally recognizing the relevance of his vision—that America is not the Peaceable Kingdom and its citizens are no less aggressive, fearful, pretentious, and greedy than all other members of the human race.

Ambrose Gwinett Bierce, the tenth child of Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood Bierce, was born on June 24, 1842, in the Western Reserve, at the Horse Cave Creek settlement, Meigs County, Ohio. His childhood was miserable—an obscene combination of too little to eat and too much hellfire-and-damnation religion. His father, a would-be scholar and failed farmer, gave all thirteen of his children names beginning with A (Abigail, Amelia, Ann Maria, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, Adelia, and Aurelia). The name was all he gave Ambrose—that and his love of literature.

From his stern, bulky, thin-lipped mother Ambrose received mainly whippings when he rebelled against the endless psalm singing. The boy’s sleep was plagued by nightmares so horrific and vivid that he remembered their smallest details all his life. Most of us cannot remember our dreams a few seconds after we awaken from them, but Bierce writes three decades after one of them:

“I could not have been more than sixteen … yet I recall the incidents as vividly as when … I lay cowering beneath the bedcovering and trembling with terror. … I was alone … in my bad dreams I am always alone. … Heartless and hopeless I struggled on over the blasted and forbidding plain … then I passed in at an open portal, between columns of cyclopean masonry whose single stones were larger than my father’s house. … For hours I wandered in this awful solitude, conscious of a seeking purpose, yet knowing not what I sought. At last … there came to me the dreadful truth which years later as an extravagant fancy I endeavored to express in verse:

Man is long ages dead in every zone , The angels all are gone to graves unknown; The devils, too, are cold enough at last , And God lies dead before the great white throne!

 

… Upon the bed, partly clothed, lay the dead body of a human being. … By bending over it, which I did with loathing but no fear, I could see that it was dreadfully decomposed. The ribs protruded from the leathern flesh. … The face was black and shriveled and the lips, drawn away from the yellow teeth, cursed it with a ghastly grin. A fullness under the closed lids seemed to indicate that the eyes had survived the.general wreck; and this was true, for as I bent above them they slowly opened and gazed into mine … the eyes were my own! That vestigial fragment … that hateful and abhorrent scrap of mortality, still sentient after the death of God and the angels, was I!”

Ambrose’ uncle, Lucius Verus Bierce, played a significant role in the boy’s formation. One of the many fierce patriots who enliven and decorate our history, Lucius in 1837 led some hundred of his fellow citizens in a filibusteringcampaign across the border from Detroit into Ontario to free the Canadians from their governmental oppressors. When the Canadians resolutely refused to be liberated and the British regulars killed most of his band and routed the rest, Lucius fled home to find himself such a hero that he would be six times elected mayor of Akron and would continue to the end of his days to be the state’s favorite Fourth of July orator and covered-dish-dinner Demosthenes. Uncle Lucius was among those who provided arms for John Brown to use in Kansas.

If Bierce’s uncle seems to us a ludicrous hero, he was at least a more acceptable one than the boy’s dour father or his unhappy mother. When Ambrose, a bitter and confused teenager, dropped out of school at Warsaw, Indiana, where the family had moved but had found no more success than in Ohio, Uncle Lucius paid the boy’s tuition at the Kentucky Military Institute, where Ambrose stayed only briefly but learned enough to stand him in good stead later.

Since the age of fifteen, the brooding boy had preferred to live alone away from home and to educate himself while working at various jobs—printer’s devil, brickyard laborer, and bartender-clerk in a Warsaw saloon. Living alone he also began to learn about women, from “a woman of broad culture … well past seventy … still physically attractive.” But more importantly, Ambrose fell in love—with a frivolous and shallow girl named Bernie Wright, to whom he soon became engaged. He had developed from a tow-headed runt into a tall, thin, blond, blue-eyed, fiercely handsome man with whom many women would be taken. And at this same moment, working in the saloon, he developed that fondness for drinking in exclusively male company that he never lost.