April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
“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 …
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:
… 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.
As it has for so many purposeless teenagers throughout history, war offered Ambrose an escape from the bewilderment and boredom of his life. He enlisted as a private on April 19, 1861, in Company C, Ninth Indiana Volunteer Infantry, and seven weeks later tasted his first fire in Virginia. He liked it so well that when the “rebs” had not been whipped by the end of his ninety-day enlistment, Ambrose re-enlisted at the rank of sergeant major.
Despite some later disclaimers, Ambrose loved the thrill of fighting and took part in many of the most terrible battles of the war, from bloody Shiloh to Chickamauga to Kenesaw Mountain, where he was badly wounded in the head by a musket ball. But from its inception his military career delighted him, except when his thoughts turned to Bernie and her many flirtations, whereupon he became justifiably worried and jealous.
Like the horse in Job , Ambrose lusted for battle, which quality was not lost upon his superiors. He was repeatedly cited for bravery and gallantry under fire and on December 1, 1862, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the field.
In less than three months he was again promoted, to first lieutenant, and began his service as topographical officer on the staff of General William B. Hazen, who became his surrogate father. The same fiercely observant blue eyes that would so enliven Ambrose’ writing served (along with his brief training at military school) to make him an excellent map maker.
After his wounding on June 23, 1864, Bierce was sent to a hospital and then home to Warsaw to recuperate. There Bernie Wright added to his shattering headaches by breaking off their engagement. The rejected lover returned to the war for comfort and when it ended in the spring of 1865 the temporary captain must have regretted it.
Breveted a major (a title he cherished and often insisted upon long after he had left the army), he resigned his commission and went to work for the Treasury in Selma, Alabama, confiscating “enemy property.” But Bierce was no good at this shabby work that was based on a system of corruption and bribery. Cynic though he was, he stubbornly lived all his life by a code of such rigid honesty that his life as a Treasury agent was in constant danger from both Southerners and Northerners, briber and bribee, whose operations were upset by such unreasonable rectitude.
Luckily, before a shotgun blast in the dark could end this peevish probity, Bierce received an offer to accompany his hero, General Hazen, surveying and mapping the unexplored country between Nebraska and California. He accepted immediately, both for the pleasure of serving again with Hazen and in the belief that the general would secure him a captaincy in the regular army.
Bierce and Hazen began their journey west from Omaha in July, 1866. The spectacular landscapes of Utah and Nevada so impressed the boy from the flatlands of Ohio and Indiana that he always spoke of them with awe, and he was favorably impressed by the Mormons in Salt Lake City at a time when they were as hated as the Chinese. He characterized the brutal persecutions and lynchings of the Mormons in their westward migration as “one of the most hateful and sneaking aggressions that ever disgraced the generally straightforward and forthright course of religious persecution.”
Bierce developed into a bitter, cynical, quirky man, but he never indulged in the prevalent prejudices against Jews, blacks, Chinese, or indeed any individual race or religion—saving his savage contempt for all religions. The one exception to this, not surprisingly, was his rage against the Christianity that had made his childhood so miserable.
When Hazen’s party finally reached the Presidio, Bierce received one of the major disappointments of his life—the War Department offered him not a captaincy but only a commission as a second lieutenant, which offer he haughtily refused even to answer. He was thereafter occasionally bitter about the army, as when he refused a substantial sum in back pay: “When I hired out as an assassin for my country, that wasn’t part of the contract.” But he remembered and usually referred to his military career as the happiest time of his life.
In San Francisco he took the first job he could get, night watchman at the United States Mint, but he soon saw that journalism offered him a more likely path to fame. Bierce was hired by James Watkins of the News-Letter to supply lively and, if possible, scandalous items for that journal’s “‘Town Crier” columns. By the end of 1868 he had become the paper’s managing editor, and his outrageous attacks that appeared on its “Town Crier” page soon made him one of San Francisco’s celebrities. In those days when caning or killing newspaper editors was in fashion, Bierce’s victims nevertheless gave him a wide berth, because it was known that he carried a loaded revolver and longed for an opportunity to defend himself.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”