Monday, August 6, 2012
Ambrose Bierce was one of the leading journalists and commentators known in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A contemporary of the more well-known Mark Twain, Bierce today is most popularly associated with The Devil's Dictionary (first published in 1906 as The Cynic's Word Book), a collection of satirical definitions and witty aphorisms that originally appeared in his newspaper columns.
As a young man Bierce served as a Union Army lieutenant in the American Civil War. His wartime experiences greatly affected him as he published a number of short stories and volumes of poetry. Best known among the short stories are "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "Chickamauga." After mustering out of the army, Bierce settled in San Francisco and began writing for a number of publications. After moving to London in 1872 where he wrote magazine articles and his first book, Bierce moved back to San Francisco in 1875 and became a regular columnist in William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner newspaper.
Although some label Bierce a cold cynic and curmudgeon, one can discover a "courageous despair" behind Bierce's biting satire. Bierce detested hypocrisy, stupidity, and villainy in human affairs. We prefer to view Bierce as a disappointed idealist who delighted in, according to H. L. Mencken, "the spectacle of human cowardice and folly." The Ohio University English professor Jack Matthews wrote in 2004, "Behind all the bitterness and the thunderous nay-saying, one can detect a profound interest in, and fascination with, the human adventure."
Bierce spoke out against imperialism and the excesses of corporate capitalism. In 1896 Hearst sent Bierce to Washington DC to expose the attempt by Collis Huntington on behalf of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroads to persuade the U.S. Congress without public hearings to excuse the railroads from repaying large loans from the U.S. Treasury totaling $130 million (about $3 billion in today's money). Bierce's coverage and biting commentaries led to the defeat of this legislation.
Bierce was not without shortcomings. He was a misogynist who opposed women's right to vote, and shared the prejudices of his day about people of color. However, Bierce cared not for the hustling nature of American politics and culture. He commented on American politics and character in his "Prattle" column appearing in the satire magazine Wasp on May 27, 1881:
"Certain unannealed idiots whom I have the advantage of knowing have been pleased to be offended by my remarks last week on the essential dishonesty of the American character. Well, I don't say these remarks were not offensive; I only say they were true. It is one of my failings that I do not know any better than to write the truth. Somebody, however, might say this in my favor; that I have never insulted the intelligence of my readers by flattering them. Most journalists think it pays to do so; I think it does not. The moral difference between them and me, in this matter, is not a wide one, clearly, and I regard it as a highly creditable example of humility that I consent to be no better than they are, but only wiser."
After divorce and the death of his ex-wife, Bierce moved back to Washington DC but at age 71 was restless and decided to travel to Mexico to write about the Mexican Revolution. His last letter from the city of Chihuahua to a friend dated 26 December 1913, closed with, "As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination."
According to an essay by Glenn Willeford ("Ambrose Bierce, 'The Old Gringo': Fact, Fiction and Fantasy"), one report had claimed Bierce to have been seen in Ojinaga, a village just west of the Mexico-U.S. border and Presidio, Texas, prior to the assault on the federal garrison in Ojinaga on January 10, 1914. However, research on oral histories by the late priest Fr. James Lienert, M.S.F. suggested that Bierce had ventured southeast to the village of Sierra Mojada, where he was arrested by forces loyal to General Huerta, a rival of Pancho Villa, accused of spying for Villa, and executed by firing squad in early 1914. Lienert erected at his own expense a tombstone to Bierce in the cemetery of Sierra Mojada in 2004. Nonetheless, the evidence on Bierce's ultimate fate is inconclusive. The disappearance of Ambrose Bierce remains a mystery.
The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote a 1985 novel, The Old Gringo, speculating about Bierce's crossing the border into Mexico during the Mexican Revolution and subsequent disappearance. A film with the same title starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda followed in 1989.
For more information about the life and writings of Ambrose Bierce, we recommend the following two internet websites:
http://www.ambrosebierce.org/ The Ambrose Bierce Project
http://www.donswaim.com/ The Ambrose Bierce Site
Bierces most well-known and most quoted work, The Devil's Dictionary, was first published in 1906 under the title The Cynic's Word Book. Bierce did not like the title chosen by the publisher and republished the collection in 1909 under his preferred title The Devil's Dictionary. The most complete collection of Bierce's definitions drawn from all sources is The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary edited by David E. Schultz and S. J. Joshi (Athens, GA and London: University of Georgia Press, 2000). Bierce's short stories have been collected in The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce (Stilwell, KS: Digireads.com Publishing, 2008). A modern look at Bierce's commentaries on English usage is Jan Freeman's Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right, The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers (New York: Walker and Company, 2009).
To recognize Ambrose Bierce, Cascadia Artpost has published an artist book, set of playing cards, and two artistamps in Summer 2012.