On the day after Christmas in 1913, legendary author, critic and misanthrope, Ambrose Bierce rode off into the Mexican desert and was never seen or heard from again. Most historians say that he was captured and executed by Pancho Villa’s forces, a few ascribe to the notion that he ended his days quietly in a small Mexican village while still others maintain that he just got tired of the human race and committed a lonely suicide.
Almost surely, the reality will never be truly known but “Bitter Bierce,” as he was known to both his fans and detractors alike, had good reason to tire of this mortal coil. His life, though extraordinary, was filled with turmoil and regret. Still, despite his misfortunes, Ambrose Bierce left a formidable literary legacy and fittingly to his credit, a damned, fine mystery.
The Origins of His Misanthropy
The origins and nurturing of his distaste for this world and its inhabitants were well founded. He buried two sons and a wife well before their times. He was present and participated in the Battle of Shiloh as brother butchered brother during the American Civil War. He must have been good at war too as he retired a brevet major at the end of the war. Ironically, this most egregious of affairs was the one tjing that Mr. Bierce would rarely mention in his writings.
Next, his career as a journalist for the infamous newspaperman, William Randolph Hearst, gave him unprecedented access to the worst excesses that the combination of capitalism and politics could produce. Lastly, he witnessed some of the most gruesome depredations of the age when the victors of the Mexican Revolution pillaged and sacked the peasant villages of the losing side.
Life as a Critic
His career as a critic was largely spent in San Francisco although he lived and wrote in London from 1872-1875. At first, he was a crime reporter and wrote about the dark underbelly of San Francisco including the debasement of Chinese immigrants and the “shanghaiing” of drifters and other non-seamen. Eventually, he became an editor of several noteworthy local newspapers and his attention turned towards politics.
In 1887, he made the move to The San Francisco Examiner and cemented his reputation as a searing critic with his weekly column, “Prattle.” Acerbic in the extreme, Mr. Bierce’s column was highly controversial, but extremely successful. He remained with the paper and as a trusted confidante of the publisher. William Randolph Hearst, for the next 20 years.
His Literary Work
During his life, Ambrose Bierce was a journalist, poet, short story writer and editor who was, perhaps surprisingly, known to encourage all young writers. His literary output spanned many genres but his two most noted works are a short story set during the American Civil War and a satiric compendium of comic definitions. Both are available for free on the Internet.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Widely recognized as Mr. Bierce’s tour de force, this masterpiece is less than ten pages long. Nevertheless, it encompasses more than a few tropes, the first use of several much-copied literary devices and one of finest “twist” endings ever. This short story has been compared by many noted critics as equal to the works of the great Civil War novelist, Stephen Crane, and even to Ernest Hemingway.
The story was, indeed, groundbreaking for its day but it still resonated forty years later when a French- produced version of the story was televised as an episode of the Twilight Zone. Rod Serling was so impressed by the production that he broke the “fourth wall” more than usual in his description of the story.
The Devil’s Dictionary
One of Mr. Bierce’s most celebrated and quoted works is the Devil’s Dictionary. Arguably comic, the definitions also reveal the darker side of Mr. Bierce’s personality. Describing the entries, however, does not do justice to the authorship.
It should also be remembered that these definitions were written in the late 19th century. It is a testament to Mr. Bierce’s keen and sardonic insight into the human psyche that many of his definitions are still relevant today.
Instead, here are a baker’s dozen of the choicest morsels:
ALONE, adj. In bad company.
CONSERVATIVE, n. A politician who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the liberal, who wishes to replace them with others
CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision.
EGOTIST, n. A person more interested in himself than in me.
FAITH, n. : Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
INSURANCE, n. An ingenious modern game of chance in which the player is permitted to enjoy the comfortable conviction that he is beating the man who keeps the table.
MAMMON, n. The god of the world's leading religion. The chief temple is in the holy city of New York.
POSITIVE, adj. To be mistaken at the top of one’s voice.
SCRIPTURES, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.
SAUCE, n. The one infallible sign of civilization and enlightenment. A people with no sauces has one thousand vices; a people with one sauce has only nine hundred and ninety-nine. For every sauce invented and accepted a vice is renounced and forgiven.
VANITY, n. The tribute of a fool to the worth of the nearest ass.
WAR, n. God’s way of teaching geography to Americans.
ZEAL, n. A certain nervous disorder afflicting the young and inexperienced. A passion that goeth before a sprawl
The Legacy of a Life Well Spent
Considered one of the finest writers in the English language, his work is praised for its inimitable style and exacting use of words. His works have influenced writers from a diverse range of genres including historical narratives, supernatural stories and philosophical tracts.
Ambrose Bierce seems to have been blessed with that old Chinese curse, an eventful life. In the end, no one knows what he made of it all. Was life worth living? Or were the pleasures too few to counterbalance the grief and pain? Mr. Bierce would undoubtedly have had something pithy to say on the subject.