Thursday, February 4, 2010

Bierce the Jolly Rogue

If you read a literary biography of Ambrose Bierce, you might think that he was the finest fellow to ever grace the halls of American journalism. You would learn that he was a "proponent of civil rights and religious freedom," and that he wrote "many humorous stories." You would find out that his education came from his father's private library, and his moral philosophy from the First Congregational Church of Christ in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio.

And after you found all this stuff out, you would happily bootle off to read "Chickamauga" or "The Incident at Owl Creek Bridge," or even The Devil's Dictionary, (which Bierce was forced to call The Cynic's Word-Book), expecting somebody like Mark Twain. The resulting experience can be compared to being attacked by a riding lawn mower driven by a rabid goat: maybe the wounds will heal, but the humiliation will leave scars.

Ambrose Bierce was the tenth of thirteen Bierce children, all of whom had names beginning with the letter "A." By the time they got to him, Ambrose's parents discovered all the good names had been taken, and that probably tells you everything you need to know about them. They practiced a particularly hellfire form of religion and lived for a while in a religious commune. Ambrose's cynicism developed early, despite attempts on the part of charitable religious types to beat it out of him. (Apparently no one knew yet that cynicism is like meringue -- it gets tougher the more you beat it.)

As soon as he could, he left home and went to work as a gofer in a print shop, a trajectory not unlike Ben Franklin's. Like Franklin, Bierce worked his way up through diverse channels to official journalist, but unlike the optimistic and friendly Ben, he spent the rest of his life picking fights, making friends and just as quickly making them furious, and generally being a social misfit. He even managed to seriously annoy the usually gracious and forgiving W.D. Howells.

Bierce's fiction, particularly his Civil War fiction, is the literary equivalent of a blunt instrument. His criticism is like a scalpel, (wielded by an enraged bull with a toothache and a hangover). He spent the later years of his life as a newspaper editor, whose editorials attacked the usual targets -- politicians, clergymen, local governments -- but also anybody else who stuck their heads up above his horizon -- women, children, other writers (particularly poets), and, weirdly, anarchists.
The trouble with being a pit bull in a suit is that your incessant barking stops having an effect after a while. Attacking people occasionally gives you a reputation for intellectual honesty. Attacking everybody, all the time, just makes you a nuisance. By the second decade of the 20th Century, Bierce's contentiousness had cost him his marriage, his relationships with his children, his relationships with other writers, and a chunk of his reputation as a journalist. In addition, two of his children had died (does this sound familiar?), and he began to hear that small voice of regret in the back of his brain.
In 1913 he decided to go to Mexico, possibly to report on the massive civil unrest there. His last letter, dated December 26, 1913, indicates that he's on his way into the Sonoran Desert with Pancho Villa, of all people, and that is absolutely the last anyone ever hears from him. Oh, people looked, because he was a public figure, and it's not polite to just let those disappear without a trace, but they never found, well, a trace. He wandered off into Mexico and vanished completely. His presumed date of death is sometime early in 1914, but nobody really knows.
Why are we bothering about him now, almost 100 years later? Because Bierce gave voice to a sentiment that will increase to a crescendo after WWI -- the happy ending of fiction is fiction; real life is brutal and likely to remain that way until it ends. The optimism that characterized Emerson has faded faster than a Bierce friendship, in the face of stunning economic, educational, and employment inequalities. It will be a while (think 50 years) before a light begins to glimmer, and even then, we will not regain those lofty Transcendental heights, where the world was beautiful and everyone was good.


  1. It makes me sad that the optimism is allll gone. But reality blows. I think that Bierce was just sick of all the optimistic bull and felt like society needed a swift kick in the rear...which he seems to have happily supplied. I wonder how hard the searchers looked for him in Mexico, however. If he pissed off as many people as you say he did, then I imagine when he disappeared, joyous parties arose that the "wicked witch of the west" was dead. At least his writings weren't burned and they remain today.

  2. I must be just a raging pessimist or something, because I really enjoy Bierce. I think to be a well-balanced person you have to take the good and the bad, then you have to be able to adapt what you read into real life. Perhaps Bierce was slightly off, mentally, this would make a lot of sense as to why he was unable to ever see any good in anybody. Even I can see the good in someone like Bierce.

    Anyway, I like Bierce because he's REAL. He's really gritty and gruesome, if it were modern times I could see him writing for a show like CSI, because his description of a gruesome scene is quite amazing (and disgusting). But that's what society at that time needed to see, that war was not something to glorify...if only everyone in America could read Chickamuga now.

  3. Bierce was tired of the way that soicety was and decided he wanted to make a change and throw everybody for a loop in his writings. When the people looked for him in Mexico they probably didn't look well because he pissed so many people off during his time. There were probably a lot of people ahppy to see him gone.