The man who gave the world The Devil's Dictionary will always be an enigma, which is just as it should be, since he worked damned hard at being one. Born in Ohio, he made himself into a recognisably modern Californian, a hundred years before there were any. His spirit was dimmed by a truly terrible war and kindled again by the adoration of hordes of women, though he always cultivated the reputation of an incorrigible misogynist. In the end, he contrived an exit from this world so romantic that it sustains his myth to this day.
Ambrose Bierce's life story reads like an outrageous Boy's Own fantasy, but the prime source of his fame is nonetheless a deliciously provocative little book1. As the mood took him, Bierce had the power to charm cynics or to embitter angels. That power lives on in his dictionary, a must-read for anyone who prefers to observe humanity from the other side of the street.
n. the first and direst of all disasters
Ambrose Gwynett Bierce was the tenth child in a very large family, born in 1842 on a farmstead near Horse Cave Creek in Meigs County and then raised on another one in northern Indiana. His father was notably devout, and yet somehow acquired the name of a celebrated pagan, Marcus Aurelius. All 13 of his offspring were dutifully Christened with a name beginning with the letter 'A'.
After a single year in high school, the young Bierce experienced a second immersion, and this time it was in ink. He was apprenticed to a printer, and so began a lifelong association with the press. The firm's publications were almost exclusively anti-slavery newspapers and bills, and it is a measure of the place and time that a business could be sustained on such a narrow platform. Bierce had no qualms about it. His politics were emphatically those of the Unionist and, as the nation descended into Civil War, he was quick and keen to enlist.
n. a method of untying with the teeth a political knot that would not yield to the tongue
Four years later at the age of twenty-three, Bierce left the army with the reputation of a war hero, a bullet lodged in his skull and the raw material for a literary career. He was a veteran of several notorious battles, including two in Shiloh and Chickamauga that stand among the most brutal and pitiless confrontations in the history of the world. His written accounts of the latter are to prose what Sassoon's and Owen's works are to poetry: a definitive evocation of the horror and futility of war.
Though the image he later cultivated belies it, wartime experiences left Bierce close to a breakdown, and peacetime ones were little better. He took a job as a treasury agent in Alabama, but soon realised that his beloved cause was now being sullied by Yankee carpetbaggers bent on exploitation in the South. Watched over by his former commanding officer, General William B. Hazen, the dangerously indignant Bierce was taken off on an inspection tour of Western forts. The anger didn't recede, however, and Hazen's feeding hand was soon typically bitten. Bierce resigned his temporary commission in San Francisco, leaving himself unemployed and broke a thousand miles from anywhere he could conceivably call home.
He did the only thing he could. He stayed. It was an inspired move.
n. a writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words
What do you do if you have a gift for expression, worldliness bordering on cynicism and the fresh perspective of a newcomer in town? You try your hand at journalism, of course.
Bierce was a brilliant writer in many genres, but pithy social commentary was a spontaneous forte. The young man soon found both income and solace through contributing to periodicals. He struck a chord with people both on the page and in the flesh. As his reputation grew, he was sought first as a reviewer and then as an editor, and by 1870 he was established as an arbiter of Californian society and fashion. There are so many such media figures nowadays that the role seems unremarkable, but in those days Bierce was unique.
He was also a mass of contradictions. On matters he considered trivial, his stance was flagrantly inconsistent while on his points of moral principle he was unswerving. He could be urbane one moment and bohemian the next. He rehearsed his unpredictability and he often set out to offend with calculated precision.
n. one of the opposing, or unfair, sex
Bierce was also very good looking. He was tall and exuded fitness (although he was asthmatic and drank excessively). He had fair flowing hair and a magnificent moustache, and his practised ambiguity included a palpably bogus dislike of women. This all meant, of course, that he never wanted for female admirers.
In 1871, one of these became his bride. Her name was Mollie Day, and she hailed from a wealthy mining family. The couple's love was genuine, and three children came of it, but Ambrose Bierce lived his whole life in short-story format and being part of a saga was never going to suit him. They would eventually part in 1888, ostensibly because of her dalliance with a Danish sailor, but in all probability the balance of infidelity was heavily skewed the other way.
In the early years of marriage, however, came travel. Bierce spent three years in London, consolidating his reputation as a writer though forgoing the easy earnings of California. Failing finances and a third pregnancy finally drew the couple back to San Francisco, but not before Bierce's first real literary efforts appeared. Short stories of the period would eventually be revised and add fiction-writing to the genres in which Bierce is acknowledged today as a master. In some indeed, he is considered a pioneer as well as a master, not least the fictionalised account of real events, the precursor of the modern style of dramatised documentary.
n. the offspring of a liaison between a bald head and a bank account
California then, as now, was a fickle place and Bierce's expectations of picking up where he left off proved to be optimistic. He struggled for some while to restore his erstwhile kudos, even making a typically impulsive foray into mine management among the rough and ready Black Hills of Dakota. The enterprise failed, though not before Bierce had obtained his periodic fix of whizzing bullets. Suitably rejuvenated, he returned to California and began to climb the society ladder again. It was in this period that he started to write the Dictionary, though there was no intention at this early stage to produce a comprehensive work. By 1881, Bierce had a new editorship, of a satirical journal called the Wasp. Nearly a hundred twenty-word clutches of definitions appeared in it down the years, all of them destined later to become part of their author's most celebrated work.
In 1887, Bierce met the man who would finally and permanently assure his fame. William Randolph Hearst was Harvard-educated and politically connected, but he was also the first press baron to target sensationalist journalism. Bierce was mistrustful at first, but the temptation of the stage proved too great for the showman. Moral aloofness was short-lived, and Bierce was soon providing columns and editorials for Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. The public lapped him up, and the proprietor positively encouraged controversy. Bierce did not disappoint him. The peerless opinion-former was back to stay.
n. the fame of one's competitor for public honors
Bierce next pioneered another nowadays well-trodden literary path. Personal recklessness as a fount of writing greatness was as yet the exclusive preserve of a few European romantic poets, but the world's first great journalist now began to occupy the same territory.
The death of his younger son by suicide, a matter of months after shooting a love-rival, was a significant factor in the shift in Bierce's behaviour. It would be some time before this became manifest in literal life-risks (unless you count the depredation of the bottle), but career-risks now appeared to mean nothing to Bierce. The power of Hearst and his own formidable aura of righteousness somehow steered him clear of any libel suit. People he merely disliked were subjected to glorious invective. Perversely, these victims were left with little alternative but to revel in it. Being attacked by 'Bitter Bierce' acquired a social cachet, and so yet another timeworn trait of the modern media first appeared as a fresh and interesting phenomenon in 1890s San Francisco.
There were people who were subjected to more than antagonism, though. Bierce remained a deeply moral man throughout his life. Those few he blamed for major wrongs were counted legitimate targets for systematic destruction, and the most famous of these was Collis P. Huntington.
n. gentle reproof, as with a meat-axe
Huntington was one of the last surviving examples of Bierce's reviled band of post-Civil War carpetbaggers. His railroad company owed millions loaned by Lincoln's government. Hearst hated Huntington too, though this was mainly a consequence of rivalry for political office, and so he encouraged Bierce to go on the attack when Congressmen sympathetic to Huntington sponsored a bill in Congress aimed at writing off three-quarters of his debt.
Bierce's copy, sustained for weeks and soon syndicated nationwide, remains to this day a strong contender for the most devastating journalistic campaign of all time. Huntington tried everything to repel it, including threats of litigation that would have scared off any newspaper proprietor less powerful and wealthy than Hearst. The damning barrage continued unabated, mixing reasoned factual condemnation with zealous vitriol, until Huntington attempted the ultimate folly of trying to buy his persecutor off. Bierce then calmly published his response as the coup de grace. 'My price', he declared across the length and breadth of the nation, 'is seventy-five million dollars. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you can hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States'.
The bill was withdrawn and Huntington disappeared forever from the political scene.
A toy which people cry for,
And on their knees apply for,
Dispute, contend and lie for,
And if allowed
Would be right proud
Eternally to die for.
The great man wrote bitterly on, but he was not happy. In 1901, his second son died of pneumonia, to be followed in 1905 by his estranged wife Molly. Bierce confided in his surviving daughter that he still loved her mother.
The writing lost none of its mercurial quality, and the dictionary progressively came together throughout the first decade of the 20th Century. So too did collections of past work, much of it improved hugely from its original published form. Like all journalists, Bierce lived by the copy deadline, but like very few he continued to refine the pieces he thought important long after their first appearance2. In some cases, the outcome is no longer a straightforward factual account of events, since painstaking detail is mixed with improbable fantasy. Two World Wars would pass before any writer revisited the genre of magical reality.
When a man in his seventies decides that it's time to relive his past by lending his arm to a revolution, it is reasonable to surmise that he is more than ready to die. In the autumn of 1913, Bierce told various acquaintances that he was going to Mexico to personally witness the struggle of Pancho Villa's rebels against Diaz's dictatorship. Some interpreted the plan as a search for fresh controversy, while others saw it as a straightforward deathwish. Bierce went by a roundabout route, visiting Civil War battlefields including Chickamauga as if in a final act of exorcism of his ghosts. On Boxing Day he sent a letter to his secretary from Chihuahua. In it, he said that he would travel the next day to Ojinaga, the scene of a fierce siege at which Villa eventually prevailed over defending federal troopers on January 1st.
That letter was the last trace of Ambrose Bierce. No sign of him, alive or dead, has ever been confirmed thereafter. Theories abound, some heroic and some banal, but the one thing that seems irrefutable is that an enigmatic man had decided on a fitting way to go.
n. a gift from one who is legging it out of this vale of tears
Hemingway is revered among adventurers, Swift among satirists and Johnson among lexicographers. Ambrose Bierce has strong claims to all areas, and arguably matches each and every one of these great men as a writer.
Perhaps his most significant legacy, though, is as a trailblazer in journalism. It's a much-maligned calling nowadays. Bierce wasn't blameless: he was vain and sometimes succumbed to misanthropy. Be that as it may, his integrity and courage are without stain, and his ability to project his readers into his own place and time stands the test of a century of change.