Quill — November/December 2013
THE LIFE, DEATH AND LEGEND OF AMBROSE BIERCE
One hundred years after his disappearance and presumed death in Mexico, the iconoclastic journalist of his time still intrigues. His pungent and no-holds-barred style of reportage, storytelling and all-out criticism could make even Hunter S. Thompson look tame.
The college student assigned to write a term paper about Ambrose Bierce, one of the most widely read and influential journalists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, will be confronted with a peculiar notation for his lifespan: 1842-1914?
A question mark?
One hundred years ago, the iconoclastic columnist, satirist, short-story writer and selflabeled Curmudgeon Philosopher abruptly abandoned his fame at the age of 71 and headed for Mexico, supposedly to join the rebel army of Pancho Villa in the revolution then raging.
It is widely believed he had a death wish. Others speculate the decorated Civil War veteran who won literary acclaim for his macabre short stories about that war was seeking new literary inspiration.
We’ll never know. He crossed the border at El Paso, Texas, and rode horseback to Chihuahua City. On Dec. 26, 1913, he scribbled a now-legendary note to his nephew’s wife, Lora, in Washington, D.C., which concluded:
“Good-by — If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that 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 then disappeared. After a full century, his fate — like Amelia Earhart’s — remains one of the great unsolved mysteries in American history. That mystery inspired the late Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes to turn his imagination and conjecture loose with his 1985 novel “Gringo Viejo” (“Old Gringo”), adapted into a movie in 1989 with Gregory Peck as Bierce.
What hasn’t disappeared after a century is Bierce’s literary and journalistic legacy. Although not a household name today like his contemporary fellow satirist Mark Twain, Bierce is remembered for his satirical “The Devil’s Dictionary”; for ghoulish and supernatural stories like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “Chickamauga” and “The Damned Thing”; and for a merciless pen that skewered those in power through his “Prattle” column for William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, inspiring a young H.L. Mencken and blazing the trail for later gadfly pundits, from Jack Anderson to Molly Ivins to Jon Stewart.
But compared with Bierce and his pitiless prose, Stewart is a pussycat.
“He did not like hypocrisy at all and was merciless when he found it,” said Nancy Roberts, a journalism professor at the University at Albany who in 2000 assumed authorship of “The Press and America,” the journalism history text of the late Edwin and Michael Emery.
Asked why Bierce is worth remembering a century after his disappearance, Roberts replied: “His career underscores the importance of journalistic outlets, especially newspapers, in developing and supporting humor writing as literary non-fiction and literary journalism. The same is true of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who also wrote some of his most rollicking stuff for newspapers, which allowed him to transcend the rather genteel traditions that constrained book publishing at that time.
“Bierce, of course, had a much more pessimistic vision,” she added, saying that is probably why Clemens’ works have enjoyed a longer shelf life. “Bierce can also be linked to his successors who created literary non-fiction and literary journalism with a satirical edge as social criticism of the American dream, among them Garrison Keillor (‘A Prairie Home Companion’) and Woody Allen.
“None, however, were as despondent as Bierce.”
Not surprisingly, Bierce’s contemporaries labeled him “Bitter Bierce.”
“He was just so weird,” said Norman Sims, an honors professor of journalism history at the University of Massachusetts. “I do consider him a literary journalist for many of the profiles he wrote. Apparently he was a hero in Japan. I guess he was out of step with his times, and that allowed him to write about different things in different ways. He wasn’t Hunter Thompson, but they were both outside the norm, and that can be a good thing when it comes to creativity and literature.”
“I’ve always thought of Bierce as a representative figure, a perfect example of the journalist as writer,” said Tom Connery, who teaches journalism history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. “And write he did — biting satire, engaging fiction, brilliant commentary, perceptive essays, occasionally solid reporting and even a few lines of verse are all part of his legacy. His marvelous, pithy, piercing insights, much of which appear in his ‘Devil’s Dictionary,’ still resonate today.
“But he’s also a representative and influential figure because he was present and active, front and center, at the creation of modern journalism,” Connery added.
“Bierce is a prime example of what we regard as a literary journalist, who used the classic trajectory from reporter to creative writer,” said Amy Lauters, a professor at Minnesota State University and president of the American Journalism Historians Association. “That was the way it was done before journalism was a discipline, to start at the bottom and work your way up.”
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born on a farm in Meigs County, Ohio, on June 24, 1842. He chafed at schooling and his parents’ strict Congregationalist beliefs, but he inherited his father’s love for books and reading.
After a stint as a “printer’s devil,” Bierce moved with his family to Indiana, where the Civil War “rescued” him. He enlisted in the 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, and — unlike Clemens, who deserted from the Confederate army and fled to Nevada Territory — Bierce saw some of the heaviest fighting of the war, was decorated for bravery and rose to lieutenant. He survived Shiloh, Stones River, Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge unscathed, but suffered a severe head wound at Kennesaw Mountain that relegated him to rear-echelon duty for the duration.
Like Ernest Hemingway, James Jones, Kurt Vonnegut and Oliver Stone, his youthful wartime experiences would inspire later creative endeavors.
Roberts went further, linking the war to his caustic cynicism and his gothic, gory fiction.
“I wonder if we’d say, today, that he suffered from PTSD,” she said.
Bierce drifted to San Francisco and began writing. There he developed acquaintances — but not friendships — with Clemens and Bret Harte, whose works he grudgingly admired.
Bierce married an heiress, who bore him two sons and a daughter. He became a columnist for and later editor of the satirical weekly News-Letter. His “Town Crier” column brought Bierce, who had no formal education, public acclaim. The column was quoted in New York and even London. He also published a fiction book, “The Fiend’s Delight,” which brought more acclaim.
The Bierces lived in London from 1873 to 1875, where Bierce expanded his reputation as a wordsmith and social commentator.
Returning to San Francisco in 1877, Bierce became associate editor of a new satirical journal, Argonaut, for which he created the column “The Prattler.” His irreverent opinions and quatrains enraged as many as they delighted, and Bierce always wore a Colt .45 for protection. One of the targets of his criticism confronted him at the Argonaut and began thrashing him, until Bierce pulled out his “equalizer.” Only the hasty intervention of other staffers prevented a murder.
After a brief gold-mining misadventure in Dakota Territory, Bierce and his column, now called “Prattle,” moved to the aptly named satire magazine Wasp. He soon became editor. During this period, he began running offbeat definitions in his column that eventually constituted “The Devil’s Dictionary,” many of which remain eerily relevant today (see sidebar).
KNOCK ON THE DOOR
On a fateful day in 1887, Bierce answered a knock on his door to find a shy, 23-yearold William Randolph Hearst, who obsequiously asked Bierce if he would join the staff of his San Francisco Examiner, which he had just taken over. Thus began one of the most peculiar partnerships in American journalism.
Bierce became Hearst’s star writer — his attack dog, actually — first at the Examiner, then also for Hearst’s New York Journal and later acquisitions. Under their implicit agreement, Bierce had free editorial rein, even if his views clashed with Hearst’s. Occasionally an editor would excise Bierce’s more acerbic or tasteless comments. Bierce would wire his resignation to Hearst, who would routinely reject it, admonish the editor to leave Bierce’s copy alone — and give Bierce a raise to pacify him.
Bierce gleefully attacked anyone and everyone — Democrats, Republicans, organized religion, corrupt politicians and tycoons, Freemasons, unions, socialists, anarchists and suffragettes. He was Bill O’Reilly and Rachel Maddow rolled into one. Yet, he would rise to the defense of oppressed minorities, including blacks, Jews, Irish, Mormons and Chinese.
Though primarily a satirist, Bierce’s shining moment in journalism came with Hearst’s battle in 1896 against Collis P. Huntington, owner of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which had received a $60 million loan from the government in the 1860s but had not repaid a penny of principal or interest. Huntington was lobbying Congress to give the railroad another 83 years of credit.
Hearst dispatched Bierce to Washington to head a team of reporters whose mission was to defeat the measure through what today would be called advocacy journalism. Stung by the crusade, Huntington once accosted Bierce on the steps of the Capitol, brazenly asking him before witnesses how much he wanted in exchange for backing off.
Bierce replied, “My price is $75 million. 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.”
The bill was defeated, and a subsequent law required the railroad to repay the government with interest over 10 years. Bierce returned to San Francisco a hero. In 1899, Hearst moved Bierce to Washington permanently.
Bierce informed Hearst he would not join the tub-thumping for two of his other pet causes, the 1896 and 1900 presidential candidacies of Democrat William Jennings Bryan, whom Bierce regarded as a buffoon, or the editorializing for war with Spain in 1898, which the decorated veteran saw as vulgar jingoism.
Not that Bierce found merit in Bryan’s Republican opponent, William McKinley, who won both times. Bierce castigated both men, for different reasons.
His contempt for McKinley almost proved the undoing for both Bierce and Hearst. Following the assassination of Kentucky Gov. William Goebel in 1900, Bierce wrote this tasteless — and prophetic — quatrain:
The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast Can not be found in all the West. Good reason: It is speeding here To stretch McKinley on his bier.
When an assassin did “stretch McKinley on his bier” in 1901, public outrage erupted against Hearst. His newspapers were burned on the street, and libraries boycotted them. A chastened Bierce protested, unconvincingly, that the poem was a condemnation of all assassinations. Remarkably, Hearst still stood by his notorious bad-boy writer.
Bierce’s journalistic cynicism spilled over into his personal life. He was a neglectful husband and father. His younger son left home at 16, shot and killed a rival in a love affair, then killed himself. Bierce deserted his wife a year later. His older son, 27, died of pneumonia in 1901.
Hearst moved Bierce and his column to his newly acquired magazine, Cosmopolitan, in 1906. Bierce’s productivity declined, and when he submitted his resignation in 1908, this time Hearst accepted it. They never communicated again.
Bierce’s last years were spent writing literary criticism — usually scathing, of course. In 1911 he met Mencken, then 26, at the funeral of Baltimore literary critic Percival Pollard. The two men enjoyed a warm and — for Bierce — respectful correspondence. Mencken, himself fiercely independent, was never Bierce’s protégé, but he acknowledged Bierce’s influence. Mencken was one of those to whom Bierce confided his plans to go to Mexico and perhaps get himself shot.
For two decades after Bierce’s disappearance, investigative journalists and Bierce aficionados went to Mexico to solve the mystery. The U.S. State Department questioned former officers in Pancho Villa’s army, none of whom recognized Bierce’s picture.
Different “witnesses” claimed to different investigators that they had seen Bierce’s execution or had heard of it. The problem is, the witnesses placed the execution in different states, at different time periods and conducted by different factions.
Bierce biographer Richard O’Connor and Don Swaim, who operates The Ambrose Bierce Site (see donswaim.com), both concluded that the most likely scenario is that Bierce accompanied Villa’s forces to the Battle of Ojinaga in January 1914 and was killed and dumped into a mass grave along with hundreds of casualties. Or, his asthma-strained heart simply gave out.
Thus, the mystery of Ambrose Bierce remains just that, as in one of his own stories.
“His work has remained alive today and exemplifies good writing as well as good journalism,” Lauters said. “They are not always the same thing.”
“He certainly is worth remembering,” Connery said.
Perhaps the most fitting epitaph was offered by Bierce’s fellow iconoclast, H.L. Mencken, who later wrote: “Death to him was not something repulsive, but a sort of low comedy — the last act of a squalid and rib-rocking buffoonery. When, grown old and weary, he departed for Mexico, and there — if legend is to be believed — marched into the revolution then going on, and had himself shot, there was certainly nothing in the transaction to surprise his acquaintances. The whole thing was typically Biercian. He died happy, one may be sure, if his executioners made a botch of dispatching him — if there was a flash of the grotesque at the end.”
Robert Buckman is an associate professor of communication and SPJ faculty adviser at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.