Spending an afternoon
with the master of the invective
There are days when I think sarcasm rules the contemporary world. Sarcasm, satire, cynicism, skepticism -- you get the picture. But then, I think of "Bitter Bierce," and I know everyone since him has been nothing more than a pretentious amateur.
The master of invective writing was Ambrose Bierce.
Here is a brief (and probably boring) biography: Bierce was born on June 24, 1842, in Horse Cave, Ohio. He was the 10th of 13 children. The primary influences in his early life were his father, his father's library and an uncle, General Lucius Bierce. He briefly attended the Kentucky Military Institute.
Bierce enlisted in the Ninth Indiana Infantry at the outbreak of the Civil War, just before his 19th birthday. His battle record is remarkable, and includes Philippi, Shiloh, Corinth, Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge and Franklin. He suffered a severe head wound at Kennesaw Mountain in 1864, and was hospitalized for months. After the war, he was part of a small military inspection group that, on horseback and by wagon, crossed Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana, and then turned south to California. The places he saw and the people he met on the way could fill a book, but he wrote hardly a word of this incredible journey.
His writing habits changed during the next four decades. Bierce wrote dozens of short stories (perhaps the best known is, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," hundreds of essays and a few thousand newspaper columns -- among other things. His most recognizable work probably is, "The Devil's Dictionary." He lived in England for a few years. For a few months, he was manager of a gold mine in the Black Hills of South Dakota. But, he spent most of his adult life living and working in San Francisco.
In the fall of 1913, Bierce paid a final visit to a number of his old Civil War battlefields. His plan was to enter Mexico, find Pancho Villa and witness first-hand the Mexican revolution. He passed over the Mexican border in late autumn, and wrote one last letter on December 26. Bierce then disappeared. He was 71 years of age. Despite the many rumors and hypotheses concerning his death, nothing substantial is known about his final living days on earth.
Some biographies of Bierce's life include: "Alone in Bad Company," by Roy Morris, Jr. (1995); "Bitter Bierce," by C. Hartley Grattan (1929); and "Portrait of Ambrose Bierce," by Adolphe de Castro (1929). One of the more entertaining (if not accurate) accounts about the disappearance of Bierce is a work of fiction entitled, "Old Gringo," by Carlos Fuentes. A very well done movie of that novel was made with Gregory Peck as Bierce. Jane Fonda and Jimmy Smits had supporting roles.
Now, why am I writing about Bierce? I have no idea, other than to say that for the past few days I've really been thinking about sarcasm, satire, cynicism and skepticism, and it's relevance to contemporary society and, once again, "Bitter Bierce" is the all-time master of the invective. Maybe someone will read this commentary and become interested enough in Bierce to read some of his short stories. He wrote a number of them I would consider classics.
He is such a fascinating and perplexing character that I would include him on my list of the three people from history (from "before my time") who I would most like to interview. All right. To be honest, by interview I mean to spend an afternoon with him, asking him questions and listening to him talk about his life, while we both proceed to get drunk. Guy thing; reporter thing; truth-teller thing.
From "The Devil's Dictionary," by Ambrose Bierce:
ABSURDITY, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion.
ELOQUENCE, n. The art of orally persuading fools that white is the color that it appears to be. It includes the gift of making any color appear white.
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.
CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.
Music Note: None; currently sort of watching "Somewhere in Time" on television ....