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Cynic’s Progress

The brave life and mysterious death of Ambrose Bierce.

Dec 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 16 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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One golden autumn morning 100 years ago, a few blocks from where I’m writing these words in northwest Washington, D.C., Ambrose Bierce said goodbye to his secretary, turned the key in the door to his apartment on Logan Circle, and went off to God knows where.

The Huntington Library

The Huntington Library

I’m not speaking figuratively: God and nobody else knows where Ambrose Bierce ended up—or when, how, or why. He had taken September and early October to settle his personal affairs, as people used to say. His literary affairs had been settled with the publication of his collected works, more than a million words packed into 12 volumes and assembled over a period of five years, which signaled his official exit from the writing life. His two sons were dead, his estranged wife was dead, and his daughter Helen, though not quite estranged, had built a life for herself a safe distance from him, in the Midwest. 

Bierce sent Helen a letter before he left Washington. He told her he wanted to walk the battlefields where he had fought 50 years before as a first lieutenant in the 9th Indiana Infantry. He wanted to look a last time at Kennesaw Mountain, Chickamauga, Franklin, Nashville, Missionary Ridge, and Murfreesboro. Then, he said, he would turn further south, into Mexico, to see firsthand the Mexican civil war and its most romantic figure, the revolutionary Pancho Villa, who had struck his interest. From there, he’d move on to South America. 

Over the next few weeks Helen, his secretary Carrie Christiansen, and a handful of friends received notes postmarked along his winding route from West Virginia through Tennessee into Alabama and Georgia. In early November a newspaper reporter caught up with him in New Orleans: “Ambrose Bierce, famed writer and noted critic, has arrived,” the young man wrote, in a breathless scoop. Bierce sat for an interview. He was off to Mexico, he said, because “I like the game. I like the fighting.” Then, the reporter observed, his “straightforward blue eyes” took on a “faraway look” as the old man mused about the journey ahead. “There are so many things that might happen .  .  .” 

He was a 71-year-old asthmatic who spoke not a word of Spanish traveling to a Mexican war zone with $1,800 folded into a bulging money belt. So yes, there were many, many things that might happen. On December 26, he sent Carrie Christiansen a letter from Chihuahua, 200 miles south of the border, telling her he hoped to hook up with Villa’s forces the next day, and disappeared.

"We have produced but one genuine wit,” H. L. Mencken wrote, in a survey of American letters: “Ambrose Bierce. And save to a small circle he is unknown today.” Mencken was writing decades after Bierce had gone off to Mexico, by which time his life was best remembered for the way he had left it. And the circle of those who read him is even smaller now, needless to say. When the Library of America finally got around to issuing a canonical selection of his writing, in 2011, the single volume (Philip Roth got nine!) was relatively slender; it was the 219th in the library’s series of great American writers. 

His fame was not general, even at its most robust. Those who admired him, mostly his fellow writers, admired him extravagantly. He was a “writer’s writer,” in the deadly phrase. The tributes from William Gladstone, Arnold Bennett, Bret Harte, and many other popular and learned literary men shared a common thread: Why, they all asked, wasn’t Bierce better known? Bierce himself ached for fame as awfully as any writer, but was, in time, amused by the strange status he had achieved: He was famous for not being famous. He wrote to a friend toward the end of his life:

How many times, and during a period of how many years must one’s unexplainable obscurity be pointed out to constitute fame? Not knowing, I am almost disposed to consider myself the most famous of authors. I have pretty nearly ceased to be “discovered,” but my notoriety as an obscurian may be said to be worldwide and everlasting.

The problem with “writers’ writers”—as many readers have discovered—is that they are seldom “readers’ writers.” It depends on the readers as much as the writers, of course, and today’s readers might find they have caught up to Bierce’s jaded view of war, politics, romantic love, religion, family life, and nearly everything else. When he is remembered these days it is usually for the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which, until recently, was one of a handful of short stories—along with “The Lottery,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” “To Build a Fire,” and a few others—that no student could escape an American high school without having pretended to read.

His witticisms, which were of a very high order, reappear sometimes, too. His best aphorisms in The Devil’s Dictionary are easily a match for La Rochefoucauld, maybe even Voltaire. His most reprinted book review consists of a single sentence: “The covers of this book are too far apart.” When a young mother pestered him for advice on bringing up children, he finally replied: “Study Herod, madam. Study Herod.” Democracy he defined as “four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” At the death of a local politician, Bierce volunteered the epitaph: “Here lies Frank Pixley, as usual.” Disdainful of philosophical pretension, he rewrote Descartes’s axiom as “Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum”: “I think I think, therefore I think I am.”

But he earned the right to be read and remembered for more than his cleverness, sharp as it was—especially now, on the 100th anniversary of his curious exit and in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. He served in the war with great distinction, and, in the decades that followed, he came closer than any other American to turning the great national cataclysm into art. 

 Bierce was a journalist all his life. Like so many journalists, he daydreamed of a higher calling that might win him a place at the grownups’ table, to preen with the poets and essayists and dramatists. But he never pretended to being more than a scribbler. “I concluded one day that I was not a poet,” he wrote a friend. “It was the bitterest moment of my life.” 

 

He was born in 1842 and grew up on the lake-scattered glacial plain of northern Indiana. Both his parents traced their roots back to the Mayflower, but what the next century would call the “American Dream” failed to work its magic for them, and the family barely managed to scrape out a living on their hardscrabble farm. Ambrose was one of 13 children, each of whom his parents insisted on tagging with a name beginning with “A” (Aurelius, Almeda, Augustus .  .  . ). Schooling was intermittent. As the youngest child, he detached himself from his brothers and sisters, spending most of his time alone, wandering the woods and burying himself in books. For reasons Ambrose could never discern, his father, an otherwise unimaginative man, kept a bookshelf full of classics, from Addison to Cervantes. 

“All that I have I owe to his books,” he said.

At 15, Ambrose left his family to work as a printer’s helper at an abolitionist newspaper in a nearby town. A year later he joined the timeless Hoosier Diaspora of young men and women whose chief relation to their home state is an irresistible urge to leave it—a group whose ever-swelling ranks have come to include both Abraham Lincoln and Michael Jackson. He escaped Indiana for glamorous Akron, Ohio, to live with an uncle, another devoted abolitionist, who a few years before had generously provided John Brown with the broadswords he used to hack his way through bleeding Kansas. Political connections enabled the uncle to win Ambrose a coveted slot at the Kentucky Military Institute. There, the boy acquired the military skills, chiefly in map-making and ordnance, that would come in handy when war broke out, which it did at the end of his freshman year. 

Bierce returned to Indiana to answer Lincoln’s call for troops in April 1861. When his three-month stint was up, he signed on for two years more. Rising steadily in rank and cited often for valor, he remained in uniform for the rest of the Civil War. Little of the experience of war escaped him: shameless retreats, hopeless charges, courage, stupidity, confusion, terror, camaraderie, and endless slaughter. He was wounded at least twice before the battle of Kennesaw Mountain, when a bullet to the left temple lodged behind his ear, cracking his head open “like a walnut,” he wrote later, in a phrase that captures his peculiar blend of detachment and precision. Eventually he was forced to return to Indiana for convalescence. He left again as soon as he could.

By then the war was effectively over, though of course he could never quite get over it. His rise from enlisted man to officer gave Bierce a vertical view of how men made decisions of life and death under the most miserable conditions. What he saw year after year only confirmed his native cynicism. Stupidity made a deeper impression on him than physical courage, perhaps because he himself had so much more of the latter than the former. The blundering of generals fed his distrust of authority. 

Shiloh, for instance, shocked him less for the appalling carnage than for General Grant’s “astonishing fatuity,” which had caused it. Later, the siege of Corinth, a rebel-held town in Mississippi, offered him a more amusing, and less bloody, example of war’s grim inversions and ironies. At Corinth, the fatuity belonged to Henry Halleck, who lobbed cannon fire and men into the siege on the belief that the town was a rebel stronghold. In fact, the rebel force had already retreated, and when Federal troops, including Bierce’s Hoosiers, finally overran the town after a long and hurried march, they found (as his biographer Roy Morris Jr. tells us) nothing but straw men leaned up against dummy artillery. The enemy had painted the straw men with grotesque, taunting grins. Bierce took it as eloquent commentary. And Halleck, for his part, informed his superiors in Washington that the nonaction at Corinth had been a “victory as brilliant and important as any recorded in history.”

After the war, Bierce accepted a commission as a cartographer with a cavalry division headed to the far West. Several biographers report that he could have made a career in the military, having built a sterling reputation; but when the expedition reached San Francisco he refused a promotion, left the Army, and took a job as a watchman in the federal mint—a position he shared with Bret Harte—in a building where another itinerant from the Midwest, Mark Twain, also worked. At the mint, Bierce would read through the night every night and write in the off-hours. He was soon published, and in less than a year he was offered the editorship of a local paper. It was a perfect match of time, place, job, and man.

A journalist in San Francisco after the Civil War found himself in a position rather like a newspaperman in competition with the Internet today. The town was small, insular, and remote enough that readers often knew the local news before it could be printed. The hacks, therefore, had to devise other attractions to bring in customers. Pith and outrage, often artificial, were prized above mere information. Scandals had to be exposed or, if necessary, invented; and personages, especially other newspapermen, had to be traduced. 

“I mean to refine the styles of such journalists as I can,” Bierce announced, “and assassinate the rest.” He was joking, though it’s true that violence among journalists and readers was common. (Here, unfortunately, the likeness between journalism then and now breaks down.) Bierce took to wearing a sidearm after a newsroom confrontation with an irate reader whose wife had been on the unflattering end of a jape. When the well of libel and slander ran dry, Bierce and his colleagues filled their columns with short stories, poetry, hoaxes, one-act plays, jokes, tall tales, fables, faked memoirs, and epigrams. Bierce, writing constantly, proved himself skilled at every form, performing best at high heat. 

Read today, most of this stuff gets tiresome pretty quickly—there’s a reason we call our product “fishwrap”—but the bottomless maw of column inches forced Bierce to acquire a technical command that made possible his much more enduring work. Except for a four-year stint in London, thanks to a pretty young heiress he married in 1871, Bierce stayed in California for nearly 30 years, where he was known as “Bitter Bierce” or, lamely, “The Wickedest Man in San Francisco.” He broadened his scope to include national affairs, especially after he was hired by the young William Randolph Hearst, and his columns gained an audience far beyond the Bay. 

The best-known adventure from his newspapering was also the least typical. He and Hearst had nothing in common politically except a vague revulsion for the crony capitalism of the Gilded Age and a more pointed hatred for the cronies themselves. The fattest target among the Railrogues, as Bierce called them, was Collis P. Huntington, chairman of the Southern and Central Pacific railroads, and the richest man in California. A useful percentage of Huntington’s fortune fell into the pockets of congressmen and senators in Washington, and when Congress floated a bill relieving him and his railroad of a $75 million debt to the federal government (a loan on which Huntington’s riches had been built), it was assumed that it would pass easily.

Hearst’s newspapers exploded. The publisher sent Bierce to Washington to front a relentless campaign to kill Huntington’s bill. Bierce directed a team of reporters and wrote every day himself, sometimes twice a day, always in high spirits: “Mr. Huntington is not altogether bad,” went a throwaway line in a typical column. “He says ugly things of the enemy, but he has the tenderness to be careful that they are mostly lies.” 

Incredibly, after months of daily coverage, Bierce and Hearst succeeded—an early sign that the Gilded Age had run its course. The bill was withdrawn, though not before Huntington confronted Bierce on the steps of the Capitol among a scrum of reporters. 

“Name your price,” Huntington demanded, insisting that Bierce call off his campaign. “Every man has a price.”

“My price,” Bierce responded cinematically, “is $75 million, handed over to the Treasury of the United States.”

His words flew instantly around the country, thanks to his colleagues and the transcontinental telegraph, and for years thereafter the episode led people to think Bierce was a reformer—perhaps even a progressive. A generation later, many muckrakers claimed him as their inspiration. But they got him wrong. Bierce had no positive program of his own; he just hated Collis P. Huntington, and his method was satire and ridicule. He rarely fell into the muckraker’s oppressive tone of humorless dudgeon. Imagine Upton Sinclair cracking wise. 

It helped, too, that Bierce’s own politics were flexible. His one abiding principle was a horror of socialism. Capitalism alone could accommodate human striving and ambition—the Darwinian means for improving our lot. To a young socialist friend, he wrote: “Do away with the desire to excel and you may set up your Socialism at once. But what kind of a race of sloths and slugs will you have?” 

The reformers and progressives of his day missed the genius of the country. Even in the America of the corporate trust, Bierce wrote, “the number of actual and possible sources of profit and methods of distinction is infinite. Not all the trusts in the world combined in one trust of trusts could appreciably reduce it—could condemn to permanent failure one man with the talent and the will to succeed.”

 

As a journalist, Bierce was most comfortable in opposition, and he swung his cutlass along a wide arc. The Library of America neglected his writing on current affairs, but it’s remarkable how fresh and pleasing—how contemporary—so much of it is. Consider his view of William Jennings Bryan, a cavernous blowhard untouched by any genuine accomplishment who managed to rise to the top of American politics on the basis of a single speech to a national political convention. Any resemblance to any contemporary politician is—well, it’s uncanny is what it is. 

A week before the convention of 1896 William J. Bryan had never heard of himself; upon his natural obscurity was superposed the opacity of a Congressional service that effaced him from the memory of even his faithful dog, and made him immune to dunning. Today he is pinnacled upon the summit of the tallest political distinction, gasping in the thin atmosphere of his unfamiliar environment and fitly astonished at the mischance. To the dizzy elevation of his candidacy he was hoisted out of the shadow by his own tongue, the longest and liveliest in Christendom. Had he held it—which he could not have done with both hands—there had been no Bryan. His creation was the unstudied act of his own larynx; it said, “Let there be Bryan,” and there was Bryan.

You hear strains of Ambrose Bierce in the best of the political writers who came after him, from Mencken to Murray Kempton. But it was his memory of the past, of the Civil War, that drove him to his highest achievements as a writer. He had the field to himself. As the best of his biographers, Roy Morris Jr., has pointed out, he was the only American writer of any consequence to fight in the war. The future men of letters of his generation managed somehow to be elsewhere when the bodies began piling up. William Dean Howells spent the 1860s in Venice. Twain, after a fortnight with the Confederate Army, went as far west as he could get. And the two Henrys, James and Adams, watched the carnage from afar, Adams from London, and James from the killing fields of Harvard Yard. 

Anyone hoping for an artist’s firsthand view of the Civil War, then, is left with Bierce, and he’s enough. His memoir-essays carry titles such as “What Occurred at Franklin,” “A Little of Chickamauga,” “What I Saw at Shiloh.” The flatness of the titles is misleading, and so is the affectless voice with which the narrator relates unspeakable horror—until, most often, he quits on a tone of resignation, or bitterness, or dark humor. His memoir of Shiloh describes the aftermath of another platoon’s absurd charge full-on into enemy fire. Bierce leads his own troops through the bodies, lingering over one in particular, 

a Federal sergeant, variously hurt, who had been a fine giant in his time. He lay face upward, taking in his breath in convulsive, rattling snorts, and blowing it out in sputters of froth which crawled creamily down his cheeks, piling itself alongside his neck and ears. .  .  . [T]he brain protruded in bosses, dropping off in flakes and strings. I had not previously known one could get on, even in this unsatisfactory fashion, with so little brain. One of my men, whom I knew for a womanish fellow, asked if he should put his bayonet through him. Inexpressibly shocked by the cold-blooded proposal, I told him I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.

This last line is not just an ironic nod toward nicety; it’s a comment about the hypocrisy of etiquette itself: You might consider putting the sergeant out of his misery, but not in public. Bierce leaves us with layer upon hopeless layer of human folly. Later, he describes a band of deserters who, having fled the enemy in terror, now face a firing squad of their own comrades with perfect poise. Only in battle could such an unthinkable inversion occur: “An army’s bravest men are its cowards.” He closes with the wish that he had been among the dead at Shiloh, spared “the ugliness of the longer and tamer life.”

 It’s been a century now since Bierce’s kind of cynicism—since Wilfred Owen and Erich Maria Remarque and other veterans of the First World War—took hold as the prevailing theme of the literature of combat. From All Quiet on the Western Front to The Naked and the Dead to Dispatches, this view has become commonplace, even compulsory, for anyone who hopes to be praised for writing about war. But we can only imagine how perverse Bierce’s work seemed to a public still celebrating the Grand Army of the Republic, mourning the martyred Lincoln, and tearing up whenever “Just Before the Battle, Mother” oozed from the player piano. It’s a wonder that Mencken and Bennett ever questioned why Bierce failed to win a large audience. For better and worse, he was suited much more to our day than to his own.

 

Even so, in Bierce’s recollections you sense a frustration, or a holding back, as though he hasn’t quite conveyed to you the absurdity of what he saw across three years of war. For this he turned to fiction. Bierce’s hundreds of short stories, unsurprisingly, make an uneven corpus. Outside of his newspapering, he was a genre writer. He wrote ghost stories, horror stories, science fiction, tales of the supernatural—fiction that gets its locomotion from mechanical tricks rather than from plausible incident or depth of character. This may have been a necessity, since, as a writer of stories, Bierce seemed incapable of penetrating the human heart, which he often admitted was not his own most sensitive organ. His most developed character, said Clifton Fadiman, was Death. 

Bierce was able to make these limitations work for him, as a master of craft. Edmund Wilson, his most discerning admirer, said that in Bierce’s best stories, through his command of pacing and physical description, he could goad the reader into experiencing, as if firsthand, the very events he was describing—a perfect example of the axiom that a story-teller must show and not tell. 

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” follows a condemned man called Peyton who escapes from the gallows when the hangman’s noose breaks—or so Peyton and the reader think. He makes for home through lush countryside, lushly described, as he daydreams of his waiting wife—until nightfall, when Bierce’s lyricism darkens. Peyton hears voices murmuring in unknown tongues. He sees the stars above wheeling “in some order which had a secret and malign significance.” From resignation to relief to joy to alarm to—the inevitable appearance of Bierce’s most developed character. The sudden shock that Peyton feels at story’s end is only a bit greater than the reader’s, though more terminal.

Fadiman was right about Death. But the rival character in Bierce’s war fiction is Bierce himself—the hovering presence who only makes himself felt by indirection. Bierce’s greatest story, “Chickamauga,” is his most unsettling, if so mild a word can be used for a story that places a 6-year-old boy in the smoking landscape of a just-finished battle. The boy has wandered off from home with his little wooden sword, playing war through the countryside against imaginary foes, and, after a while, he falls asleep. When he wakes, he sees dozens of men in tatters, moving through the denuded forest on their hands and knees, crawling toward water: “He moved among them freely .  .  . peering into their faces with childish curiosity.” Their faces are streaked in red: “Something in this—something too, perhaps, in their grotesque attitudes and movements—reminded him of the painted clown whom he had seen last summer in the circus, and he laughed as he watched them.” Playfully, he tries to mount one of the dying men as a horse, as he does with field hands back at the farm. “To him it was a merry spectacle.”

At last the boy decides to lead the shattered men as though they were his army, raising his make-believe sword and marching gaily at their front, toward a glowing light at the forest’s edge, where even worse awaits. 

Reading “Chickamauga,” feeling almost pummeled by the horror, you begin to suspect that Bierce isn’t horrified at all. Our author, not merely the reporter of this scene but its creator, is simply observing it. He has placed himself in relation to the reader just as he supposes God has placed himself in relation to the men Bierce watched die in the war and, finally, to all of us: passionless and detached, clinically interested but personally indifferent, and, above all, amused. The effect of the story, when it builds and breaks, is almost unbearable, bordering on sadism—undeniably the result of a heightened artistry that few writers on war and warfare have been permitted to achieve.

 Spring arrived in Washington before Bierce’s secretary accepted the obvious and wrote the American consulate in Chihuahua. The consul replied that he had no record of Ambrose Bierce visiting the city. American reporters returning from the Mexican civil war were no help, either. A few had seen Bierce near the border around Christmastime, but no one had seen him later, or further south. It was late summer before Carrie Christiansen allowed a friendly reporter to break the news that Bierce had gone missing, and the story was picked up around the world.

 

By the time Helen had her father declared legally dead, in 1921, his disappearance had long since been swallowed up in legend and romance. For a generation, the fate of Ambrose Bierce was a hardy perennial of American newspapers and magazines. Every few years some editor would drain the newsroom travel budget to send a star reporter southward to find him. They always came up with something—everything but their prey. 

The border region and precincts even further south produced many willing witnesses who had seen Bierce alive, though never in the same place and at the same time. Others had witnessed his execution, or sat by his deathbed, or stood with him as he tried vainly to fight his way through a gang of bloodthirsty banditos. Or they had watched helplessly as he took his own life before some fatal disease could do it for him. Still more people, not having seen Bierce themselves, knew someone—the friend of a brother’s friend, the aunt of a next-door neighbor—who had. 

The theories grew exotic. One psychic, noting the disappearance in Mexico of another notable American named Ambrose, published a book explaining that Bierce had been sucked into a supernatural vortex that specifically targeted men named Ambrose. During World War I a British newspaper reported that he was alive and well and advising Lord Kitchener on military matters. Sightings of an ambulatory Ambrose were reported long past the point of his natural lifespan: As recently as the 1940s he was identified as a patient in an insane asylum in Northern California. The publisher who had brought out Bierce’s collected works said that the Mexican disappearance was a hoax: He theorized that Bierce had run off to commit suicide in a remote corner of the Grand Canyon, where he could rot in peace. 

He was far more famous in death than he had been in life, and all his biographers say he would have enjoyed the fact hugely. Maybe, or maybe not. In time, collections were made of his letters, and readers soon noticed how many of his last messages mentioned his own death. He seemed particularly taken with the idea of running afoul of the Mexican revolutionaries—“set up against a wall and shot to rags”—but we’ll never know whether he got his wish. 

One of his last letters was to a friend, a young woman. “May you live as long as you want to,” he wrote, with the implication: and not a moment longer. In any event, he hoped she would go as he hoped to, passing “smilingly into the darkness, the good, good darkness.” Home at last.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

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