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Contrary to rumor and speculation, Ambrose Bierce was not in league with the devil. Bierce earned the nickname “The Wickedest Man in San Francisco” not by indulging in acts of depravity himself, but by recording the sins and follies of his fellow man. As a columnist for the San Francisco Examiner and other newspapers, he heaped scorn upon the scoundrels infesting late nineteenth-century America. In his best work, however, Bierce relied less on venom than on a wit sharp enough to cut glass. For evidence, one needs only to page through a copy of his greatest satire, The Devil’s Dictionary, and read its caustic definitions of familiar words: “Apologize, v.i. To lay the foundation for a future offence”; “Positive, adj. Mistaken at the top of one’s voice”; “Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited”; “Self-evident, adj. Evident to one’s self and to nobody else”; “Truce, n. Friendship.” Today The Devil’s Dictionary is one of the most oft-quoted works in all of American literature, and surely one of the most beguiling. Yet beneath the cynical humor lies another reason for its enduring popularity. Bierce made a career out of telling the truth, no matter how disturbing, and his dictionary remains one of the most unflinchingly honest books ever written about human nature.
The life of Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?) began unhappily. Born in Ohio and reared on Indiana farmland, he was the tenth of thirteen children belonging to Marcus Aurelius and Laura Bierce. Bierce hated his rural environment and found his parents’ devout Christianity oppressive. His misery was alleviated in part by his father’s home library, which offered the precocious youth a better education than did the crude lessons he endured at the local schoolhouse. At eighteen, Bierce escaped the farming life forever when he volunteered for the Union Army at the outbreak of the Civil War. Serving first as an infantryman and later as a topographical engineer, he witnessed the devastation, hypocrisy, and vulgarity of war from the front lines. The experience taught him to see man as a foolish and violent creature, and it assured him of his own mortality. During the fighting at Kennesaw Mountain in 1864, Bierce was shot in the head. Denied both a quick death and a full recovery, he settled for a lifetime of screaming headaches brought on by his fractured skull.
After the war, Bierce found his way west to San Francisco, where he expected to be commissioned as a captain in the regular army. When the desired position did not materialize, he settled into a temporary job at the U. S. Mint and resumed his childhood course of self-study. The young veteran read library books, studied the dictionary to improve his vocabulary, and developed attitudes toward literature and religion that sometimes scandalized his coworkers. One Mint employee remembered him fondly, but complained that Bierce used “the most offensive language in speaking of matters that people usually regard as sacred.”
Bierce first established himself as a writer during the late 1860s by publishing essays and comic sketches in the periodical he would soon come to edit, the San Francisco News-Letter and California Advertiser. As the voice behind the column “The Town Crier,” he launched his campaign against the ill behavior of his contemporaries, especially the “rogues and dunces” of San Francisco. Although his literary persona was perhaps an exaggeration of his true character, there is no doubt that Bierce had little faith in the supposed virtues of his age. In print he boldly rebuffed one “prominent clergyman” who had complained that Bierce targeted upstanding Christians as well as sinners: “Now, good clergyman, go thou to the devil, and leave us to our own devices; or the Town Crier shall skewer thee upon his spit, and roast thee in a blaze of righteous indignation.” Such passages caused casual readers to view Bierce as disrespectful and wicked. Those who regularly read his columns, though, understood that the author simply refused to judge people at face value—especially those who portrayed themselves as pillars of virtue.
Bierce was not alone in critiquing the moral shortcomings of his era. After all, it was rival satirist Mark Twain who coined the derisive phrase “The Gilded Age” to describe the decades following the Civil War. In the years following the Civil War until 1900 the United States experienced undeniably impressive industrial developments, territorial expansion, and periods of dramatic economic growth. But for all its outward “gilding,” the age was not truly a golden one. Fueled by greed and a blatant disregard for the law, political scandals occurred on a routine basis at both the state and federal level. Periods of economic depression, most notably following the Panic of 1873, widened the gap between the rich and the poor. Unemployment rates skyrocketed, begetting widespread crime and mob violence. While Henry Adams, Edward Bellamy, and other writers joined Bierce in criticizing late nineteenth-century society, few went for the throat with the same zeal or precision. In many respects, Bierce had carved out for himself an unusual position among American writers. Unlike popular entertainers such as Twain and Bret Harte, who depended on the good will of the public for book sales and celebrity, Bierce had no qualms about savaging the public itself. Yet because his barbs touched the truth even as they wounded, readers found themselves willing to suffer the author’s contemptuous prose.
In his days at the News-Letter, Bierce had not yet developed a full arsenal of literary weapons. But he continued to experiment with literary forms, and in time became a master of the short story genre, publishing some of the world’s most memorable war fiction in his collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891). Admired for its realistic portrait of warfare, the book was nonetheless criticized as excessively morbid and cold-blooded—a critique that has dogged most of Bierce’s fiction right up to the present day. The most celebrated story in the collection, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” reflects on humankind’s penchant for self-delusion—a recurring theme in Bierce’s writing. Portraying the final moments of a man hanged for treason, the story delivers what may be the most famous surprise ending in American fiction. Bierce also helped pioneer the modern ghost story, beginning with his first published short story, “The Haunted Valley,” in 1871.
On Christmas day of that same year, Bierce married Mary Ellen Day, the daughter of a successful California businessman. The couple soon after embarked on a three-year honeymoon in England, a trip that ultimately produced two sons and three books. The boys were named Day and Leigh; the books, containing mostly fables and sketches culled from Bierce’s earlier work, were titled The Fiend’s Delight (1873), Nuggets and Dust (1873), and Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874). The family returned to San Francisco in 1875, at which point Bierce began composing blocks of satirical definitions with an eye for publication. Deft and wise, the definitions reflected Bierce’s maturation as a writer and as a student of humankind. While abroad, he had learned the roles of husband and father, and had also sharpened his contempt for fools and sinners. Bad art, bad oratory, and bad morals existed on both sides of the Atlantic, and it was a worldlier Bierce who set out to dissect Western civilization with equal parts humor and malice.
He chose diverse subjects for his smoldering definitions. Many of the recurring themes—among them freedom, race, evolution, and death—still occupy American minds a century later: “Liberty, n. One of Imagination’s most precious possessions”; “Mulatto, n. A child of two races, ashamed of both”; “Monkey, n. An arboreal animal which makes itself at home in genealogical trees”; “Grave, n. A place in which the dead are laid to await the coming of the medical student.” Bierce revealed a special talent for piercing the bloated rhetoric of faith and flag: “Christian, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor”; “Un-American, adj. Wicked, intolerable, heathenish”; “Patriotism, n. Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name”; “Scriptures, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.” Bierce even touched on two technologies that remain central to twenty-first century life. He defined the telephone as an “invention of the devil” because it “abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.” And when anticipating modern concerns about reckless drivers, Bierce had sympathy for the poor fool on foot: “Pedestrian, n. The variable (and audible) part of the roadway for an automobile.”
Such definitions appeared sporadically in Bierce’s column “Prattle,” the literary stage on which he reached his full powers as an artist and social commentator. He started the column upon becoming the editor of the journal Argonaut in 1877, and by 1887 he had moved it to the San Francisco Examiner, where the future media magnate William Randolph Hearst was building a staff of star reporters and writers. Bierce penned his shrewd definitions with the same care that informed his columns and fictions, always aiming to unveil the uncomfortable and unspoken truths behind human behavior. He saw himself as a worthy critic of American institutions, and deservedly so. Not only had Bierce fought and bled for his nation, but he had also experienced its tawdry commercial and legal dealings firsthand. For a short time after his work at Argonaut, Bierce had abandoned the pen for the complex and always-litigious world of gold mining. He voyaged to Rockerville, South Dakota, and assumed duties as the general manager of a Black Hills mining company. Hardworking and rigidly honest, Bierce grew disgusted over the corrupt legal system that oversaw the industry. Upon returning to California and to his career as a writer, he was more than ready to ridicule the practice of American business and law: “Commerce, n. A kind of transaction in which A plunders from B the goods of C”; “Debt, n. An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave-driver”; “Lawyer, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law”; “Trial, n. A formal inquiry designed to prove and put upon record the blameless characters of judges, advocates, and jurors.”
Some of the most quoted, and most amusing, entries in the Dictionary mock both romance and matrimony: “Bride, n. A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her”; “Brute, n. See HUSBAND”; “Husband, n. One who, having dined, is charged with the care of the plate”; “Intimacy, n. A relation into which fools are providentially drawn for their mutual destruction”; “Marriage, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two.” While The Devil’s Dictionary offers no clear window into the personal life of Bierce, it is nonetheless true that his marriage was an unhappy one. Bierce formally separated from his wife in 1888 after learning that she had received love letters from another man. In 1904, only a few months before she died, Mary sued for divorce—perhaps believing her estranged husband wished to marry again. But on the subject of marriage, Bierce seems to have followed his own advice: “Once, adv. Enough.”
By the time Bierce’s sardonic definitions were published together as book, only one of his three children, a daughter named Helen, remained alive. His son Day died in 1889 following a gunfight over a woman, and Leigh succumbed to pneumonia in 1901. Bierce was determined to secure a better fate for his literary offspring. In 1906, he arranged for his assorted definitions to be published between hard covers. Not all went according to plan. The publisher, Doubleday, Page & Company, worried that the title might offend sensitive readers, and insisted that it be changed to “The Cynic’s Word Book.” The new title also reflected the editors’ hope to cash in on a momentary fad for “Cynic’s” books as published by Bierce’s imitators: among them The Cynic’s Calendar (1902) and The Cynic’s Rules of Conduct (1905). The gambit failed. As Bierce later complained, the originality of his work went unnoticed in a market oversaturated with similarly titled texts, some of which had plagiarized his own definitions. The first volume of the Doubleday edition sold few copies, persuading the publisher to drop plans for a second volume altogether.
Undaunted, the author presented his entire dictionary as volume 7 of The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, published by Walter Neale between 1909 and 1912. For many readers, The Devil’s Dictionary stands as the jewel of the twelve-volume Collected Works, surpassing even Bierce’s macabre war stories and memoirs. In the preface to his incendiary book, at last complete and with the original title restored, Bierce reclaimed roughly one thousand of his definitions from other writers who had “helped themselves to such parts of the work as served their needs.” And he dedicated the volume to “enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor, and clean English to slang.”
With the Collected Works complete, Bierce spent his days restlessly in Washington, D.C., the city where in 1896 he had waged a successful print campaign against a corrupt railroad funding bill. Now almost twenty years later, the seventy-one-year-old journalist had published more than four million words and outlasted nearly all of his enemies. He was through with paper battles. Bierce decided to see a real war, and told family and friends of his plans to travel south to revolutionary Mexico. His overt purpose, it seem, was to find adventure—but his correspondence also suggests that he was seeking out a violent death that would spare him the misery of growing senile and infirm. Famously, he wrote to his niece that it would be “a pretty good way to depart this life” to be “stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags.”
Mexico was then a dangerous and chaotic country. Beginning in 1910, numerous Mexican factions had taken up arms against the ruling military dictatorship. These “Constitutionalist” forces sought to oust President Victoriano Huerta, secure democratic elections, and improve economic and social conditions for the lower classes. Rebel leaders such as Pancho Villa were just as capable of unbridled violence as the Federal troops they opposed, storming government garrisons in bloody raids. Both sides executed political prisoners individually and en masse. The bloodletting could be alternately heavy or sporadic, and continued at least until 1920, by which time the revolutionaries’ primary objectives were codified within a new Constitution.
Bierce entered this volatile world in late 1913, crossing the border into Mexico in the fall and mailing one last letter from Chihuahua on December 26. He ended his missive by remarking, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” And then, like a character from one of his supernatural tales, the renowned writer simply vanished. No body was ever found. Theories about Bierce’s fate have abounded in the decades since, the most common claim being that he was killed in the crossfire during Villa’s victory at the Battle of Ojinaga in early January 1914. Other theories suggest that Villa murdered Bierce, or that the writer made his way through Mexico to die in some obscure spot in South America. Literary sleuth Joe Nickell has argued that Bierce merely pretended to go to Mexico as a clever ruse meant to cover his tracks. According to this theory, Bierce slipped off to the Grand Canyon to commit suicide in some lonely and yet undiscovered place. Regardless of which scenario one favors, the fact remains that no hard evidence exists to end all speculation. To this day, the fate of Ambrose Bierce remains one of the most enduring mysteries in American literary history.
It is a credit to Bierce’s talent that his famous disappearance has not overshadowed his writing, especially his demonic dictionary. Like any proper lexicon, The Devil’s Dictionary reflects on the meanings and evolution of language. But its biting entries concern truth rather than pedestrian fact, and therefore transcend the contents of more “virtuous” reference works. During the nearly one hundred years since its publication, countless readers have embraced the dictionary as one of the most clear-eyed and provocative works in the English language. Its influence can be felt in the writing of dissidents and skeptics the world over, and in the words of American wits as diverse as W. C. Fields, Dorothy Parker, and Gore Vidal. Bierce, meanwhile, has become a veritable hero among amateur cynics, many of whom have crafted their own satirical definitions of modern words and phrases, from the Internet to Global Warming.
In the end, it is Bierce’s honesty that explains why The Devil’s Dictionary has been quoted innumerable times in twenty-first-century books, magazines, newspapers, trivia games, calendars, and web pages. Bierce may have vanished in 1913, but his dictionary has not disappeared from the public eye. Nor will it ever, so long as readers prize truth, wit, flair, and grace—and so long as humankind continues to do the devil’s work.
Craig A. Warren is Assistant Professor of English at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. He is the editor of The Ambrose Bierce Project, an online journal devoted to the life and writings of Bierce.