Books have an immense power not just over the mind but also the human spirit.
One forgotten literary hero is Ambrose Bierce whose satirical masterpiece The Devil’s Dictionary demonstrates the power of negative thinking. In this work he targets everyone and everything. Nothing is sacred nor should it be. With great humor he demonstrates that self-interest is at the heart of almost every institution, every action, every charitable deed and act of goodwill. If there is anything specific this book attacks it is self-deceit and self-righteousness.
By revealing the utter bullshit of everything he produces an effect that is funny, uplifting and blissfully cynical enough to guide us. Though there were many misfortunes in his life to understandably make the man sorrowful he always remained a misanthrope who couldn’t help be in love with the world.
Born in 1842, Bierce was brought up in Meigs County, Ohio to Laura Sherwood and Marcus Aurelius Bierce. His father’s stately name is of great significance as he is named after one of the most pessimistic philosophers of all time and a figure who would influence everything that his son would write
At fifteen he left home to become a printer’s devil for the Northern Indianian. Two years later he was falsely accused of stealing money and in a state of disgrace, his family made him enroll in the military. At the age of nineteen as a Union soldier and cartographer he was plunged into the horror of the Civil War, emerging at its end a 23-year-old man who had stared into the abyss, seen massacres, headless bodies and boar-eaten corpses, the best young men of America thrown into the fires like chaff. Yet he had found his vocation and had the dubious accolade of being the only American writer to have served in the Civil War and lived to tell the tale.
Active in at least six major battles, he witnessed the depths of the horrors involved. At Shiloh amidst the chaos he came upon a dying Union sergeant “taking 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.” Seriously wounded at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain when in his own words “a Confederate bullet broke his head like a walnut” he nevertheless survived. He turned his Civil War experiences into a groundbreaking book of short stories titled Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, which bravely spoke of the violence, death and destruction without flinching or censoring the realities of war. Among them the eerie tale “Chickamauga” telling of a child discovering the aftermath of a massacre still haunts.
In 1897, Bierce became famous nationwide when he successfully battled Leland Stanford and the railroad barons, industrialists who were refusing to pay colossal debts to the government. Victorious, Bierce was proclaimed a hero of the people and it seemed to be one last great flurry before retirement. For the next four years he settled down to compile his writing into a 12-volume Collected Works containing his civil war writings, his journalism and his highly-influential macabre stories, in the style of Edgar Allen Poe. It also included the story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” with its final twist that has been used in a thousand films and books since. With his life’s work captured for posterity, it was expected that he would retire. As if to say goodbye to the world, he revisited the places of his youth — the battlefields, New Orleans, San Francisco, Washington. After a dinner with his old Civil War comrades in Texas, he wandered along the Mexican border. What happened next is one of the most extraordinary and elusive tales in American history. What is known for sure is that at the age of 71 he crossed the Rio Grande into a Mexico that was exploding into revolution.
His last letter was sent from Chihuahua on December 26, 1913 to his secretary and partner Carrie Christiansen. He explains that the next day he is leaving by train for Ojinaga, where he planned to join the revolutionary army of Pancho Villa who was preparing to attack a cornered federal army and overthrow the governing regime. It ends “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”
Ambrose Bierce was never heard from again.
Nobody knows when and where exactly he died. There are a number of theories, but all that matters is he left this world in stunning fashion and left us his work so that he will never be forgotten.
And of these his masterpiece, The Devil’s Dictionary is a good place to start. It is not a conventional text, in terms of strangeness it ranks along with Tristram Shandy by the Anglo-Irish headcase Laurence Sterne, but even over a century later it is a remarkable satire. Though presented as a dictionary, the book goes beyond the standard dictionary format including snippets of thought, quotes, sonnets, poems and limericks.
On the other hand, a rather delightful new book edition has been published with illustrations appropriately by the brilliant Ralph Steadman, he of Hunter S. Thompson notoriety.
Finally, the man may be getting his dues.
As a real American hero, an influence on the likes of Richard Brautigan and The Simpsons, he may not exactly be our contemporary, but some day we’ll catch up with him.