February 21, 2018

Brief, Bitter, Bierce

On this day in 1842, the writer-reporter-wit Ambrose Bierce was born in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio. Those familiar with Bierce usually approach him through his Civil War stories ("An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," "Chickamauga," etc.) and then stay to enjoy, or at least marvel at, his celebrated aphorisms and definitions. These offer a scoff for every situation, and are so thoroughly, happily bitter that even H. L. Mencken recoiled in horror. Almost any sampling from The Devil's Dictionary will demonstrate what Bierce was capable of feeling about human relationships:
    HUSBAND: One who, having dined, is charged with the care of the plate.
    BRIDE: A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her.
    MARRIAGE: The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.
    HOMICIDE: The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable and praiseworthy.
    BORE: A person who talks when you wish him to listen.
    ONCE: Enough.
Bierce's early years and what he wrote about them are as dark and odd as the rest of him. He was the tenth of thirteen children, each and every one given a name beginning with 'A': Abigail, Amelia, Ann Maria, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, and the twins, Adelia and Aurelia. Perhaps the early death of the youngest three robbed Ambrose of victims, though he did not want. His poor, bible-thumping parents, apparently inspired his Parenticide stories. One begins, "Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father -- an act which made a deep impression on me at the time." In another, a boy hypnotizes his parents into thinking they are wild stallions, and then watches in a clinical fashion as they stomp each other to death. When brother Aurelius, a carpenter, was killed for real, and while on the job, the eulogy from Ambrose included this thought: "If he had not been cut off by a circular saw at the age of thirty-two, there is no telling how long he might have weathered it through." Bierce so loathed the evangelism in his community that he tied straw onto a horse's back, set the animal alight, and drove it through a revival meeting. Nor did his ancestors -- Puritan stock, some of whom came on the Mayflower -- get much respect:
    ... My country, 'tis of thee,
    Sweet land of felony,
    Of thee I sing --
    Land where my fathers fried
    Young witches and applied
    Whips to the Quaker's hide
    And made him spring. . . .
Nonetheless, Bierce's father had the largest library in the county, and when Bierce dropped out of high school -- he was not one for groups -- he spent much time there. It is hard to disagree with a recent biographer who sees the library as having saved Bierce from being the serial killer type, or having turned him into the prose version of it.

The cap to Bierce's legendary life is the drama of his mysterious death: at age seventy-one, he perhaps died while attempting to get close to Pancho Villa's army in Mexico, perhaps as a suicide in the Grand Canyon. Either theory might convey the impression that the cynicism by which Bierce won fame also killed him.

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