Ambrose Bierce and the Joy of Outrage


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Jack Matthews


Jack Matthews

I can't remember when I first learned about Ambrose Bierce. That long-ago discovery belongs to the class of things whose origins are lost in time, like learning to walk or read or ride a bicycle--which, so far as remembrance can testify, seemed to exist without a beginning, let alone an epiphany. My acquaintance with Bierce and his writing is like that--part of the weather, part of the environment.

Some of this has to do with our shared absorption in place, for we both have roots in southeastern Ohio, and geography is always an essential part of what we are. Bierce was born in 1842, at Horse Creek Cave in Meigs County, Ohio, where he spent the first four years of his life--the most consequential years of all. I live next door in Athens County, next to Meigs on the north, and my family's roots are deep in Gallia County, the next county downriver from Meigs.

To acknowledge one's heritage is not necessarily to approve of it; its depths are beyond approval or disapproval. Bierce knew this ambivalently, often showing contempt for his humble origins in Meigs County and erasing most of the details of his early years. Although in a poem published in the November 3, 1883 edition of The Wasp, he describes his childhood in terms of "the malarious farm, the wet, fungus-grown wildwood . . . the scum-covered duck pond, the pigstye . . . the ditch where the sour-smelling house drainage fell . . ."

This is hardly an evocation of arcadian enchantment, and yet it is not the whole truth--assuming that such an animal has ever existed. Walter Neale was a close acquaintance of Bierce, and in his 1927 biography, he gave considerable attention to Bierce's histrionic gifts, displayed in his capacity for inventing his past. Neale claimed that Bierce had even lied to him about his birthplace, claiming it was in Ohio's Western Reserve, thus giving emphasis to his proud New England ancestry, but in doing so, missing his actual birthplace by 200 miles. This is only one of many indications that Bierce was obsessed with making the facts fit his self-image, thereby creating some of his most inspired fiction where one expects nothing but the sober truth.

As for Bierce's career as a writer, he seemed to have had no apprenticeship to the craft--no writerly past before he began to publish. Like my acquaintance with him, his maturity as both man and writer came into existence with no evident beginning, and there is very little Biercean juvenilia. Of course, it could be that he edited out all that in his maturity he considered unworthy, just as he was capable of changing his birthplace to suit his fancy. He sought perfection in whatever his name was attached to, being far more fastidious in his use of language than most writers, many of whom seem to think that one can write well without bothering to think about words and their intricate capacities for precision.


It seems to me that Bierce's reputation has never been equal to his singular gifts. In the general view, he is something of a grotesque, an exotic growth, a specimen. Edmund Wilson's judgment is in tune with much 20th century criticism, for he found in Bierce's writing "a familiar fascistic ring . . . [an] insistence on law and order and on the need for the control of the disorderly mob by an enlightened and well-washed minority." While there is some slight merit in Wilson's judgment, most of it is old-fashioned Liberal gargling.

Fascistic or not, Bierce's stories are possessed of a ponderous Victorian commitment to melodrama. And yet, in everything he wrote, one can sense an exceptional cast of mind, a way of taking in experience that was and remains unique. Furthermore, in defense of the melodrama, one might cite the profound influence of the American Civil War, which was the very essence of melodrama, reflecting simplified moral design and emotional excess--two of its essential ingredients.

The third ingredient is a fatal attraction to the "grand gesture," splendidly manifest by the major of an OVI Regiment, when he stood up before his men in the midst of heavy fire and recited in its entirety this stanza from Macauley's Lays of Ancient Rome:

And up spoke brave Horatius,
The Captain of the gate,
"To every man upon this earth
Death cometh, soon or late!

And how can one die better
Than in facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods?"

Without doubt, Bierce would have reacted to this with characteristically savage mockery; and yet, underneath the mockery, he would have fully understood that gesture, understanding it in such a way as to dimensionalize and enrich his bitterness in rejecting it. This paradox is hardly astonishing, for as humans we are all of us cloven--provided with two eyes, two ears and two selves. No wonder that there is no hatred like the hatred for our own rejected passions.

The trumpets of melodrama notwithstanding, one can still sense the real power in some of Bierce's Civil War fiction. "On A Mountain" is a first-person story whose action takes place in western Virginia, in 1861. In pursuit of a Rebel contingent, a company of soldiers from Ohio and Indiana come upon the unburied corpses of Union soldiers. Not wanting to take time to bury them, they hurry on . . . only to return the next day, "a beaten, dispirited and exhausted force, feeble from fatigue and savage from defeat . . . ."

Here they once again come upon the corpses, finding them still unburied, although now the bodies lie grotesquely disturbed in their twisted and tangled uniforms. More than their postures has been altered, however, for: their faces have been eaten by wild hogs. After the soldiers shoot the hogs, the narrator says: "They had eaten our fallen, but--touching magnanimity--we did not eat theirs."

Beyond question, the horrors Bierce witnessed as a soldier stayed with him--part of the reason that his life was a raw wound that would never heal. Another reason was the bloody head injury he received at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, north of Atlanta. So there were physical as well as psychological reasons for his seeming to spend the remainder of his life in a trance of bitterness and cynicism.


Far less known than his stories are Bierce's poems, which are often a clearer reflection of his intellectual gifts than his stories. In his essay, "The Matter of Manner," he wrote something that is central to all his writing: "My design is to show in the lucidest way that I can the supreme importance of words, their domination of thought, their mastery of character."

The fact that some of his poems also served as definitions in The Devil's Dictionary is evidence of their epigrammatic character--as in this short poem (which is not in The Devil's Dictionary, but suitably apophthegmatic):

The Lacking Factor

"You acted unwisely," I cried, "as you see
By the outcome." He calmly eyed me:
"When choosing the course of my action," said he,
I had not the outcome to guide me."

But it was this intensely witty writer's conviction that poetry should not consist of such small games of wit; rather, it should be primarily an expression of feeling. And, indeed, a few of Bierce's poems are just that, one of them seemingly autobiographical:


I fell asleep and dreamed that I
Was flung, like Vulcan, from the sky
Like him was lamed--another part:
His leg was crippled, and my heart.
I woke in time to see my love
Conceal a letter in her glove.

The personal reference would be to his wife. According to one version, he divorced her after finding what he considered a compromising letter from another man; but there are other versions, and I do not know enough either to choose among them or patch them together into a coherent scenario, so it would be futile to speculate. But the discrepancies are typical of a man whose great capacity for invention was as manifest in creating his own past as in his more ostensible fictions.

Consistent with his jovian posture in judging others, Bierce was severe regarding his own poetry, and he could be touchingly self-effacing. He idealized poetry as the highest art attainable, therefore beyond his reach.


Great poets fire the world with fagots big
That make a crackling racket,
But I'm content with but a whispering twig
To warm some single jacket.

One's admiration for Bierce does not require agreement with his judgment of his own abilities any more than agreement with his aesthetic judgments; there are no final conclusions about such matters, and while humility in confronting the demands of one's art is an amiable quality, in the final analysis, it is possessed of no more authority than arrogance.

That being said, however, no one is likely to judge Bierce's poetry as "great"--whatever one might mean by a label that usually signifies little more than heavy breathing. Not only that, poetry is not intrinsically superior to prose, for it is one of the cardinal principles of true artistry that it cannot be confined to the cages provided by our labels.


Most popular of all Bierceiana are the definitions in The Devil's Dictionary. Its pages are filled with these nuggets, which according to H.L. Mencken comprise "Some of the most gorgeous witticisms in the English language." Consider this brief sampling:

Novel, n. A short story padded.
Mausoleum, n. The final and funniest folly of the rich.
Liberty, n. One of imaginations most precious possessions.
Craft, n. A fool's substitute for brains.
Truce, n. Friendship
Twice, adv. Once too many.

It is perhaps only natural that Bierce's satire should be celebrated chiefly for its muzzle blast, and yet, the muzzle blast is often eclipsed by the flash of wit, as in the three elegant demonstrations of wordplay in his definition of an otherwise innocent word:

Die, n. The singular of "dice." We seldom hear the word because there is a prohibitory proverb, "Never say die." At long intervals, however, someone says, "The die is cast," which is not true, for it is cut. The word is found in an immortal couplet by that eminent poet and domestic economist, Senator Depew:

A cube of cheese no larger than a die
May bait the trap to catch a nibbling mie.


Bierce is as famous for his death as for anything he wrote; indeed, his exit from the theatre of life was strikingly melodramatic, a triumph of stagecraft. In 1913, he went to Mexico to cover the Pancho Villa uprising and was not heard from again. It was a splendidly theatrical exit, and it has been the inspiration for films and books, along with much speculation.

Two years before that grand departure, however, in his 70th year, he collaborated with Neale in publishing the 12-volume edition of his Collected Works, the 11th volume of which is appropriately titled Antepenultima. If I had to choose one volume to represent Bierce's "genius" (to use an old-fashioned label now suspect, but still fashionable in his generation), I would probably settle on this volume, or perhaps The Shadw on the Dial and Other Essays, where many of the pieces in Antepenultima first appeared.

A small sampling will serve. In reading his essay, "The Death Penalty," one is not surprised to find him defending it and doing so with sass, showing nothing but contempt for those "illogicians" who "define murder as disease and hanging as murder." Indeed, his arguments for executing a reprobate remain unanswerable, if one has any faith in "free will," a necessary fiction for all that is civilized. "Men are not drafted for the death penalty," he says; "they volunteer for it." And facing the predictable objection that "hanging an assassin does not restore the life of the victim," he asks, "And incarceration does?" No, according to Bierce, "A man's first murder is his crime; his second is ours."

"The new woman," he wrote, "is against the death penalty, naturally, for she is hot and hardy in the conviction that whatever is is wrong. She has visited this world in order to straighten things about a bit, and is in distress lest the number of things be insufficient to her need." Substitute "rabid feminist" for "the new woman," and half of you who are reading this essay will be irritated, but you will have been irritated with a defiance that is nothing less than democratic.

Angry or not, agreeing or disagreeing, one must concede the sharpness of Bierce's analysis and the vividness and precision of his language. Beyond question, his intellectuality is vividly manifest in his essays, and that intellectuality is focused upon an understanding of language and the ways in which it can, and cannot, achieve precision.

Much of his acuity is rooted in a profound distrust of abstractions, which are possessed of a special efficacy in their capacity to infatuate both the unwashed and those who should know better. In "Crime And Its Correctives," Bierce writes that, "'Principles, not men,' is a rogue's cry; rascality's counsel to stupidity, the noise of the duper duping on his dupe."

Needless to say, the target of his scorn is as fat today as it was then; and it will be the cause of much, if not most, human cussedness and confusion as long as we construct our realities with language and people are incapable of understanding how to use words instead of being used by them. Being a poseur in much of his personal life did not prevent Ambrose Bierce from being masterfully honest in his use of language.


One naturally wonders how Bierce might have responded to the great challenge of 9/11. A brief passage in his essay, "Natura Benigna," provides a clue: "In all the world there is no city of refuge--no temple in which to take sanctuary, clinging to the horns of the altar--no 'place apart' where, like hunted deer, we can hope to elude the baying pack of Nature's malevolences. The dead-line is drawn at the gate of life: Man crosses it at birth. His advent is a challenge to the entire pack--earthquake, storm, fire, flood, drought, heat, cold, sects, bacilli spectacular plague and velvet-footed household disease--all are fierce and tireless in pursuit. Dodge, turn and double how he can, there's no eluding them; soon or late some of them have him by the throat and his spirit returns to the God who gave it--and gave them."

This grim sermon taps into a vat of dark truths that we seemed to have forgotten in the opulence, vulgarity and decadence of late 20th century America. Perhaps it is good that we now have to confront variations upon the old horrors that have always been part of humanity. Maybe courage cannot exist without danger, and maybe courage is an absolute good. Maybe the challenge of that awful awakening can inspire us with a bravery that would be otherwise impossible, providing the occasion for a flinty wisdom.

There are voices from the Past that can help us in our travail, and eloquent among them is that of the courageous despair of Ambrose Bierce. Behind all the bitterness and the thunderous nay-saying, one can detect a profound interest in, and fascination with, the human adventure. One of the surest signs of this is the vigour and precision of Bierce's language; he could not have created such excellences out of despair, no matter how vividly that despair served as his subject, for the language of despair is silence.

There is a secret joyousness in such hatred, and it's part of what appeals to me in all that I've read of Ambrose Bierce. He is one of three writers whose profound pessimism I find fascinating, in spite of the fact that I am a congenital optimist. One of those other writers is Roy Campbell, the South African poet, who in his poem, "To My Pet Cobra," wrote: "I, too, can hiss the hair of men erect / because my lips are venomous with truth!"

Another is the philosopher, Schopenhauer, a subject of enormous interest to me. He once wrote that a human being is a coin, on one side of which NOTHING is stamped, and on the other side, EVERYTHING. And so it is that we are indeed cloven, compounded of contrasting realities. This radical dividedness is intrinsic to virtually all we know as true; and it is present as the latent text and bright underside of all the dark surfaces of Schopenhauerian philosophy.

And so it is that Bierce belongs to that triumvirate, whose deepest secret is their joyousness in articulating how much there is in the human experience that is hateful and desperate, but in that articulation revealing the delight and affirmation that are implicit in the power of language to convey the nastiness and imperfection of our human species and the world we live in.


This essay originally appeared in Ohioana Quarterly, fall 2004

Jack Matthews is a Distinguished Professor of English at Ohio University, Athens. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a three-time Ohioana Book Award-winner. An expert on book collecting and rare books, Matthews is the author of more than twenty books of fiction and non-fiction, the latest Schopenhauer's Will, published in 2002 in a Czech translation.

Ambrose Bierce in the News
Ambrose Bierce on the Notion of God
Ambrose Bierce on Terrorism
Ambrose Bierce on Politics
Ambrose Bierce & Pancho Villa
The Wickedest Man in San Francisco, 1870
Love & Kisses: Bierce & Wilde
Bierce Duels with H.L. Mencken
Bierce & Jack London
Ambrose Bierce Resources on the Web

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