X
Story Stream
recent articles

Good morning, it's Friday, June 25, 2021, the day of the week when I reprise quotations intended to be uplifting or educational. As I promised Thursday, today's comes from Ambrose Bierce, an Indiana abolitionist, Civil War veteran, San Francisco newspaperman, satirist, short story writer, world traveler, and war correspondent.

The man was also something of a misanthrope, one who was miscast chronologically, as it were. By that, I mean that Bierce seems to have born a century-and-a-half too early. His observational powers gravitated more easily to the stupidity of mankind, let's say, than the glories of God. His writing about the horrors of battle were really antiwar parables. Shockingly graphic, they weren't what contemporary American audiences were looking for.

Yet, he had his moment and he certainly rose to the occasion, as you will see subsequently. Still, there is a mystery about this man: Why isn't he more famous? This was a question posed in his own time, too, and one asked by other writers over the years, including Arnold Bennett and H.L. Mencken ("We have produced but one genuine wit," Mencken said about Bierce). Yet, he was always more popular among his fellow writers than the general reading public.

Andrew Ferguson, who wrote the best piece I ever read about Ambrose Bierce, tackled this conundrum. It had to do with his writing about war, and his cynicism about what he saw in the Union Army:

"[W]e 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," Andy Ferguson wrote. "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."

This explains why Bierce's "Devil's Dictionary" is as oft-quoted today as it was when it was published. Here is a sample, all from the first page:

ABSURDITY, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion.

ACQUAINTANCE, n. A person whom we know well enough to borrow from, but not well enough to lend to. A degree of friendship called slight when its object is poor or obscure, and intimate when he is rich or famous.

ACTUALLY, adv. Perhaps; possibly.

ADMIRATION, n. Our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves. ADMONITION, n. Gentle reproof, as with a meat-axe. Friendly warning.

As a soldier and officer in the 9th Indiana Infantry, Ambrose Bierce garnered material for his writing at the some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. "What I Saw of Shiloh" wasn't invented: He was there. He also fought at Chickamauga, and the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. He received medals for bravery, brevet promotions into the officer corps, and was seriously wounded.

It seemed, after accepting a commission as a cartographer in cavalry division, that Bierce might make the U.S. Army a career. Instead, a year later, while his unit was billeted in California, Bierce resigned his commission and took a job as a night watchman in the federal mint in San Francisco. (Among his colleagues at the mint, if you can imagine it, were Bret Harte and Mark Twain.)

Bierce spent the quiet hours on his job reading everything he could get his hands on and trying his hand at writing. He soon wound up in the rough-and-tumble world of frontier journalism. Newspapering at that time and place was a blood sport and Bierce's work ethic, acerbic wit and bravery were just the ticket.

This valor wasn't only physical. Bierce was both uncorruptible and temperamentally suited for literal combat. Verbal combat, too, as it turned out. He edited and wrote for several newspapers before winding up at William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. In his own puckish prose, he later related how he ended up working for the legendary publisher who had been given the paper by his father while still a teenager.

This was the late 1880s; Hearst was born the year Ambrose Bierce fought at Chickamauga, which explains his bemused reaction when he heard a rapping on the door of his Oakland apartment one morning. He opened the door, Bierce wrote, to find "the youngest young man I had ever encountered."

This youngster said he was from the San Francisco Examiner, "in a voice," Bierce recalled, "like the fragrance of violets made audible."

"Oh, you come from Mr. Hearst," said Bierce.

"Then," Bierce recounted, "that unearthly child lifted its blue eyes and cooed, ‘I am Mr. Hearst.'"

As modern newspaper columnist James Smart noted, young Hearst knew what he was doing when he recruited Bierce. Together, they would take on the most powerful special interests in California, which was the railroads. Specifically, they took aim at the "Big Four" -- Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and Collis P. Huntington -- the oligarchs who formed Southern Pacific.

The "Railrogues," Bierce called them. (Leland Stanford was "Stealand" Stanford), but Collis Huntington was a special bete noire for Bierce, and the feelings were mutual.

When members of Congress beholden to Huntington's largesse introduced legislation that would have forgiven a $75 million government loan to Huntington and his railroad, the Hearst newspapers went into full crusade mode against it. Bierce himself was dispatched to Washington to lead the coverage of the bill's fate. The denouement of this heavyweight match came in a memorable confrontation between Bierce and Huntington on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.

Impervious to the presence of other reporters, the haughty railroad baron barked at Bierce that he would pay what it took to end the newspaper crusade.

"Name your price," he said. "Every man has a price."

"My price," Bierce responded coolly, "is $75 million, handed over to the Treasury of the United States."

This answer went around the country as fast as newspaper reporters would dictate it to their local telegraph operators. The bailout bill was dead -- as one of the early first cracks appeared in the edifice known as the Gilded Age. And that's our quote of the week.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Comment
Show comments Hide Comments