Ambrose Bierce or The Rebellion Against Mortality
by Jens Knappe
It must have looked like an alien being thrown into the jungle: In 1887, a very civilized, well-mannered, well-bred and well-dressed young man made his way through the dusty wilderness to a lonely little shabby and dirty wooden shack where he was told a homeless, unwashed, unshaven and often drunk madman and vagabond was hiding from the world and its horrors. The 23-year-old came on a mission: He wanted to bring back to life this pest and oddball of a man, since he had clearly recognized that this wood sprite, this satyr-like cynic, had actually been the most talented, sharpest and wittiest journalist and writer of his time. That’s what the young man saw in him, and that’s what he would make him again.
The young man was William Randolph Hearst, who was about to become the most powerful and wealthy media mogul of all time, the model for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. The oddball vagabond in the remote cabin was Ambrose Bierce. Hearst brought Bierce back to civilization, and this import from the Wild West would become the star columnist of the San Francisco Examiner, loved but feared because he could end entire careers with a single sentence. Which he occasionally did.
“Devil’s Dictionary” is the book which puts all the talents of this volatile character on display. Bierce began it sometime in the 1880s and did not finish it until 1911, when the final version was published. An earlier draft from 1906 was titled “The Cynic’s Word Book,” which is also quite fitting. While this book is undoubtedly a work of satire, it is also a testament to Bierce’s skill as a writer. His prose is tight, precise, and full of wit and insight. Here Bierce’s sardonic and biting wit is on full display, here Bierce demonstrates his irreverent and subversive approach to language. His style is one of economy and precision. Each definition is usually only one or two sentences, in which a wealth of meaning is conveyed. His entries are often scathing and cutting, but they are also filled with a keen insight that is both thought-provoking and entertaining. The book is full of irony, sarcasm, and dark humor, which gives it an edge and a bite. “Devil’s Dictionary” has become a classic and is widely regarded as one of the great masterpieces of American literature.
In many ways, Bierce’s personal life can be seen as an attempt to outsmart the Grim Reaper, to return things which went out of the blue into the black which usually can’t come back. This begins with his seemingly mortal wound in the terrible and bloody Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in the American Civil War in 1864. It was a colonel who happened to notice that the body still showed signs of life and ordered it recovered from the battlefield. It must have been a scene like the one at the end of the first volume of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” when no one less than Napoleon Bonaparte himself did exactly the same thing and saved the life of Andrei, who was lying among the dead on the battlefield of Austerlitz. A bullet had struck young Bierce in the head, fracturing the temple bone, and although the doctors gave him no chance of survival, life returned to the body of this idealistic young man who had the strange name of “Ambrose” because his parents chose names beginning with the first letter of the alphabet for each of their 13 children. To this day, his recovery remains a medical mystery.
This experience transformed the young idealistic boy who fought with the Union Army into a hard-boiled cynic, a troubled soul, and an enigmatic personality who defied common sense, made fun of almost everything, and would even question the fact that death is the end of all things.
There is much anecdotal evidence of his rebellion against mortality. Bierce had made a pact with his one-time best friend, the British play-wright and humorist Tom Hood: the first to die would make an effort to contact the other. To reach from death, from beyond the grave, into the realms of life. And that is exactly what Bierce claimed had happened: His friend died unexpectedly at the age of 39, and one night not long after this blow of fate, during a late-night walk next to the picturesque yet haunted Warwick Castle in England, Bierce began to feel his friend’s presence to the point where he began to converse with the spirit. This experience would inspire one of his most famous short stories: “The Damned Thing“.
Bierce’s fascination with death and the macabre is evident in his work, as is his drift toward the supernatural; ghosts, demons, werewolves, fawns, trolls, and satyrs are characters who appear in Bierce’s stories and in this book. And otherworldly symbols and stage properties also adorned his everyday life. The most striking was a human skull, which he kept in his possession and which would become a trademark of this writer of dark fiction and cynical columns.
The mystery surrounding the skull fueled rumors. Some suggested it was that of his best friend, others his worst enemy. Bierce himself was coy about its origins. Either way, the skull became a fixture in Bierce’s life, accompanying him on his travels and even appearing in portraits of him, such as the one next to the author’s preface on the following pages of this book.
We lose track of Ambrose Bierce around the year 1913. He went to Mexico to participate in the Mexican Revolution and simply vanished without a trace. Neither he nor his remains were ever found. Ambrose Bierce’s disappearance has given rise to numerous theories and speculations about his possible fate. Was he killed in the violence of the Mexican Revolution? Or did he commit suicide; perhaps he staged his disappearance to start a new life elsewhere? There is no proof of any of this. However, Bierce was seen in many different places in the years that followed. He was spotted at his usual watering holes in places like San Francisco, New York, or London, but also in the wilderness of Central and South America, the Arctic, or the Sahara Desert. Despite the passage of more than a century, the mystery of Ambrose Bierce’s disappearance remains unsolved, and legends abound.
And the question still comes up from time to time: Did Ambrose Bierce ever really die? After all, it was he who fought so hard against death and questioned its inevitability. And indeed, he or his ghost has been sighted in several places. In 1967, amidst the Summer of Love, an uncanny creature, a pale elderly man in an old, washed-out outfit, who looked so much like the late Bierce, was seen riding the cable car in San Francisco from the bay up to the Hearst Building. Despite the fact that this form of public transportation is usually packed, the seats around this stranger were empty, and a couple of young hippies stared in disbelief at the strange phenomenon from a distance, desperately trying to remember what kind of trip they had taken the night before. There was a cold, chilly breeze swirling around the ghostly man, it was said.
Ambrose Bierce: Devil’s Dictionary, Gamut Verlag, Berlin 2023.
256 pages, 28 illustrations