Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ambrose Bierce

Hero of the day: Ambrose Bierce (1842-19??)

Bitter Bierce seems a fitting nickname for a man primarily known to us as a curmudgeonly old journalist. His oeuvre is made up of short stories, fables, journalism (mainly political), and a strange satirical dictionary which lists this as an entry:
A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.
Lesser known, but equally important, are some of his living exploits. As a journalist, he worked for William Randolph Hearst (the basis for Citizen Kane), he wrote a biting column in the San Francisco Examiner called The Prattle where he took shots at anyone he thought to be living outside his idea of right and wrong. When Hearst gained political aspirations, he bought a paper in DC and sent Bierce out to write for it, knowing that his ire for politicians would clear a wide path for his own path to the presidency. The most famous victim:

The railroad tycoons had borrowed 130 million dollars to build a transcontinental railroad, which they planned to not pay back by lobbying a particularly untoward congressman into passing a bill to forgive the debt. Bierce went after the congressman with his usual ferocity, writing article after article, pushing to the forefront an issue that congress and the railroad tycoons tried to sweep under the rug. It all led to one fantastic encounter on the steps of the capitol where Collis Huntington, a railroad tycoon, so annoyed at the press Bierce was bringing to the issue, told him to name his price. A crowd gathered as Bierce gave his reply:

"My price is one hundred thirty million dollars. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States"
The only thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call theirs, and keep.
Another infamous encounter was when he met Jack London in 1910. Both known for their obstinacy and grit, and both being favored sons of California, everyone had anticipated their meeting for years, an uneasy passing of the torch that couldn't possibly go well. Finally, one of Bierce's former proteges and current Jack London devotee, George Sterling, invited them both to a party given by the Bohemian Club and then apparently drummed up excitement for the ensuing rumble between his two masters. Bierce was a 68 year old man while London half that at 34. Bierce was a stodgy conservative while London an ardent socialist, representing everything Bierce hated: the new. When Bierce arrived at the soirée, London immediately marched up to him and the crowd gathered, having been well prepped for this clash of titans. London told Bierce he was sorry to hear about the death of his son, recently dead in a duel, and offered him a drink. What followed was a three day drinking bout that led them through the woods and sounds more like a Paul Bunyan tale than an actual occurrence. I believe they were found days later in a cabin in the woods, many miles from where they had started the trip, both sleeping upright in chairs on either side of a table littered with whiskey bottles.

On a side note, the Bohemian Club is a legendary organization that has fallen into disrepair (or maybe always been that way). It is reported that Oscar Wilde went one year, well before Bierce, only to be abused the by the members. After he outdrank the lot of them, in great Oscar Wilde fashion, uttered: “I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed business-looking Bohemians in my life."
Future, n.
That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured.
The final Bierce story is his disappearance in 1913. He had grown disillusioned with America and cut all ties there. Both his children had died, one in a duel and the other after contracting pneumonia during a drinking binge. He left Washington DC, headed south and sent one final letter to his niece, explaining that he was going to join Pancho Villa in revolution. His last words being:

"Good-bye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!"

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