The Wickedest Man in San Francisco: Ambrose Bierce and Cynicism’s Battling Prime

Dale DeBakcsy

Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?) was not a man much given to faith, which he famously defined in The Devil’s Dictionary as “Belief without eviden ce in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.”

No, Bierce was not one for blind faith or religion of any form, or dogs or Christmas or marriage. Children he didn’t care much for, or railroads or intolerance or philosophers . . . or politicians, fathers, mothers, magnates, or mayors. It is undetermined whether he hated telephones more than homeopathy. He was, however, rather smitten with suicide.

For four decades, Bierce’s acid pen attacked anything that smelled of profitable or popular self-deception, from massive targets such as organized religion to utterly insignificant ones such as local poets whose only crime was not writing well. He was Mark Twain without the folksy (if deceptive) exterior, someone in deadly earnest that fear and death were the basic realities of the human condition and that anybody who promised otherwise deserved a double barrel of the foulest epithets conjurable from yellow journalism’s deep reserves of spite and insult.

As regards religion, his favorite topic of abuse: where Ingersoll charmed his audiences into following him down roads of disbelief and Twain remained profitably silent until his last days, Bierce hammered away with undisguised scorn at the priests who claimed absolute knowledge of unknowable things to charm people into behaving inhumanly. Any preacher visiting his San Franciscan home turf could expect a blistering write-up in Bierce’s column exposing the ignorance of his sermon and the venality of his purpose, as in this thundering broadside upon the departure of Rev. Dr. Hallelujah Cox:

“[He] has played his farewell engagement, and will appear no more before a California audience. In parting with the Rev. Doctor we cannot withhold the present slight tribute to his equally slight talent. We know of no public performer who has had to contend against equal natural disadvantages of personal ignorance and professional incapacity, and the fact that with such heavy odds against him he has succeeded in getting away without incurring actual disgrace is evidence of indomitable energy upon his part and criminal neglect upon our own.”

Consistency, accuracy, and clarity were Bierce’s great virtues as a thinker and writer, a mania to see things as they are rather than as sentimentality would wish them. He would not toe a party line or spare a feeling if truth would come casualty as a result, and that he stayed in journalism as long as he did is testament to the public’s appreciation that here, at least, was one member of the Fourth Estate who could not be bought or lulled and who would not shrink from speaking his mind out of deference to tradition or the phantom of the public’s swooning fragility.

Bierce’s cynicism was honestly come by. Raised in a loveless religious household, a reader in a community of believers, he was at age nineteen among the first to sign up to fight in the Civil War. He saw service on the worst of that conflict’s battlefields, from the agony of Shiloh to the massacre of Chickamauga to the brute-force banality of Sherman’s march on Atlanta. Serving in General William Hazen’s brigade, which seemed to always find itself at the dread center of the war’s fiercest fighting, he twice carried wounded soldiers through enemy fire and ended his effective service with a bullet to the head that somehow did not penetrate to his brain. He saw firsthand what sentiment, patriotism, and religion, so easily conjured in ecstatic rivers of exhortation back home, really meant in the mangle.

It would take him twenty years to start putting his memories of that war down on paper, but when he did, he founded a tradition in American writing that wound its way through Crane and Hemingway to Heller and Faulks of grim, psychologically penetrating tales of war and its costs, of men stripped by fear of their humanity and leading shambling demi-lives after the war in payment of other men’s ambitions. “What I Saw of Shiloh,” “Chickamauga,” “A Horseman in the Sky,” and “A Son of the Gods” are tales that numb feeling through their unrelenting, analytic depiction of soldiers grown indifferent to slaughter, while “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is rightly regarded as one of America’s most perfectly told short stories.

Bierce had seen the truth of religion’s sway over small minds at home and of the real cost of patriotic rhetoric during the Civil War, and when at last he settled in San Francisco to write the Town Crier column for a local paper, he had few illusions left to lose. This was the San Francisco that saw men kidnapped regularly to serve on vessels destined for China, justice doled out by squads of ax-handle wielding vigilantes, and the political system run by four railroad magnates of unspeakable wealth. It had produced Mark Twain and Francis Harte, and now it gave the reins over to Bierce, with the open mission to kick at whatever he felt needed a kicking. His Town Crier pieces included shots at religion and its practitioners peppered with lurid tales of patricide, admiring accounts of suicides honorably conceived and well carried out, and vicious roastings of San Francisco’s eager but self-deluded literary lights.

Journalists and editors were routinely shot in the streets of San Francisco for less, but Bierce, though threatened often enough, survived in spite of—or perhaps, because of—his universally spiteful appraisals of humankind’s follies. If his thrusts and jabs made only enemies, at least they had the virtue of playing no favorites, a decided oddity in a journalistic era when writers and editors were regularly bought and paid for by corporations or political elites.

He even extended sympathy to the city’s most universally loathed inhabitants, the Chinese, whose reputation as a source of willing and cheap labor made them a regular target of mob brutality. Bierce, almost alone among journalists, pilloried the anti-Chinese mania that resulted from fear married to a rhetoric of racial dehumanization born of that era’s foulest white-supremacist Christianity. He wrote in 1870, “The dead body of a Chinese woman was found last Tuesday morning lying across the sidewalk in a very uncomfortable position. The cause of her death could not be accurately ascertained, but as her head was caved in it is thought by some physicians that she died of galloping Christianity of the malignant California type.”

As renowned as Bierce was for his journalism, however, we know him today as America’s first great war author, as a horror writer who nicely filled our thirst for the macabre between the death of Poe and the rise of Lovecraft, and particularly as the incisive genius behind The Devil’s Dictionary, a collection of cynical and hysterical definitions culled from his newspaper columns that are as delightfully wicked now as ever they were. None of those writings were successes in their day, victims all of Bierce’s tendency to pad his books with run-of-the-mill selections from his newspaper columns filled with attacks on poets nobody remembered and politicians nobody knew in the first place. Even the Dictionary, which ought to have been a sure hit and is now considered a classic of satirical atheism, was mired down by a half-dozen competing products in the Bierce style that muddied the waters for the authentic item.

As he headed into his fifties and sixties, Bierce found less and less to excite him, even to anger. He lost one son to suicide and a second to loose living, trudged through a miserable marriage that he made absolutely no effort to improve, and bitterly lost every friend he had ever somehow managed to make. His books did not sell, his eventual Collected Works were critically panned as beautifully bound but horrendously edited, and the farce of the Spanish-American War could only strike somebody who had lived through the Civil War as a depressing signal that America had given itself over completely to its most mediocre impulses. Racked regularly by the asthma that had been the recurring misery of his life, alone in life and unchallenged in work, he took it into his mind to disappear to Mexico and made such a good job of it that we do not know when or where or how he died.

Bierce was simply not there one day, leaving a hole in American intellectual life for a new voice of conscience that could not be enchanted by the whistle of optimism or the hosannas of imperial righteousness. Fortunately, Bierce had befriended a young man not long before his disappearance, a writer of promise with a willing ear for the macabre and a delight in quashing bunk. That lad’s name was H. L. Mencken.

He turned out all right.

 


Further Reading

Ambrose Bierce’s star, once the most tentative of glimmers on the American literary landscape, has shone a bit brighter every year since his death, and he is at last getting something like the attention that is his due. My favorite biography of him is Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company by Roy Morris Jr. (Oxford, 1995), which gives his literary abilities full credit and in a style that has sprinkles of Bierce himself. For Bierce’s works, the Library of America edition is a very good collection, featuring his war stories, reminiscences, horror tales, and the complete Devil’s Dictionary, though none of his journalism is represented.

Dale DeBakcsy

Dale DeBakcsy is the author of The Cartoon History of Humanism, Volume One (The Humanist Press, 2016). He is a frequent contributor to FI’s Great Minds column and also writes the weekly Women in Science series at WomenYouShouldKnow.net.


Ambrose Bierce, the compleat cynic whose insights sear even as they sparkle.

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.