Bierce’s Devilish Words

Ambrose Bierce's less than safe spaces

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in Features • Illustrated by Nina Pagano

One of the very first writers who ever thrilled me with that epiphanic frisson of “well, this is something new, isn’t it?” was Ambrose Bierce. My college lit classes were akin to swimming in seas of sameness, with an emphasis on that which was safe; that is, work that had been taught for seeming eons. Ambrose Bierce was not safe. Nor, alas, was he taught much. 

I was not perspicacious enough to realize at the time the irony that Bierce was, indeed, not taught much, despite his work doing something hardly anyone’s work does now: veering off into direction upon direction, as though Bierce were a literary changeling. He was a newspaperman who could salt away nonfiction scenes such that they gained forever-life in your mind, his vignettes as indelible as personal memories stamped upon your brain, only they weren’t your memories, they just felt that way.  

Show me a writer who invokes and imparts in such a fashion, and even if the medium in which they are doing so is nonfiction, I know that they can write fiction that, paradoxically, is born of a place at some remove from the nonfiction, or the reporting, in Bierce’s case: and that place is the imagination. 

People who observe the living well, for instance, tend to make our best writers of ghost stories. Think of how Dickens just nails a character by conveying a few words about a gesture they make that is telling as to how they think, act, treat others. What we begin to do, after reading such work, is note how the people in our own lives have their version of whatever it is we were just reading about.  

Ghost stories have always lit up my world. Elvis remarked that there probably wasn’t a gospel song he hadn’t heard and sung, and my analog of this is that there isn’t a ghost story I haven’t seen and read. I don’t feel that I am being more hyperbolic than ghosts are themselves; after all, they ask us, after a fashion, to believe, to shoot some of our faith their way, and so I regard my assertion as having the rub of truth, if not the out-and-out caress of numerical accuracy.  

I am all for arguments anyone might care to mount that the United States has not produced a better ghost story writer than Ambrose Bierce. As a horror mage, I don’t estimate that Stephen King is remotely close to him, and I’ll go so far as to say that I think it’s risible to suggest as much. Bierce’s ghost machine was lean and mean; if a horror story is in some way a skeleton, a collection of bones and their attendant mystery welded together, Bierce sharpened the bones of his creations, whittled them down to their collagen-infused essence. His bones were pikestaffs. 

But as a college student, it wasn’t Bierce and his bones that lanced me in that salubrious way that art lances us. When you’re 18, 19, 20, 19th-century ghost stories might seem unduly, untowardly, antiquated, especially if you are hot-blooded as I was. You want to push an envelope, not unseal one to ferret out the wonders within in it. This is something one must grow out of, or past, and I did, but I’m glad I had my moment where I ran along a groove of what was a form of intellectual immaturity, because that moved me towards Bierce’s other writings, which were not immature themselves, but which ran with their hot blood, not the chill of the night, and I drank that blood down like a bibulous college vampire. You could say I was even Byronic in that regard, which was apposite, as no American writer better personified the Byronic dictum of “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” than Bierce.  

He is the dungeon master — with the churlish sense of humor — of American letters. I would expect there is no middle ground with Bierce, no one who partakes of even a soupcon of his prose and says, “well, I’m ambivalent, it’s neat sometimes and not so neat other times.” You are either all in with Bierce as your Civil War-era ride or die (for at least a category or two, not necessarily all), or you chuck his material across the room, and say a few words about its impact upon you to your therapist, or else go for a walk around the block, never to return to the Biercean Kingdom. 

I have the reader version of a time-share in that Kingdom. At first I thought Bierce was notable because he went where other writers did not go. His principle concern with your feelings was to make you feel them in their extreme fullness, not to massage them, with means he runs counter to our safe space age. Bierce wrote as if to say, “Enough with the prosaic pleasantries your day, your day is not important, full-on immersion in reality is.”  

He was also the Grand Lord of Pith. A lot of what I read felt operatic. Richardson’s Clarissa is a literary opera, spun out over multiple operas, a cycle of sick house emotions. Bierce was more like rock and roll, especially when he danced with a form of what many people, here in our age, regarded as a form of devilry: the truth.  

Ambrose was the 10th of 13 children. Each of their names started with A, but child #10 became better known to the world by the sobriquet, Bitter Bierce. I suspect he would have hated this. Not because he hated everything, contrary to what people often thought of him, but rather on account that his mordancy served a larger, higher purpose than “watch how caustic and mean I can be.”  

One feels that Bierce pointed out what he pointed out so that people would become aware and we could be wiser and better; or, if that wasn’t exactly the endgame, that others might also feel less compunction in saying what things were, rather than what you were supposed to pretend them to be.  

In that sense, Bierce has aged well as a writer, ironically in an age where fewer and fewer people read and are apt to read him. Which is very Biercean. I mentioned the irony that he is infrequently taught, which mushrooms when you think about how much there is to pick from. You could pass on the ghost stories, center, instead, on his Civil War memoirs, his poetry, his humor columns. There is, too, considerable overlap between Bierce’s brand of humor — not that it was limited to one-flavor per outing — and the horror jaunts.  

Bierce’s terror tales are better than Lovecraft’s because they are better at immersing you in liminal horror worlds — the terror of in-between places— that Lovecraft does not come close to with all of his belabored Byzantine stylings. These liminal worlds, because we perceive them so infrequently, have a dollop of the absurd, a Beckett quality; they might not tickle our ribs, but that is humor nonetheless, a trenchant, psychological comedic burst. 

Consider “The Boarded Window: An Incident in the Life of an Ohio Pioneer,” from Bierce’s Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, one of the great plain-titled works in 19th-century lit.  

A man named Murlock lives in a wood cabin with his wife and she has some kind of attack, which he is unable to palliate, and she dies. He sits in the room with her corpse, eventually falling asleep. He awakes to the sensation that something is in the room. It’s dark, so he fires his gun for a flash of light, and sees a panther dragging away his wife. The beast runs off and he finds a portion of its ear between his wife’s teeth. That is all Bierce needs: guy, corpse, room, maybe a panther — or maybe a grief-dream — and a window that is now going to be boarded up. Maybe he’s shooting at shadows. Which is kind of funny. A board on a window doesn’t seem like it’d do much good here in Horror Valley, which is also kind of funny. Buster Keaton could have made a short picture riffing on the open window dilemma, albeit from a different perspective.  

Bierce’s critics would sometimes say that he couldn’t write at all, that no one was worse. Others apply the genius tag. I get why people don’t think he couldn’t write, despite how wrong they are. Bierce’s sentences are very dry. They can be like handfuls of pebbles. The prose of certain writers seems to hydrate us, to provide lubricity. With Bierce, it’s like the fluid has been drained from your head. You read with dry eyes. Clear eyes, but dry ones.  

But if there is one point of agreement on Bierce, it is that he composed one of this country’s greatest works of satire with The Devil’s Dictionary, whose glorious, waggish, barbed life began in 1869, when a buddy opined to Bierce that the funny definitions he sometimes included in his newspaper column would make for a haymaker of a book.  

Americans are known for some things. We used to be known for jazz and baseball, and now we’re known for being adroit at casting ourselves as victims — See? Biercean! — but we’ve never excelled much at satire. I recently wrote a book called Meatheads Say the Realest Things: Satire from the End of Civilization, in part because there is a lock just waiting for a key to bring us into a verdantly humorous, wise, and torching — but ironically kind-hearted, well-meaning, greater-good focused — land. Bierce was on my mind, without the starchy-eyed bit. Other writers had dabbled in humorous definitions of words before, but a Bierce definition felt like a pocket symphony of truth. Samuel Johnson, of all people, cracked wise a number of times in his vaunted dictionary, something regarding which Bierce was aware. Johnson thought this was great, cheeky fun, and probably viewed his occasionally sly definitions as bread crumbs for his friends and people in-the-know, who were paying attention. The humor also livened up work that wasn’t exactly a bouncy house of mirth.  

But Bierce found mirth, he found it often, just as he found wounds and salt and mirrors that he wished to hold up to the faces — the minds and consciences — of his readers.  

That first Bierce definition came in 1867. Two years later, he was deep in the vein, even working them into his letters just as van Gogh would include drawings in the margins of his epistles to his brother. They were his parlor game, the voice and character he assumed, a second self. This seemed very American to him, in part because of the lack-of-reverence-for-language-mores that you might not get with, say, the French.  

“Could any one but an American humorist ever have conceived the idea of a Comic Dictionary?” he inquired of a friend.  

Well, let’s say they could. I’d say they’d be unlikely to have come up with something that has endured so well. Which is depressing in one way. But testimony to Bierce’s odd genius in another. For instance, let us consider his definition of Congratulation: “The civility of envy.”  

That’s basically “I’ll hit the Like button for you — though what you have done makes me so jealous! — so that you’ll hit the like button for me.” (I can imagine Bierce taking a crack at the Like Button itself: “A pained and insincere honorific triggered by a key in hopes of triggering others into responding in kind for the purpose of lying to one’s self about actually being liked. Often used with alcohol.”) Man — and he means humanity, not just men, so take up your charges of patriarchy and gendering with Bierce’s ghost, not I — is summed up as, “An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to indubitably overlook what he ought to be.”  

Boom. Nailed. Roasted. If anything, that’s a more veracious definition now than then. I don’t think Bierce would fare well in our world. He couldn’t even handle his own, which is why he disappeared into Mexico, ostensibly under the guise of checking out a revolution, such that we don’t even know when he died. Or even if he went to Mexico. He might have just holed up in a self-built brick adobe in Texas.  

For Telephone: “An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.” Sounds like our cell phones and social media apps. Obviously that entry came later, but Bierce worked at this dictionary for decades. He originally called it The Devil’s Dictionary. You could argue that it was authored by the character of Lucifer himself. This would have been an Americanized version of Milton’s Lucifer; that is, super smart guy, highly eloquent, his heart heavy with lament.  

We must remember: Bierce’s aim was not to be a troublemaker, a scoundrel. We encounter that a lot now, the idea that if you don’t shuffle along with the lobotomized rabble, you are someone who rants, someone not “chill” — the horror — someone who is “intense,” when it’s better to be an indolent couch habitué incapable of adding anything to life (Resident: “Unable to leave”), and you can come under attack for not wishing to join the marching line over the cliff’s edge. Bierce wanted to save you from that resulting abyss. Or, enough people to make the world worth one’s while.  

He wrote a huge amount of short stories — 250 — and 850 fables in a period when writers of imagination actually wrote; as in, wrote often and wrote well, rather than what they do now, which is talk about writing without actually creating anything and bragging about how they are off for another writer’s colony vacation funded by someone else. One of Bierce’s business problems was that regardless of literary people wagging their fingers at him for being a bad egg — despite the fact that he was popular and making nice coin — was that scores of other writers were lifting his ideas full-scale. A lot of people got into the make-up-astringent-definitions game. Some even took Bierce’s words verbatim. The dictionary’s apparent big break came in 1887, with Bierce’s column in William Randolph Hearst’s The San Francisco Examiner; in other words, nearly twenty years after its conception, with Bierce having stockpiled entries.  

Alas, he only served up a few choice reminders of the form’s potency, then figured this was not the form that worked best, this kind of piecemeal publication. So, the devil went silent, until Hearst’s newspaper empire extended further nationally, which meant that it was prime time for Bierce to hit the country-at-large hard with his jocular truths. In 1904, the entries began to catch on a big way, and it was book time for our man Ambrose.  

Unfortunately, you couldn’t stick the devil’s name in things at the time. The ribald, wild days of the Old West had hit and passed, but there was still a Puritan streak throughout the Republic. Bierce opted for the rather unwieldy, The Cynic’s World Book. This was supposed to be a two-parter, which is why the first installment only covered the letters A-L. But sales were modest, ticking in at 1,070, with 124 remaindered at a lower cost. A few more years go by, with Bierce likely thinking, “These people I am in business with suck, are you serious?” until the publisher Walter Neale pitched Bierce on doing a multi-volume collection of all of his work. The ghost stories, the memoirs, the proto-Modernistic poetry, the japes, and what will now be called The Devil’s Dictionary, with Bierce editing the entire shebang.  

The collection ran to 12 volumes. You could only buy the whole package, which is amusing, considering that Bierce wrote in so many genres and styles that you could easily have been a fan of one branch of his oeuvre and not the others. Or not as committed a fan.  

That was important to me when I was starting out. The Biercean approach. Not the Biercean result. I didn’t want his results. What my aims became, and remain, results-wise, are not germane to this discussion. But I understood that a diversification was not a fracturing, that it could be an amplification. I got it. As someone who writes plotty fiction, arty fiction, personal essays, pieces on art, film, literature, music, and sports, plus op-eds, and does a lot of radio, and writes humor books and satire, Bierce made a great deal of sense to me, as someone like Orson Welles would later.  

That idea of inhabiting worlds, fully, and being equally adept as the creator and guide for each of your worlds, was what the further-along artist did in my view, and in Bierce’s, too (and Shakespeare’s, Dylan’s, Melville’s, Poe’s for that matter). For some artists, that is how they push to add layers and realms of truth. I think that’s what you do if you’re truly any good.  

The terror of the ghost stories juiced a creative process that provided terror in definition form, at the very root of how we communicate with each other, the true scrip of a society, even more than money. They don’t read the same, the ghost work and The Devil’s Dictionary, but their evolutionary paths are not dissimilar. I don’t know if Bierce could have written the one without the other; or, if he could have, he could have done so without being able to do so, had he elected, if you know what I mean.  

Those expensive sets didn’t rack up the mega-sales (one option was to purchase them bound in leather, with Bierce’s autograph on the first page), but the devil lit out of Ambrose Bierce’s imagination, and he hitched many a’ride throughout the country, and then the world.  

Satire: “See Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil’s Dictionary. Making the gut shake with laughter so that the brain comes alive and says, ‘I better do something better than what I’ve been doing before it gets too late.’” 

We try to avoid the fallen angel now, as best we can, but there are not scales big enough to cloak all of our eyes, despite some of our best manufacturing efforts. For Bierce understood that the ultimate fallen angel was not the devil. It was truth. The fallen angel that always rises because we cannot tamp it away, explode it away, bury it away, obfuscate it away, keep it from our mirrors, our minds, our hearts, our souls, our consciences, that part of us that always, ultimately, knows better. Bierce’s creation was a bound lexicon to stand upon, when the angel needed a further leg up. Just because truth is indomitable does not mean it can’t use help. Humor help, as it were. Humor horror help.  •

Colin Fleming’s latest book is Meatheads Say the Realest Things. His fiction appears in Harper's, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, and Boulevard, and his writings on art, film, music, literature, and sports run in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and JazzTimes. He has three books coming out in 2021: an entry in Bloomsbury's 33 1/3 series on Sam Cooke's Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963; a story collection with Dzanc called If You [ ]: Fantasy, Fabula, Fuckery, Hope; and a volume looking at 1951's Scrooge as the ultimate horror film from Auteur; with a novel called Musings With Franklin: A Novel Told in Conversation That You Can Drink To to follow. His op-eds appear in USA Today, New York Daily News, The New York Times, LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. He's a regular radio guest and maintains the voluminous Many Moments More blog on his website colinfleminglit.com, which ranges in its explorations from ballet to film to sports to literature to music to art to nature to unique workout routines in historical structures while exposing the corruption and discrimination — and plain bad writing — rampant in publishing, and documenting what it truly means to endure and grow. Sometimes there are posts on Twitter @colinfleminglit

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