The Devil's Odds

The Devil's Odds
St. Martin's Press. To Be Released Feb. 28, 2012

Friday, July 16, 2010

Bitter Bierce

Ambrose Bierce was born in 1842, as Southern writer Florence King pointed out, "On the Ohio frontier, which he hated. Soon the family moved to the Indiana frontier, which he also hated." Born into a poor but well read family, he was apprenticed to a printer when he was fifteen. At the outset of the Civil War he enlisted in the Ninth Indiana Infantry Regiment as a private and rose to the rank of brevet major by the end of the War, during which he was seriously wounded twice and cited eleven times for valor. The war and his short participation in the Reconstruction occupation made Bierce a thoroughgoing misanthrope: "I favor war, famine, pestilence... In short, anything that will keep people frightened enough to behave halfway decently."

After resigning his commission, he made his way to San Francisco where he wrote for a number of newspapers. In 1888 he became affiliated with the Hurst papers where he rose to the position of one of the most widely-respected columnists of the day. An early pioneer of investigative journalism, he wrote a series of articles that exposed the manipulations of Colis P. Hunnington's
Southern Pacific Railroad in bilking of the federal government of vast amounts of money. He was called to testify before Congress in the matter. A highly placed attorney for the railroad accosted him on the steps of the capitol and tried to bribe him. "Name your price, Bierce," the man said. "Everyone has a price." Bierce knocked the man tumbling down the steps and bellowed out, "My price is sixty million dollars to be returned to the treasury of the United States."

He was also well known as a short story writer. His "An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge" is one of the most famous stories in the American cannon. Filmed three times, it was regarded by novelist Kurt Vonnegut as the most perfect short story in the English language. He called it "A work of flawless American genius."

Bierce, who delighted in being politically incorrect a full century before the term was invented, was fond of claiming that women were incapable of rational thought. Whether or not this reflected his true opinion or whether it was meant to annoy and inflame passions is subject to debate. Whatever his feelings toward the fair sex, they did not stop him from having one wife, numerous affairs and a bevy of female admirers. Nor did they prevent him from blatantly and publicly trying to seduce one of the most famous feminists of the era.

One of Bierce's more delightful books is his Devil's Dictionary. In his own prose the soul of brevity, he defined "once" as "enough" and "twice" as "once too often."

A few of Bierce's definitions:

POCKET, n. The cradle of motive and the grave of conscience. In woman this organ is lacking; so she acts without motive, and her conscience, denied burial, remains ever alive, confessing the sins of others.

NOSE, n. The extreme outpost of the face. From the circumstance that great conquerors have great noses, Getius, whose writings antedate the age of humor, calls the nose the organ of quell. It has been observed that one's nose is never so happy as when thrust into the affairs of others, from which some physiologists have drawn the inference that the nose is devoid of the sense of smell.

PALACE, n. A fine and costly residence, particularly that of a great official. The residence of a high dignitary of the Christian Church is called a palace; that of the Founder of his religion was known as a field, or wayside. There is progress.

PAINTING, n. The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic. Formerly, painting and sculpture were combined in the same work: the ancients painted their statues. The only present alliance between the two arts is that the modern painter chisels his patrons.

FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.

FOLLY, n. That "gift and faculty divine" whose creative and controlling energy inspires Man's mind, guides his actions and adorns his life.

Bierce was himself fond of saying that a cynic was merely a realist as viewed by an idealist. Regardless of whatever else might be said of the man, he was a journalist the likes of which we could use on the national scene these days. H.L. Mencken, a man not given to idle praise, said of him, "He would not lie and he could not be bought."

No one knows for sure what happened to Bierce. In 1913 he got his affairs in order and vanished into the maelstrom of the Mexican Revolution. All subsequent attempts (and there have been many) to determine his fate have proven fruitless. A few years ago a film was made of Bierce's supposed Mexican adventure called "The Old Gringo" after the novel of the same title by Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. The movie starred Gregory Peck as Bierce and Jane Fonda as an idealistic young American teacher who fell under his sway. Because Fuentes is an optimistic socialist and because Jane Fonda is Jane Fonda, the film considerably softened Bierce's personality.

I will let Bierce himself have the last word on things via advice he wrote to his son: "Endeavor to see the world as it is and not as you would have it be. Do not trust the human race without collateral security for it will play you a scurvy trick every time. And remember: it harms no man to be considered an enemy worthy of respect until he has proven himself a friend worthy of affection."


  1. "An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge" is powerfully good.

    I had a professor at UTD back in the day argue strongly that his comments about women were designed to spur sales and did not reflect actual beliefs.

  2. I suspect that is true. Plus, he liked to annoy people.

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  4. Ambrose Bierce happens to be one of the writers I like a lot.I particularly like his Civil War short stories.

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