One Hundred and Eighty Bitter Years of Bierce

« Goodbye—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. » — Ambrose Bierce, writing to his niece in the fall of 1913.

There’s a profusion of biographical material out there on the topic of Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842- ??), but here’s a capsule version to get the preliminaries out of the way:

« Ambrose Bierce was an angry young man who got angrier as he grew older. His strong talent was directed always by bitterness and despair. His wonderful stories were weird, cynical, shocking. His life was restless, his temper outrageous, and his death violent. »

Bearce belongs to a select club of larger-than-life American literary figures (among which we might also encounter Messrs. Poe, Twain, Lovecraft, Hemingway, and perhaps Vonnegut), whose life and work inspired, and continues to inspire, countless adaptations in all media, imitations and parodies, appropriations. You know the drill: works by, works about, works starring the author as protagonist.

In addition to the expected adaptations of varying quality, Bierce’s own nebulous ending inspired both fiction (Gerald Kersh‘s 1957 short story ‘The Oxoxoco Bottle‘, in which the narrator discovers a manuscript, in Bierce’s hand, that recounts the extraordinary events that followed his disappearance) and speculative non-fiction, by which I mean Jake Silverstein‘s fascinating 2002 essay, The Devil and Ambrose Bierce: Well Met in Marfa, which you can read here).

There’s even an episode of Will Eisner’s The Spirit (July 25th, 1948) adapting Bierce’s The Damned Thing.

Since there’s so much to take in, I’ll fall back on my usual coping strategy, keeping my focus narrow to avoid (further) losing it. We’re going to explore my two favourite editions of a defining Bierce work, The Devil’s Dictionary, first published in 1906 as The Cynic’s Word Book.

Abasement, n. A decent and customary mental attitude in the presence of wealth or power. Peculiarly appropriate in an employee when addressing an employer.
Commerce, n. A kind of transaction in which A plunders from B the goods of C, and for compensation B picks the pocket of D of money belonging to E.
Edible, adj. Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.
Prescription, n. A physician’s guess at what will best prolong the situation with least harm to the patient.
This lovely edition, featuring illustrations by Joseph Low (1911-2007) was published in 1958 by the Peter Pauper Press of Mount Vernon, NY. This, as it happens, was my introduction to the series, picked up at a long-gone bookstore during a 1992 visit to Victoria, BC, a city that last year finally broke with its proud, longstanding tradition (begun in 1894!) of dumping its raw sewage into the Pacific ocean, surely to the relief of most Seattlites.

Then in 1979 came along a most handsome edition (Thomas Y. Crowell, Publishers) boasting a wealth of illustrations by Egyptian-born force of nature Jean-Claude Suarès (1942-2013).

Interpreter, n. One who enables two persons of different languages to understand each other by repeating to each what it would have been to the interpreter’s advantage to have said.
Lawyer, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.
Longevity, n. Uncommon extension of the fear of death.
Medicine, n. A stone flung down the Bowery to kill a dog on Broadway.
Reflection, n. An action of the mind whereby we obtain a clearer view of our relation to the things of yesterday and are able to avoid the perils that we shall not again encounter.
Respite, n. A suspension of hostilities against a sentenced assassin, to enable the Executive to determine whether the murder may not have been done by the prosecuting attorney. Any break in the continuity of a disagreeable expectation.
Witch, n. (1) An ugly and repulsive old woman, in a wicked league with the devil. (2) A beautiful and attractive young woman, in wickedness a league beyond the devil.

For the sake of comparison, here’s Mr. Low’s rendition of same:

.

Zoology, n. The science and history of the animal kingdom, including its king, the House Fly (Musca maledicta). The father of zoology was Aristotle, as is universally conceded, but the name of its mother has not come down to us. Two of the science’s most illustrious expounders were Buffon and Oliver Goldsmith, from both of whom we learn (L’histoire générale des animaux and A History of Animated Nature) that the domestic cow sheds its horns every two years.

Happy 180th anniversary, Mr. Bierce, wherever you may roam!

-RG

2 thoughts on “One Hundred and Eighty Bitter Years of Bierce

  1. Matt Brunson June 25, 2022 / 20:26

    I remember the 1989 film adaptation of OLD GRINGO, with my hero Gregory Peck as Ambrose Bierce. Wow, was that a massive box office bomb; I’m surprised it didn’t bankrupt Columbia Pictures. It was a pretty weak film, although Peck was of course fine, as was Jimmy Smits. But Jane Fonda’s performance as a virginal, simpering schoolteacher was absolutely awful and easily the worst of her career.

    Like

    • gasp65 July 2, 2022 / 17:52

      Yikes — Old Gringo’s plot seems so… misguided. The film’s, that is. The novel makes a *lot* more sense.
      On the cinematic from, what I’ve seen of Fonda’s performance, I’m inclined to agree with your assessment, well enough to stay clear. 😉

      Like

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