« 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).
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.
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).
For the sake of comparison, here’s Mr. Low’s rendition of same:
Happy 180th anniversary, Mr. Bierce, wherever you may roam!