Ambrose Bierce, mon amour
A few months ago I had a pillow fight with a fellow scribbler. We argued about nothing - proof, if any were needed, of my chronic bad judgment. The man asked to interview me for what I knew would be a hostile article. I acquiesced, having sat on the other side of that equation. Turnabout is fair play.
My detractor grandly proclaimed to be a "historian of newspaper column writing." While we conversed, I mentioned Ambrose Bierce. Never heard of him, the "historian" replied. "Sweetheart!" I exclaimed. "There is a lot you don't know." The inevitable hit piece ensued.
Memories grow ever shorter. As we observe the loss of a famous journalist - Tim Russert - who hired a ghostwriter to help pen his poignant memoir of his own father, I'll take a few moments to remember Bierce, possibly the greatest newspaper columnist of all time. No ghostwriters for Ambrose, whose birthday is today. But plenty of ghosts.
Bierce was a young Midwesterner who saw and survived the worst fighting of the Civil War. Going west, he landed in newspaper-rich San Francisco, swollen with riches from the Gold Rush and awash in outsize personalities. Bierce wrote columns and short stories, many of those ghoulish accounts of odd, mortal epiphanies on the battlefield. A good example is "An Incident at Owl Creek Bridge," which is still widely taught in high schools.
Fiction wasn't Bierce's forte. His real gift was for cut-and-slash opinion writing, and for invective. Bierce grandly declared "war upon every man with a mission, and disesteem for titles of distinction. I am for preserving the ancient, primitive distinction between right and wrong."
Former Globe editor Tom Winship used to tell his staff: Write for impact. Ambrose Bierce wrote for impact. He reveled in his enemies, great and small. Bierce hated dogs with "a deep-seated loathing," according to biographer Carey McWilliams: "In the Wasp and the Examiner Bierce would sometimes devote entire columns to abuse of dogs and the people who kept them." Bierce once wrote an article expressing the hope that the Alaska Gold Rush would lure all of California's canines to the Klondike.
I fell in love with Bierce when I learned that he called Stanford University founder Leland Stanford, "Stealin' Landford." Bierce hated the Big Four - Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker - the "railrogues" who built the first transcontinental railroad. When Huntington went to Washington to lobby for a $130 million government bailout, publisher William Randolph Hearst dispatched Bierce to derail the raid on the Treasury, and, of course, to sell newspapers.
In a famous incident, doubtless embellished by Bierce for Page One placement, Huntington confronted America's best-known newspaper man on the Capitol steps. Name your price, Huntington dared to say in an era far removed from today's lofty standards of journalistic purity. "My price is one hundred thirty million dollars," Bierce thundered. "If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States." The railroad funding bill never passed.
Oh, Ambrose. Won't you just come back for a moment? I'd like you to meet my friend Jack Welch. I think you could have some fun with him.
Bierce led a wondrous life. He married a wealthy woman, and scampered off to London to write columns for Fun magazine. Who wouldn't want to write for Fun magazine? After a failed attempt at mining, he returned to San Francisco to work for Hearst, burnishing his reputation as an idealist wrapped in cynic's clothing. In his "Devil's Dictionary," published near the end of his life, Bierce defined a cynic as "a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be."
Alas, life did not prove wondrous enough. His marriage unraveled over a vaporous "misunderstanding." Bierce outlived two of his three children. If anything is known today about his life, it is his leaving of it. In 1913 he wandered into Mexico, ostensibly to hang around Pancho Villa's revolutionary army. It's assumed he traveled south of the border to die. "To be a Gringo in Mexico-ah, that is euthanasia!" he wrote in a letter before setting out.
Not much is left of Bierce. There is a not-so-great series of detective novels, starring Bierce, by the late Oakley Hall. Also, the Carlos Fuentes novel, "Gringo Viejo," made into the not-so-great 1989 Jane Fonda-Gregory Peck movie "Old Gringo." And newspaper historians who have never heard of him.
Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is firstname.lastname@example.org.