AMBROSE BIERCE ON THE GREAT
PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OF 2016
by Don Swaim
Here lies the body of the Republican Party;
Corrupt, and generally speaking, hearty.
sketch of Bierce by J. H. E. Partington
Okay, so Bierce wasn't actually around to comment on the 2016 election, which resulted in the astonishing, if not shocking, election of Donald J. Trump, a man derided by many as unfit for the presidency. Bierce, as an equal-opportunity fault-finder, would have had a field day. But in his own era, he discharged loads of thunder regarding elections and politics, some of which still rings true as the Trump/Clinton campaign reverberates unremittingly.
From his Devil's Dictionary, a few examples, which may be familiar to dedicated Bierce fans:
CANDIDATE: One who by the advice of his friends reluctantly consents to sacrifice his private interests to the public good.
CONGRESS: A body of men who meet to repeal laws.
DEMAGOGUE: A political opponent.
ELECTED. Chosen to discharge one duty and a hundred subordinates.
ELECTOR: One who enjoys the sacred privilege of voting for the man of another man's choice.
HONEST: Afflicted with an impediment in his dealing.
IDIOT: A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling.
PLUTOCRACY: A republican form of government deriving its powers from the conceit of the governed -- in thinking they govern.
POLITICIAN: An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive.
POLITICS: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.
VOTE: The instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.
As a journalist, Bierce was a prolific commentator on public affairs, but like most journalism his was topical, the events and personalities now mostly hazy, often forgotten. This is particularly noticeable in Bierce's first published poetry collection Black Beetles in Amber (1892), which then was so current that many references, focusing primarily on people and events on the West Coast, are virtually meaningless to today's audience.
True to form, Bierce defended his decision to republish in book form his topical poetry, first appearing in local California journals, asserting, "I conceive it the right of an author to have his fugitive work collected in his lifetime; and this seems to me especially true of one whose work, necessarily engendering animosities, is peculiarly exposed to challenge as unjust. That is a charge that can best be examined before time has effaced the evidence."
Understandably, after well more than a century, time has done just that. Nevertheless, many of Bierce's political writings, fiction and non-fiction (but not his poetry), can be read in The Fall of the Republic and Other Political Satires, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz (University of Tennessee Press 2000) and Ambrose Bierce: Skepticism and Dissent, edited by Lawrence I. Berkove (Delmas 1980).
One satirical poem, "The Night of Election," from Black Beetles in Amber, is among the more accessible, and pays homage, of a sort, to Bret Harte (1836-1902), Bierce's friend and one-time mentor:
The Night of Election
"O venerable patriot, I pray
Stand not here coatless; at the break of day
We'll know the grand result -- and even now
The eastern sky is faintly touched with gray.
"It ill befits thine age's hoary crown
This rude environment of rogue and clown,
Who, as the lying bulletins appear,
With drunken cries incarnadine the town.
"But if with noble zeal you stay to note
The outcome of your patriotic vote
For Blaine, or Cleveland, and your native land,
Take-and God bless you! -- take my overcoat."
"Done, pard -- and mighty white of you. And now
guess the country'll keep the trail somehow.
I aint allowed to vote, the Warden said,
But whacked my coat up on old Stanislow."
The reference to Blaine and Cleveland dealt with the bitterly-fought presidential election of 1884 in which New York Governor Grover Cleveland narrowly defeated Republican former U. S. Senator James G. Blaine of Maine. New York decided the election, awarding Cleveland the state's thirty-six electors by a margin of just 1,047 votes. The "old Stanislow" reference in Bierce's poem alludes to the Stanislaus River in California, specifically to Bret Harte's poem "Society Upon the Stanislaus" in which Harte, in the body of his verse, spells the river "Stanislow" as dialect:
I reside at Table Mountain, and my name is Truthful James
Also from Black Beetles in Amber is Bierce's poem, "To My Liars," and because the 2016 election ostensibly consisted of more lies than any presidential contest in recent history, this concluding, supremenly moralizing, stanza is worth noting:
I am not up to small deceit or any sinful games;
And I'll tell in simple language what I know about the row
That broke up our Society upon the Stanislow.
To My Liars
'Tis not enough my neighbors that you school
In the belief that I'm a rogue or fool;
That small advantage you would gladly trade
For what one moment would yourself persuade.
Write, then, your largest and your longest lie:
You sha'n't believe it, howsoe'er you try.
No falsehood you can tell, no evil do,
Shall turn me from the truth to injure you.
So all your war is barren of effect;
I find my victory in your respect.
What profit have you if the world you set
Against me? For the world will soon forget
It thought me this or that; but I'll retain
A vivid picture of your moral stain,
And cherish till my memory expire
The sweet, soft consciousness that you're a liar
Is it your triumph, then, to prove that you
Will do the thing that I would scorn to do?
God grant that I forever be exempt
From such advantage as my foe's contempt.
We get much more political meat in Bierce's poem "Election Day," from his 1903 collection Shapes of Clay in which he freely hurls such terms as despots, demagogues, dupes, mountebanks, brainless cranks, tyrants, and freaks. He reserves much of his scorn for the American voters, who apparently were hidden from the sight of the pollsters and the media in 2016, as fools and tools.
From Shapes of Clay, is a poem that might have foreshadowed the aftermath of 2016 election, Bierce assails the "sycophants" who, after being fixed in office, eventually devour the "dupes" who elected them. It first appeared in the San Francisco Wasp on August 30, 1884:
Despots effete upon tottering thrones
Unsteadily poised upon dead men's bones,
Walk up! walk up! the circus is free,
And this wonderful spectacle you shall see:
Millions of voters who mostly are fools --
Demagogues' dupes and candidates' tools,
Armies of uniformed mountebanks,
And braying disciples of brainless cranks.
Many a week they've bellowed like beeves,
Bitterly blackguarding, lying like thieves,
Libeling freely the quick and the dead
And painting the New Jerusalem red.
Tyrants monarchical -- emperors, kings,
Princes and nobles and all such things --
Noblemen, gentlemen, step this way:
There's nothing, the Devil excepted, to pay,
And the freaks and curios here to be seen
Are very uncommonly grand and serene.
No more with vivacity they debate,
Nor cheerfully crack the illogical pate;
No longer, the dull understanding to aid,
The stomach accepts the instructive blade,
Nor the stubborn heart learns what is what
From a revelation of rabbit-shot;
And vilification's flames -- behold!
Burn with a bickering faint and cold.
Magnificent spectacle! -- every tongue
Suddenly civil that yesterday rung
(Like a clapper beating a brazen bell)
Each fair reputation's eternal knell;
Hands no longer delivering blows,
And noses, for counting, arrayed in rows.
Walk up, gentlemen -- nothing to pay --
The Devil goes back to Hell to-day.
That land full surely hastens to its end
Where public sycophants in homage bend
The populace to flatter, and repeat
The doubled echoes of its loud conceit.
Lowly their attitude but high their aim,
They creep to eminence through paths of shame,
Till, fixed securely in the seats of pow'r,
The dupes they flattered they at last devour.
Joshi and Schultz, in their introduction to The Fall of the Republic and Other Political Satires, put it this way: "Bierce's boldness in criticising the fundamentals of the American political and social system is, for the most part, praiseworthy. Few American writers have had the courage to question such hallowed dogmas as the very principle of republican government and the efficacy of democracy, universal suffrage, and the legal system."
Bierce had much to say about every topic under the sun, but he was a man of his day, bravely speaking out on political and social issues while leaving a substantial body of fiction and non-fiction that holds up decently in the twenty-first century of Donald J. Trump. There are those who believe they could use an Ambrose Bierce now.
Don Swaim is the author of The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story, Hippocampus Press, New York