The Ambrose Bierce Site


Ambrose Bierce
Jack London

A Reconstruction by Don Swaim

Author’s Note: This account is based on actual events taking place in the summer of 1910, as the independent-minded Bierce engaged in a legendary drinking bout with Socialist Jack London at the Bohemian Club’s summer camp on the Russian River, Sonoma County, California. While the specific details of the debate are lost to history (and ignored by Bierce’s first definitive biographer, Carey McWilliams, in 1929), the author has attempted to reconstruct them using the authentic words of Bierce and London in their published writings, as well as applying a degree of literary license to sweeten the narrative.

Bierce was jealous. His poet friend George Sterling had found a new playmate in Jack London, and Sterling couldn’t resist taunting his idol Bierce about it. The poet, a natural sycophant, needed someone closer at hand to look up to now that Bierce had abandoned California for Washington, D.C. In his letters, Sterling wrote about the low roads he had traveled with the pugnacious novelist: the Oakland waterfront, the Barbary Coast, the bloody prizefights, how they wolfed down raw chopped beef and onions, their prodigious consumption of anything alcoholic. He called Jack “Wolf.” Jack called George “Greek.” Once the Boy Socialist and the Prince of the Oyster Thieves, London now called himself King of the Drunkards. While London went off to report on the war between Russia and Japan for William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, Sterling stayed in California to line-edit London’s novel, The Sea-Wolf. After the book came out, Bierce read it enviously, thought it mostly disagreeable, and was left with the impression it was always winter and night in Alaska. He almost wished he had written the damned thing.
    Sterling wrote to his old mentor that had Bierce been born a generation later he, like London, would be a socialist, maybe even an anarchist. Hell’s bells! Bierce loathed London’s political notions. Set up socialism and you create a race of sloths and slugs. Men like London would grab a crucifix to beat a dog; the damn dog’s beaten all right but the crucifix is knocked to hell. Bierce wrote to Sterling to take his heart out of his head and stand tall above the flower belt and the bird zone. In turn, Sterling dared Bierce to face London toe-to-toe, eye-to-eye. Bierce took the challenge and promised to treat the son of a bitch like a Dutch uncle.
     It was 1910. Bierce entrained to California, where London and Sterling were whooping it up at the Bohemian Club’s annual summer high jinks in a redwood grove along the Russian River, just across from Upshack, the rude summer camp owned by Bierce’s older brother Albert, known since childhood as Grizzly. Sterling had come up from his artists’ colony in Carmel, London from the estate he called the Valley of the Moon in Glen Ellen.
    Bierce made no concession to the woods, damp and lush from the rain, which had ended to clear the way for a pure and unambiguous sky. He wore his usual black suit, tie, and a derby hat. Only his mustache and his pale skin were white. He waited at the bar while Sterling fetched London. The drinking establishment was a rustic affair, open on four sides, with a roof of redwood. Bierce drank cognac, his favorite. Three Star Martell. Beyond the bar was the club swimming pool, a roped-off section of the sluggish river. Some of the Bohemians, in the buff, were splashing in the water, which was high because of the recent rain.

London played poker under a tent and chain-smoked. He threw his cards down when Sterling announced that Bierce was waiting and spoiling for a fight. Time to quit anyway. London had been dealt another bad hand. Life had been a series of alternating defeats and victories for him. He clapped his wide-brim hat onto his head and stood. He wore Levi’s and a red vest over his workman’s shirt. When London left the tent the others followed like Coxey’s Army. London had actually trailed Coxey back in ’94. That was the year he’d been a tramp, the year he’d dodged the brakemen on the Cannonball Express, the year he’d been clubbed on the head by a cop in New York City just for being there, the year he’d served thirty days in a New York lockup for the crime of having no money.
    As London marched the crowd behind him grew larger. The battle was about to begin. London wasn’t yet forty, a man of average height with a short neck and the physique of a middleweight. His face was round, his eyes were blue and inquisitive. He had the ability to look into the face of another and to hold the gaze. His mouth was quick to smile despite the loss of his two front teeth, the product of a friendly barroom brawl. His brown hair splashed over his forehead. When he spoke directly to someone he’d reach out and touch the other’s arm or shoulder. He collected people. White people. He hated what he called Japs, chinks, niggers, and half-breeds of all categories. He believed in racial purity, unlike Bierce who believed nothing was pure. Bierce, leaning against the bar, saw the crowd approach with Jack London in the lead. It could be either a revolution or a mob of drunks, which were one in the same, he thought.
     “Comrade Bierce.”
     “Mister London.”
     “I’d recognize your mug anywhere from those Swinnerton cartoons in the Hearst papers, Bierce.”
     “And I you from the police blotter.”
     “Prison’s good for the soul, old chap. You should try it. Hope my little congregation here doesn’t worry you.”
     “Not at all, London. A congregation’s merely made up of the subjects of an experiment in hypnotism.”
     Someone in the crowd had a Kodak Brownie camera and snapped a picture of the two writers. London grabbed the bottle of cognac the bartender had left on the bar. He poured a drink for himself and another into Bierce’s nearly empty glass.
     “Here you are, Bierce, if you don’t mind taking a drink poured by the wildcat of literature.”
     “Here’s to your health, London. Never thought I’d be quaffing with someone who thinks civilization is a slum.”
     They polished off their brandies in equal time.
     “Civilization’s a slum only when it’s cluttered with critics like you. Another drink?”
     “Indeed, London. If only the liquor improved your politics as well as your repartee.”
     “There’s an old Yiddish-Irish-Russian saying. May you be proof a human being can endure anything, including an emetic.”
     General laughter throughout the tent.
     Bierce half smiled. “An emetic’s a substance that causes the stomach to take a sudden and enthusiastic interest in outside affairs, which is exactly the way you’re making my stomach feel.”
     “Bierce, my respect for the elderly is limitless.”
     “Really? I place strict limits on mine.”
     “Unless, of course, the aged become demented.”
     “Ah, yes, dementia being the melancholy mental condition of one whose arguments we’re unable to answer.”
     London guffawed. “As one who has all his faculties at the age of thirty-eight, I worry about yours, considering your ripe old age.”
     “Compared to me you’re a hollow youth, London.”
     “That’s preferable to having a hollow head.”
     London put a cigarette to his lips and blew smoke into Bierce’s face.
     “You do that again, London, and I’ll shoot you.”
     “You’ll shoot no one, you old buzzard. I’ll tie your breastbone in knots if you start anything. Pick up your glass. I propose another toast. In the words of Shelly, old men are testy and will have their way.” More laughter from London’s todies. “Listen, old chap, I merely mean to show that at a certain age we stop developing mentally. We lose touch with the latest scientific knowledge and, like you, become defensive.”
     “What you consider scientific knowledge being socialism, I presume.”
     “You got it.”
     “May I advise you, London, socialism isn’t a science.”
     “On the contrary...”
     “It’s an opinion, London, a belief. Just like Christianity and every other damned fool religion. Socialism’s a philosophical notion that embodies economic presumptions, most of them wrong. You know what philosophy means, don’t you?”
     “Of course.”
     “Then I’ll tell you. Philosophy’s a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.”
     London had just swallowed his liquor. It went down the wrong way causing him to choke with mirth and spirits. With tears in his eyes he reached out and gently punched Bierce’s shoulder.
     “Seriously, old chap, why don’t you join our little revolution?”
     “Because revolution is merely an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment. Just how in Sam Hill did you ever become a socialist, London? You’re in a pitiful minority.”
     “Sure, we don’t have a fighting number. Like it or not, it’s a philosophic war we’re waging in which our goal is the confiscation of the wealth of the world and the complete overthrow of your society.”
     “You socialists are sick, sick, sick. You can’t be cured. You’re afflicted with congenital insurgency. You and your comrades rebel, not only against the established order, but against pretty near every fool thing that attracts your attention.”
     “Bierce, you sneer at the word comrade. But it knits men together as brothers, as men who stand shoulder to shoulder under the red banner of revolution.”
     “Tauri excrementum. Do you know what revolution means? It’s the bursting of the boilers that takes place when the safety valve of public discussion’s closed. The problem with you socialists is you want everything you don’t have.”
     “Bierce, we’re going to take your governments, your palaces, and all your purpled ease away from you. Someday, when we get a few more hands and crowbars, we’ll topple your society, along with all its rotting life and unburied dead. Then we’ll clean the cellar and build a new habitat for mankind in which all the rooms will be bright and airy, and where the atmosphere will be clean, noble, and alive. When that day comes, the capitalist will work for his bread just as the toiler in the field works for his.”
     Bierce took a bigger than usual sip of his cognac. “You stand on your infernal soap box and paint all who disagree with you with the same brush. Riches and luxurious living provoke envy in you and your comrades because, through your own inefficiency, the advantages of wealth aren’t accessible to you.”
     “Horse manure, Bierce. I’m rich in my own right, thanks to writing bestsellers one after another, something you’ve never done. But it’s insensitive and obscene for you to condemn those, through no choice of their own, who are born to poverty, disease, ignorance, and illiteracy.”
     “I don’t claim to be sensitive and I don’t deny being obscene. London, London, London. You and your socialists. I’m not sure how to bridle the wild ass of civilization and make you behave. We may even have to set legal limits on private fortunes just to forestall desperate action by political Apaches like you. Meanwhile, it seems to me the rest of us must put poppies in our hair and simply vote Democrat or Republican, imperfect as they are. Have you heard my definition of the word grapeshot? It’s an argument in which the future prepares to answer the demands of socialism.”
     “You stopped growing a generation ago, old chap. Your brain has crystallized.”
     “I notice you have a long, lovely neck, London. Someday I hope to be the one who’ll put a rope around it.”
     London’s laugh boomed. “What a delightful thought. A hangman’s rope against my neck. And Ambrose Bierce the man who puts it there. You’re terrified of our revolution, you old fart.”
     “Your revolution hasn’t even gotten off the ground, London, but even if it comes I’m not hanging around for it. There’s already a revolution in Mexico. I’m going down there to watch the show.”
     “They’re just a bunch of half-breed bandits in Mexico. Who the hell knows what they’re fighting over? Besides, you’re too old to go. You’d die on the trail.”
     “London, one is never too old to die on the trail.”
     “I knew I was going to like you.”
     “I thought I might dislike you too.”
     The Bohemian with the Kodak Brownie snapped another photograph. The pictures would never come out. It was too dim under the redwood roof. Then came the shout, “The games are about to begin!” The congregation, disappointed the only exchange of blows they’d seen had been verbal, retired to the playing field for some real sport. The action would be better on the field, man against man, body against body, sweat against sweat.
     “Whad’ya say, Bierce, shall we adjourn to the matches?”
     “After me, London.”
     On the field, the Bohemians abandoned what few adult sensibilities they had brought with them to indulge in archery, rifle shooting, shot put, sack races, greased-pig wrestling, one-legged racing, blindfold boxing, egg-throwing, and tug-of-wars. The sides were evenly matched for the tug-of-war, twenty men at each end of the rope, eighty sweaty hands, with a pit of mud in between.
     “You’re not playing tug-of-war, Bierce?”
     “I’ve no wish to be pulled into the mud, London, even if it takes twenty men to do it.”

The sun rolled above in a lazy fashion. The tug-of-war ended as expected. Forty men managed to drag each other into the slime. Their clothes and faces caked, they milled around in circles like survivors of a Zulu slaughter. The revelers moved on to the cooking fires where a pig, apple in mouth, was turning over a spit. They chewed on ham, chow-chow, cold slaw, baked potatoes, ears of corn roasted in the husk, and sour dough biscuits.
    As dusk arrived, Bierce, London, and George Sterling took turns at the crank of the ice cream maker, a job usually relegated to children having the enthusiasm to turn and keep turning, but there were no children at the encampment, not in chronological terms. The ice cream churn—its container filled with a mixture of cream, sugar, and vanilla—was packed solid with crushed ice and coarse rock salt. Bierce was the first to man the crank, a comforting and highly domestic sensation that led him to think about so much he had abandoned in his life. Christ, he thought, let’s not become sentimental over the repetitious task of concocting ice cream. London sampled it. The ice cream’s texture was soft and smooth, the taste redolent of vanilla. It was so cold it sent a lightning bolt through his head. London passed the spoon to Bierce who put his tongue to the ice cream and nodded his approval. The campers lined up with their cups and spoons to eat fresh ice cream on a warm night after a rain.
    Bierce and London talked for hours, their backs against a tree, a bottle of cognac between them. They watched the fireflies signaling. They slapped at mosquitos and talked and drank and drank.
     London told Bierce about his lousy childhood and the poverty of his youth. How he was five-years old when he first got drunk, guzzling beer from a pail intended for his father, an itinerant astrologer. How he worked as a sailor, a longshoreman, a roustabout. How he mowed lawns, cleaned carpets, and washed windows. How he learned the great truth, that it was better to sell his brains than his muscles. How he wrote thirty books in twelve years because life was expensive, as were former and present wives, experimental farms that always failed, prize animals that won no prizes. He told about building the word’s most expensive ketch, the Snark, how he never turned anyone from his door or refused a loan. How everyone he ever trusted had cheated and deceived him, yet he never held it against them.
     “That’s why I write one-thousand words a day, sick or not, hangover or not. What would you do in my place, Bierce?”
     “Personally, I’d commit suicide.”
     “The critics are already calling The Call of the Wild and The Sea-Wolf classics.”
     “London, I hate to admit it but you have come out with a few rattling good stories. When you created that ruthless sea captain, Wolf Larsen, you made a permanent addition to American literature.”
     “In spite of what you say, you still don’t like my novels much, do you?“
     “The art of writing novels, such as it was, is long dead everywhere except in Russia, where it’s new. Peace to its ashes, some of which continue to have a large sale.”
    “You didn’t answer my question.”
    “Of course I did.”
     They sent George Sterling, who had assiduously refrained from interfering in the faceoff he had instigated, off for more booze. The two literary warriors got very drunk, even for them. London theorized about the two types of drinkers, the first whose brain is filled with maggots, blue mice, and pink elephants, the other whose brain is infused with wit, imagination, and cheer. The men at last agreed on something: they were against the temperance movement and the women’s vote.
     “London, demon rum is a fiery liquor that produces madness in abstainers.”
     “The first thing the ladies will do when they get the vote will be to close down the saloons, Bierce. The bitches would have us drink water.”
     “I drink water only to cure the disease known as thirst.”
     Bierce also noted he drank in precise numerical order. The second drink immediately after the first, the third immediately after the second, and so on. They drank. And drank. And became silly. Tears of laughter flowed down London’s cheeks. Even Bierce smiled out of turn.
     “Bierce, I love you. Pass the bottle. And may I call you comrade?”
     “Not without a thrashing.”
     They paddled across the shallow Russian River, Sterling carrying the lantern and the booze, to Grizzly’s camp. In the canoe they sang row, row, row your boat. Not well but lustily. No matter how they tried the round wouldn’t come out even. They disembarked on the opposite shore and climbed the embankment. When they got to the top Bierce tripped on a vine and slid feet first to the edge of the water. He curled up in a bed of ferns, the river licking at his boots. London and Sterling got him on his legs. He was bleeding a little from his nose by the time they reached Grizzly’s tent. London and Bierce sat outside and passed the bottle. Bierce ignored his blood as trivial. Their talk was loud and animated, punctuated with laughter. Twice, Albert yelled out to tell ’em to pipe the hell down.
    London raised the bottle in a salute. “To my dearest friend in the entire world, Ambrose Bierce.”
     “I didn’t mean what I said to you, Jack.”
     “About what, Ambrose?”
     “About wanting to put a rope around your neck.”
     “S’all right, comrade. You’re not the first.”
George Sterling fell asleep on the grass. So did London. Bierce sat with his back against a tree. He pulled his derby over his forehead. He was tired. An old man who talked too much, who thought too much, who drank too much, who hated and loved too much. He awoke when he felt cold steel against his cheek. A massive man, unshaven, a cigar in his mouth, loomed over him with a gun in his hand.
     “Stand up, you bastard. You’re comin’ with me.”
     Bierce pushed his hat back from his eyes. “Who are you? What do you want?”
     “The name’s Larsen. It’s you I want.”
     “Larsen? Wolf Larsen?“
     “Wolf’s my brother. He’s the intelligent one, the kind and gentle one. I’m Death Larsen. I need deckhands, seal hunters, and a cabin boy. You’re going to be my cabin boy, Bierce. “You’re comin’ on the Macedonia with me, so get the hell up.”
     Bierce yelled for his brother.
     Grizzly hollered back, “Dammit, Brose, you’re yowlin’ in your sleep again. You’re having those bad dreams. Quiet down, Brose. You’ll wake Ma and Pa. Ma’ll give you the castor oil, I tell you.”
     “Grizz, don’t you see him?”
     “See who, Brose?”
     “He’s standing right here, Grizz. With a gun. Death Larsen.”
     “Go back to sleep, Brose. We’ll be goin’ to the camp meeting in the mornin’. You better brush up on your prayin’ and your hymns.”
     Bierce was yanked to his feet. As he rose he grabbed Death Larsen’s hand, the one with the gun. But Larsen’s fist seemed to be made of iron and Bierce couldn’t twist the gun away. Sweat rolled down his face as he clinched Larsen’s hand, but the hand remained firm. Bierce gave up and ran. He tripped over the sleeping body of Jack London. The Prince of the Drunkards barely stirred. Bierce staggered to his feet again and ran some more. He felt Larson behind him like a panting bear. His legs were weak. It was agony to lift them. Lead balls might have been chained to his legs. Death was catching up to him. He tripped on a root and pitched head first into the ground. Death Larsen stood above him, Larsen’s legs spread on either side of Bierce’s body. Bierce felt the gun barrel against the back of his head. He didn’t hear himself scream but he must have because Grizzly’s voice was as loud and pronounced just as it was back in boyhood Indiana.
     “Brose, you hush up now or I’m coming out to wallop you like I did when we were on the farm.”
     Bierce lay on the deck. He heard the rumble of the steam engines below. Smelled the smoke pouring from the stacks. Felt the sea breeze. Tasted the salt. Heard the screech of the gulls. He wasn’t a seaman. He was a landlubber. He’d been shanghaied. He remembered the Indians. They’d dragged him, beaten and tied, to Red Cloud. It was just after the war. Indian Country. “You’ve been hallucinating, Bierce,“ General Hazen said. “Not another word about Indians.” There were gangs. New York gangs. He had fought them. The Plug Uglies, the Gophers, the Gas Housers, the Five Pointers, the Dead Rabbits. He’d gone to New York to plead for his job after the gold-mining debacle in the Black Hills. He heard his pal Gump’s voice at Kennesaw Mountain during the war. “Brose, I think Harley done it, not a reb sniper. Shot you in the head.” A bell. A foghorn. He was on the Macedonia.
     “You’re a dead man, Bierce,“ Death Larsen said. “You ain’t no sailor. You’re not even good enough to carry shit and slop. You ain’t worth twenty dollars a month in sailor’s pay. Let me tell you what you are, Bierce. You’re supper for the sharks, that’s what you are.” Larsen started to squeeze the trigger.
     “Don’t do it, Larsen!” A voice, commanding.
     Larsen turned to see Jack London. He was holding a scarlet banner on a staff with one hand and a bottle of Three Star Martell in the other.
     “Drop the gun, Larsen, or I’ll brain you with this bottle. Ours is a peaceful revolution, more or less. But if you want violence...”
     “Of course I want violence.”
     “Larsen, there are a million revolutionaries in our ranks. We demand the reins of power and the destiny of mankind. Nothing less. So if it’s death you prefer then it’s death you’ll get.”
     “Yeah, I like death, London. Your death.”
     He pulled the trigger. Bierce saw the flash. Heard the explosion. Smelled the smoke. London shrieked as the bullet entered his forehead. The banner fell into the wind. The bottle of Martell flew into the air and hit the deck, smashing into pieces.
     “Now it’s your turn, Bierce.”
     Suddenly, a blazing horse wreathed in flames boomed across the deck, which shuddered as though hit by an earthquake. Bierce’s do-gooder missionary-sister, Almeda, impervious to the flames, stood on the horse’s back holding the reins.
     “Pa warned you, Ambrose,“ Almeda cried. “You’ve done it now. You’re goin’ to hell.”
     The horse, with hooves of steel and stone, bore down on Bierce and Death Larsen.
     She said, “It’s too late for you, Ambrose. Just like Pa told us would happen.”
     Larsen, cigar clinched in his teeth, fired at the horse but the bullets passed through the beast as though through air. The horse trampled Death Larsen first, turning Larsen’s flesh into juice and meat. Then the Apocalyptic monster thundered over Bierce, unable to escape the crushing avalanche of hooves.
     Bierce screamed again.
     Once more, Grizzly’s childhood voice. “I’m tellin’ you, Brose, you’re gonna get whupped if you keeping yellin’ in your sleep like that. You know Pa thinks it’s the Devil’s work.”

When George Sterling awoke, head throbbing, he saw Bierce, his derby pulled over his eyes, sleeping fitfully against a tree, his hands were shaking like the palsy. London lay on his back on the ground. Both men were wet with dew and sweat, both snoring desperately. A smashed bottle of Three Star Martell lay between them, glass glistening in the weeds.

© 1996, 2005, 2014 by Don Swaim

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