Bierce Duels with Mencken


Bierce Duels with the Sage of Baltimore
by Don Swaim

Young Mencken at about the time
he met Bierce, 1911

NOTE: See the Berton Braley website for more about the now forgotten, but eminently clever, journalist, writer and humorist of the last century.
Mencken, Nathan, And Godby Berton Braley

There were three that sailed away one night
Far from the maddening throng;
And two of the three were always right
And everyone else was wrong
But they took another along, these two
To bear them company,
For he was the only One who ever knew
Why the other two should be;
And so they sailed away, these three
And God.

And the two they talked of the aims of Art,
Which they alone understood;
And they quite agreed from the start
That nothing was any good
Except some novels that Dreiser wrote
And some plays from Germany.
When God objected they rocked the boat
And dropped him into the sea,
"For you have no critical facultee,"
Said Mencken
And Nathan
To God.

The two came cheerfully sailing home
Over the surging tide.
And trod once more on their native loam
Wholly self-satisfied;
And the little group that calls them great
Welcomed them fawningly,
Though why the rest of us tolerate
This precious pair must be
Something nobody else can see
But Mencken
And Nathan
And God!

It was a pathetic band of mourners who gathered in the undertaker's chapel for Percival Pollard's funeral on a brisk December day in 1911. Attending were the second Mrs. Pollard, another woman named Barrows, Bierce, Henry Mencken, and Walter Neale, the publisher. Neale had published two of Pollard's books. Ironically, Pollard's latest book, Vagabond Journeys, emerged from the printer on the very day of his death. As a literary critic, Pollard had roasted many a man and now he was about to receive his own roast. Bierce--unable to resist--opened the casket and looked inside. In life, Pollard had been tall, thin, with an ordinary face and a high forehead. In death, his features reflected his final agony. His hair was gone and a ragged gash encircled his skull where the surgeons had opened his brain in a desperate attempt to save his life. Pollard had been just forty-two but he looked ninety-two. Bierce blamed Mencken's homeopathic humbugs for Pollard's demise. Had he received immediate treatment for his brain tumor instead of relying on quacks Pollard might not have gone into convulsions and rushed to Johns Hopkins for emergency surgery. Since Mencken had dragged poor Pollard to his death it fell upon the Baltimorean to make the final arrangements. Pollard's coffin was loaded onto a horse-drawn hearse for removal to the crematorium at Loudon Park Cemetery. Bierce and Mencken followed in a chauffeured Daimler, the widow and the other mourners deciding to retire to the Belvidere Hotel for tea and cake. The tiny funeral cortege headed west on Fayette Street past the endless lines of red Baltimore rowhouses, each with a set of polished marble steps.

"Driver, watch the arraber," Mencken said.

"Arraber?" Bierce said.

"A local term, Mr. Bierce. They're the street arabs who sell our fresh produce." The car maneuvered around a horse pulling a cart filled with watermelons and other fruit. An old black man walked along side shouting words that turned into song.

Waatameloons! Peeeches! Oraanges! Froot! Froot for Sale! Waatameloons!

Occasionally, the procession would come to a subtle rise and Bierce saw the anonymous homes, windows blank, stretching side-by-side in eternal precision. The landscape was monotonous and unbroken, the harbor obscured by sinister warehouses and rail yards. As they headed west the houses became smaller, two stories rather than three, but still attached. On the sidewalks, kids played age-old games and new ones known only to them. Behind the blocks of row houses were unpaved alleys lined with shacks. That's where the city's blacks lived and died.

"The blackamoors are happy in the alleys," Mencken said. "They're simple, good-meaning people, adept at hoodwinking us poor whites. It's the Anglo Saxon hillbillies and lintheads from West Virginia and Kentucky I despise. They're filthier than anything I've ever seen and a hell of a lot more ornery. Give me a nigger any day. At least he knows his place."

"One thing I admire about you, Mencken, is that you spread your contempt evenly." Bierce became thoughtful and lit a cigar. "Poor Percy. Never thought I'd outlast him. Now he's worm's meat."

"My father's buried in the same cemetery where Pollard's about to be turned into ashes, Mr. Bierce. My father was a believer in cremation. He even bought stock in the Cremation Company of Baltimore, but when his time came, my mother said, no, he had to be buried."

"What's cremation, after all, but the process by which the cold meats of humanity are warmed over? Once in the sacred town of Sacramento, California, the mourners gathered at a crematorium to bid farewell to one of their own, a ministerial figure of the particularly pious type. When smoke began to appear from the rafters, the mourners thought that somehow the proprietors of the crematorium had jumped the gun, had put the match to their late friend prematurely. When flames began to lick their toes they realized something was amiss. It was they who were on the pyre. They headed for the doors and windows, only to find all but one locked. There was such a crush at the only open exit that the surging humanity managed to plug it tight. It was a hot time in the old town, indeed. They were burnt to a crisp inside the crematorium. Thirty or forty of 'em. Strangely, the dear, departed whom they had come to toast was singed not a bit. The corpse, in fact, had yet to arrive."

The open Daimler, still behind the hearse, turned south onto Fulton Street. Bierce passed Mencken a narrow flask of brandy.

Mencken sipped and said, "It's my opinion that man doesn't die quickly and brilliantly but leaves by inches. Burn a man's mortal remains and you probably burn a good portion of him alive."

"Agreed, Mencken. A corpse may only appear to be detached from his environment. Once, in a crematorium in San Francisco a late acquaintance of mine, a man known for his prodigious consumption of alcoholic beverages, objected to the whole business of incineration. His carcass, mounted on a funeral pyre and ignited by the diligent crematory workers, exploded, singeing the eyebrows of all the Jesus-lovers within fifty yards. It was a terrible mess. Worth two days on the front page and days and nights of feverish hosannas."

"A typical Christian reaction," Mencken said.

"Ah, Christians. They carry with them such unbridled conceit and outrageous ignorance. I recall a woman, the wife of an unlamented local politician, who prayed daily for her husband's demise even though she was a devout sort. The dear lady got her wish, her husband finally succumbed. His corpse was taken to the funeral pyre and set ablaze in the name of the Lord. But the widow was so frightened that her late husband's soul would escape the blaze and return to bedevil her that she, armed with matches and kerosene, guarded the fire all day and all night to make sure the departed stayed put."

Mencken raised the flask in a sort of salute. "When I was a boy, a nigger who lived in the alley behind our house ran amuck one night and slit his woman's throat. He was promptly hanged at the city jail. Before they buried this blackamoor, my brother and I sneaked into the Negro funeral parlor to see the cadaver. I shudder today. We were haunted for many a night by the marks of the rope on that corpse's gaunt, felonious neck."

"These days, Mencken, a rope's an obsolescent appliance for reminding assassins that they too are mortal." Bierce drank from the flask then returned it to his pocket.

"Mr. Bierce, if all criminals of a plainly incurable sort were hanged instantly the next generation would be free of crime."

"Mencken, I once wrote about waking after more than a century of sleep. The first thing I noticed was an enormous building covering a square mile of ground and surrounded by a wall patrolled by armed guards. I asked the warden about the building and he told me it was the new state penitentiary, one of a dozen, all alike. I was surprised that the criminal population had increased so enormously to warrant such vast penal facilities. But the warden said that the criminals were so powerful, so bold, so fierce that no one was arrested anymore. I was perplexed until he explained that the practice of locking up the criminals was antiquated. The prisons, he told me, were built to hold all the honest men and woman of the state."

Mencken smiled and nodded. There was truth in that.

The funeral procession turned onto Wilkens Avenue for the final leg to Loudon Park Cemetery. As the hearse rounded the corner, a rear wheel--loosened by the bumping on the rough streets--twisted off its axle and rolled into the gutter. It happened quickly. The hearse, no longer level, spilled its cargo. The coffin slid from the back and slammed onto the street of bricks. The casket's lid flew open and out popped the late Percival Pollard, arms askew as though he was about to fly. Or to bless. His eyes were open but they looked at no one in particular. The driver of the Daimler hit the brake, skillfully halting the car before it struck the corpse, an act which would have imposed still another indignity on the deceased. The spectacle drew a crowd not quit as big as Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. Housewives dropped their ironing to run to the street. Elderly widows groped for their specs. Blacks dashed from their alleys. Little kids abandoned their scooters. Old men on their canes hobbled to the scene. Arrabers neglected their songs and squash. The postman threw down his mail, the iceman his tongs, the ashman his barrel, the milkman his cheese. Dogs followed their noses. The first police officer onto the scene knew his duty. Control the spectators. He connected his baton onto the head of an excited black, who'd never seen the corpse of a white man before, and kicked a nosy twelve-year-old in the rear. The undertaker's men, chagrined, scooped up the cadaver and stuffed it back into the coffin. It didn't fit as well this time and the lid couldn't quite close. The driver managed to repair the wheel, getting only a minimum amount of grease on his hands.

"Pollard didn't look especially comfortable sprawled in the street," Mencken said.

"I thought he looked rather unconcerned."

"What do you think should be done with his ashes?"

Bierce thought for a moment. "I believe they should be molded into bullets and fired at publishers, notably Scribners, Putnam's, and Doubleday. Or perhaps presented to the library of the New York Lodge of the Elks and displayed prominently on the mantel. Or suppose the ashes be mailed anonymously to Ella Wheeler Wilcox."

"The ashes of the departed deserve some respect, Mr. Bierce."

"Why be sentimental about ashes, Mencken? On my writing desk I keep the ashes of my late wife in a cigar box next to a skull."

Mencken knew Bierce's jest about his late wife wasn't true, but he asked, "Whose skull?"

"The skull of one of my critics, of course."

"I marvel at your humor, Mr. Bierce."

"What humor, Mencken?"

At last, the funeral caravan turned through the gates of Loudon Park Cemetery. In his youth, Mencken had written advertising copy extolling the virtues and convenience of being buried there.

"Ah, the cemetery," Bierce said. "An isolated suburban spot where mourners match lies, poets write at a target, and stone-cutters spell for a wager." The cemetery was bleak on this December day, the trees bare except for an occasional evergreen. Beyond the tombs and mausoleums and rows of crosses a thin, brown column of smoke spiraled into the air. "By Jove, they've stoked the fires and the ovens are working."

He could barely restrain his glee.

© 1996 by Don Swaim

Ambrose Bierce in the News
Ambrose Bierce on the Notion of God
Ambrose Bierce on Terrorism
Ambrose Bierce on Politics
Ambrose Bierce & Pancho Villa
The Wickedest Man in San Francisco, 1870
Love & Kisses: Bierce & Wilde
Bierce Duels with H.L. Mencken
Bierce & Jack London
Ambrose Bierce Resources on the Web

Top of Page