Our Man Remembers Ambrose Bierce

07.31.2004 | David Walley | Cultural Affairs | 2 Comments
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of Ambrose Bierce, the19th Century American newspaperman and short story writer. In 1914 W.R. Hearst sent him to cover Pancho Villa and his bandit bands, and Bierce promptly disappeared into the deserts of Chihuahua, becoming an object of myth and folklore. He may be alive now — though he’d be more than 150 years old.

Bierce was best known for his acerbic wit, compiled and ultimately anthologized in a book called The Devil’s Dictionary, in which he dissected the human condition (ex. “Presidency: The greased pig of American politics” or “Luminary: One who throws light upon a subject, as an editor by not writing about it”). That bile was abundantly evident in whatever he wrote — he was called Bitter Bierce with good reason. Then again, working for Hearst, the kind of boss who started the Spanish American War as a circulation gimmick, how could you begrudge Bierce his bitterness? A consummate old school newspaperman, he used to show up at watercress socials stinking of gin and cheap cigars. He never cared what people thought and just pursued his vision of the Ultimate Truth. I liked that.

When I think of Bierce and his “attitude problem” I wonder how he’d fit into today world and what he’d think of the content over context world of contemporary journalism. There are no more circulation wars because there are so few metropolitan papers left. Wars come and go on the front page but make no impact unless they’re our own or our people are dying in them. I think we still have a naval task force somewhere in the Gulf of Oman though I haven’t been able to find anyone in the press who knows for sure. W.R. Hearst wouldn’t have neglected an American investment costing 12 million dollars a day, but then again money seems a little cheaper today.

I know Bierce would have been amused by his co-religionists in the Fourth Estate. When he was thinking and drinking around the turn of the last century, journalism was a blood sport. You didn’t “interview” your sources as much as waylay them with a blackjack in an alley. There was no such thing as “off-the-record” either. If you spoke to (or overheard) a source while he was three sheets to the wind in his favorite bordello, you used it. (Of course the lawyering profession wasn’t as advanced then or as sophisticated, and when people gave you their word there were no hidden voice-activated recorders around).

He would also have been vastly amused by the concept of journalism school since in his day you learned to write by having your editor harangue you until his knowledge sunk in. Instead of lectures you swept up the newsroom and when you could be trusted, you were transferred to obits where you learned how to write a good lead. Eventually you rose to the police beat where the lessons of life, death and how to hold your liquor were imparted. And if you survived, you graduated to the politics or arts desks. Back then one became a reporter because it was in one’s blood, not because it was a useful vehicle for social climbing as it has become. “Here comes the Press, Ma, hide the silver!” Believe it.

On the other hand, the prerogatives of editors were well known to him, what was and was not news was as important 100 years ago as now. If there was little to report in the poorer sections of town, it naturally followed that no important people lived there. The moveable feast of trauma journalism would have been no mystery to him either — catastrophic oil spill bowed, then as now, to following week’s massacre of Chinese students, no problem. It’s no wonder he drank and was bitchy; Bierce was an idealist forced to wear the cynic’s rags.

When Ambrose Bierce disappeared into Mexico in 1914, he had just turned seventy. His only daughter was dead and he was alone. He understood little of the 20th Century, and felt he had become a spectator in a world he no longer comprehended. Like Captain Willard in the movie Apocalypse  Now!, he needed a mission,  and for his sins he got one. Legend has it that Pancho Villa eventually got fed up with his wisecracks and dour company around the campfire and since there was no convenient bus station in Chihuahua, he put him against a wall and shot him, silencing his acid tongue once and for all.

But I am an optimist, I think he survived. Ambrose Bierce isn’t dead, he just doesn’t want to come back here, especially now that reporters are getting their news “off-the-record” at dinner parties instead of hefting blackjacks in the alleyways where they belong. 

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