Dan Conway’s Corner


I HAVE a love of dictionaries, and I own too many of them. Looking for a particular one the other day, I unexpectedly came across “The Devil’s Dictionary”.
Inside the flyleaf I found a folded paper cutting from a 2011 copy of The Guardian. The headline of an article by David Marsh said: ‘In praise of Ambrose Bierce: still witty and wise after 100 years.’
The strapline was: ‘The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911, remains a topical, if at times cynical, take on language, politics and religion.’

Ah, Bierce, I thought; he who objected to the title Miss — “a title with which,” he said, “we brand unmarried women to indicate that they are in the market.”
He defined Year, a noun, as “A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments”, and defined the noun Lawyer as “One skilled in circumvention of the law.”

Happiness, according to Bierce’s dictionary, is “an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of others”; Famous as “Conspicuously miserable”, and Absurdity as “A statement of belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion.”

From those examples you can get a good idea why Marsh considered The Devil’s Dictionary ironic to the point, at times, of sarcasm and cynicism.

AFTER QUOTING Bierce’s definition of Ghost (“The outward and visible sign of an inward fear”) Terence Rafferty in the New York Times said, “He knew more than any man should about both inward fears and their outward and visible signs. And he was at least arguably the most powerful American writer of horror between Poe and Lovecraft.”
(Edgar Allen Poe’s best-known fiction works are tales of Gothic horror; H. P. Lovecraft was a writer of weird, fantasy and horror fiction.)

Over the course of his career Bierce wrote more than 40 sinister stories, most of them about ghosts, and about the horrors of war. All of his tales, Rafferty said, “both the ones about soldiers and the ones about the haunted and the haunting, are steeped in loneliness and dread, which he evokes with the precision of someone familiar with their every nuance.”

THERE WAS little in Bierce’s immediate background to suggest that he would become an American Civil War veteran, a journalist, a literary critic, an outstanding writer of satire, short stories, horror fiction, science fiction, and a poet.
Nothing to suggest that, having been born in a log cabin at Horse Cave Creek in Ohio in 1842 of entirely English ancestry, he would take his place with such figures as Swift, Juvenal and Voltaire, and come to be regarded as the greatest satirist America has ever produced.
And yet, this is exactly what happened. His war stories influenced Ernest Hemingway and Stephen Crane, and as a literary critic he came to be widely feared.

The American Revolution Bicentennial Administration named Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary one of “The 100 Greatest Masterpieces of American Literature”. And his story “An occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” has been described as “one of the most famous and frequently anthologised stories in American literature.”
He was the 10th of 13 children born to a poor but literary couple who instilled in him a deep love for books and writing. His father gave all of the 13 children first names beginning with “A” — Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, Adelia and Aurelia.

AMBROSE LEFT school at 15 to become an apprentice printer at a small newspaper. At the age of 19 he enlisted in the Union Army’s 9th Indiana Infantry. He fought at the Battle of Shiloh.
In 1864 he sustained a traumatic brain injury at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. Following his resignation from the army, he lived for many years in San Francisco, and became one of the first regular columnists and editorialists in the San Francisco Examiner. He became one of the most prominent and influential writers and journalists on the West Coast.

In 1913, by which he was 71, he crossed by way of El Paso into Mexico. Mexico was in the throes of revolution, and at Ciudad Juarez Bierce joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer.
In one of his final letters he wrote: “Good-bye. If you hear of me being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs.
“To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that’s euthanasia”!
He was never seen or heard from again. ÷

Read Dan Conway’s Corner every week in Ireland’s Own