Missing Ambrose Bierce

I became a Vincent Starrett fan a few years after he passed away, and so never had the chance to meet him. It appears Starrett had a similar experience.

Hand, n. A singular instrument worn at the end of a human arm and commonly thrust into somebody’s pocket. (See the first note in “The More You Know,” below.)

A portrait of Ambrose Bierce from Vincent Starrett's 1920 booklet of the same name.

Long before he became known as the world’s leading Sherlock Holmes expert, Vincent Starrett showed an expertise in other literary fields. The work of Ambrose Bierce was an early passion of his.

Today, Bierce is known largely for two works: The Devi’s Dictionary, an accumulation of sardonic definitions that he published over the space of several years in the Hearst newspapers where he was a reporter and critic. (Bierce’s criticism often created problems for Hearst and earned him the moniker “Bitter Bierce.”) A selection of the definitions are scattered through this essay.

Dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.

Bierce is also renowned for “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” one of the great American short stories. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is the eerie tale of the hanging of a Confederate sympathizer during the Civil War and what happens (or perhaps doesn’t happen) when the rope snaps. If you somehow have missed this classic tale, do yourself a favor and hunt it down. (See Note)

Bierce had long been a favorite of Starrett’s and the two had a brief corresponding friendship. “He was one of the highest peaks in my whole mountain range of literary idols,” recalled Starrett in his memoir, Born in a Bookshop.

Starrett had long wanted to talk with Bierce about his writing and his life, and the writer had moved to the nation’s capital several years before. Near the end of World War I, Starrett was sent by the Chicago Daily News to Washington D.C as a war correspondent.

He now had his chance to meet the older, but still energetic, Bierce.

“One of the first things I did in Washington, when I had a free evening, was to call upon Ambrose Bierce. That was the intention anyway: but when I established a connection it was not with Bierce that I spoke. Major Bierce, said his secretary, was not in Washington. It was a disappointment. … Something about my breathless inquiry and my obvious disappointment must have touched the secretary, for she invited me to call.”

Starrett went to see her and learned that Bierce had gone to Mexico a year before and had not been heard from since.

“Nearing his seventy-first birthday and afflicted with asthma, the remarkable old man had suddenly decided to visit Mexico during the winter of 1913, hoping to meet the revolutionary leader Francisco Villa, whom he admired. Several letters had been received by his daughter Helen shortly after his arrival in the southern republic. It appeared that he had joined a division of Villa’s army, and mention was made of a prospective advance on Ojinaga. And that was all; the rest was silence.”

Historian, n. A broad-gauge gossip.

There were wild tales and many rumors about Bierce’s fate, a situation that has continued to this very day.

“His daughter and his secretary were hoping desperately that there would be another communication, and fearing the tidings it might contain. Quiet efforts had been made to trace the writer’s movement in Mexico. American agents in that country had been alerted by the State Department, and the War Department also had taken a hand in the search. It was thought he might have been taken prison and might still be held captive in some stinking Mexican jail.”

Bierce’s secretary told Starrett all this in confidence. “Then, suddenly, she relented and permitted me to make the story public.”

Image from Wikipedia and credited to the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.

Reporter, n. A writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words.

Starrett knew a scoop when he heard one. “To me, it was a more important matter than the war in Europe and I lost no time in putting it on the wire. My short dispatch, which appeared on the first page of the Daily News next day, was a clean news beat, but it did not ally the disappointment I felt at missing Ambrose Bierce.”

My copy of Ambrose Bierce has a double inscription AND a Starrett Smiley.

Starrett’s affection for Bierce’s work resulted in two of his earliest books.

Ambrose Bierce is a brief work made up of three essays that review the author’s life (“The Man”), his published work and influence (“The Master”) and his death (“The Mystery”). Printed in 1920 in Chicago by Walter M. Hill, the 50-page booklet appeared in a limited edition of 250 and has become a collector’s item for both Starrettians and Biercians. Says Charles Honce, Starrett’s bibliographer: “Mr. Starrett probably is the ne plus ultra of literary enthusiasts. When he discovers a writer who strikes fire, he immediately rushes pen to paper, and eventually his enthusiasm all gets bound up in books.”

The dust jacket cover to Starrett's second book devoted to Bierce

Enthusiasm, n. A distemper of youth, curable by small doses of repentance in connection with outward applications of experience.

Several years later, Starrett returned to the subject with Ambrose Bierce: A Bibliography. The book was no doubt based on Starrett’s own collection, much as the bibliography in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Published in 1929 in Philadelphia by The Centaur Book Shop, the book is dedicated to Bierce’s daughter, Helen. There are two versions: the “regular” edition of 300 copies and the large paper edition, of which there were only 45. In his introduction, he describes the pleasure of collecting an author who has yet to be discovered by other collectors.

The title page. Look closely, and you can see the shadow of the Bierce portrait that is on the opposite page and reprinted above.

Here is how Starrett begins:

“Collecting Ambrose Bierce is still a pastime of the few, relatively speaking. No such hordes of seekers haunt the bookstalls for his first editions as jostle the aisles questing, for instance, the firsts of Cabell and Mencken. Those citizens, whether collectors or merely readers, who have sought his editions and placed them on their shelves, have been for the most part his admirers. By the opportunist collectors he has been left as severely alone as he was left by the opportunist critics throughout his lifetime. From first to last, his celebrity, while wide, was largely subterranean.”

To sum up Starrett’s admiration for Bierce, we will give the Devil his due and select one last item from his dictionary.

Admiration, n. Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.

The More You Know

  1. All of the definitions are from The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, Dover Thrift Edition.
  2. I recall seeing a French adaptation of this short story on the original “Twilight Zone” television series back in the 1960s. It’s haunted me through today. The film won awards at Cannes and The Academy Awards. For the moment, you can view it here.
  3. The Ambrose Bierce Project has excellent information on the man and his works. I recommend their website if you are interested in finding out more about this gifted writer.