At first glance, Ambrose Bierce didn’t look like a coldblooded verbal killer. He was tall and handsome and scrupulously groomed. He had babyishly smooth cheeks, and a cherubic mop of golden hair. He excelled as a conversationalist, drinking buddy, and womanizer. Beneath this charismatic façade, however, was nineteenth-century America’s greatest insult artist, a writer who produced some of the most vicious prose in the history of the English language.
Bierce saw life as an exercise in cruelty, a conclusion drawn from close observation. He enlisted in the Union Army at the age of eighteen and spent four years in the slaughterhouse of the Civil War, watching men die in every conceivable way. Certain images stuck: a colonel on horseback decapitated by a cannonball, a soldier leaking brains from a bullet hole in his temple. Bierce fought bravely. He distinguished himself in combat and rose swiftly through the ranks. He even got shot in the head by a Confederate sharpshooter, and survived.
Despite his own heroism, Bierce had no illusions about the heroism of war. He had seen his friends carved up like cattle, and came away convinced of the world’s wickedness. His boyhood self died on the battlefield, he told a friend. What survived was a man obsessed by death, who kept a loaded .45 under his coat and a human skull on his desk, and felt a darkly comic disgust for the things society held sacred.
He might’ve become another battle-scarred crank, muttering to himself. Fortunately, he could write. After the war, Bierce settled in San Francisco and became a columnist for a satirical weekly. He ridiculed everything from religion to baseball to senior citizens to Yosemite, whose beauty so incensed him that he called for its destruction with gunpowder. He eviscerated anyone who displeased him, no matter how insignificant or undeserving—a method one observer compared to “breaking butterflies on a wheel.” Once, when a few readers told him to tone it down, he advised them to “continue selling shoes, selling pancakes, or selling themselves. As for me, I sell abuse.”
Writers were among his favorite victims. He could be particularly hard on San Francisco’s other scribblers, those “lettered fools with phosphorized teeth in mouths full of moonshine.” So in 1882, when Oscar Wilde came to town on an speaking tour of North America, the thirty-nine-year old Bierce warmed up his pen. Wilde was only twenty-seven and already famous for wearing silk stockings and feeding witty quotes to reporters. He hadn’t yet written his masterpieces, but he had published a book of poems, and engineered a masterful publicity campaign as an apostle of a new art movement called Aestheticism. Crowds from Boston to St. Louis turned out to see this exotic creature speak of a renaissance in English literature and beseech them to “love art for its own sake.”
Bierce hated Wilde. This “gawky gowk has the divine effrontery to link his name with those of Swinburne, Rossetti, and Morris,” he fumed. “He dares to set his tongue to the honored name of John Keats.”
That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde, has ensued with his opulence of twaddle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck…has tossed off the top of his head and uttered himself in copious overflows of ghastly bosh.
Bierce had spent three magical years in England during the 1870s, and returned to San Francisco an ardent Anglophile. Now he had suffered the supreme indignity of seeing an “intellectual jellyfish” like Wilde position himself as an heir to a tradition Bierce loved.
The outburst offered a useful reminder that Bierce, for all his apparent nihilism, cared deeply about certain things. He might pretend to gaze on the human race “as one looks into an anthill,” but he wrote like someone who had skin in the game. He got as far away as he could from the pious Protestantism of his parents, but he could sound almost preacherly in his roasting of frauds and fools and hypocrites. He despised racial prejudice, and stood up for embattled Chinese and Mormon minorities. He blasted railroad baron Collis P. Huntington as the “swine of the century,” and spoke out against the imperialist idiocy of the Spanish-American War.
His judgments weren’t always sound. He called Susan B. Anthony a “hatchet-faced old angularity,” and condemned women’s rights. But ultimately, he had ideals, a vision of how the world should be. While he could be vicious, he was capable of compassion, which he put to brilliant effect in his short fiction about the Civil War. He was even willing, occasionally, to soften his judgments. By 1904, Bierce had revised his opinion of the decadent Irishman. “Wilde’s work is all right,” he told a friend. By then Wilde was dead, and Bierce was barely a decade away from disappearing. In 1913, he announced he was going to Mexico to see the revolution. “Nobody will find my bones,” he promised, and nobody did.
Historians have spent the last century looking for them. He may have died on a Mexican battlefield, or committed suicide in the Grand Canyon. The theories are endless, and Bierce surely wanted it that way. In one of his final letters, he told his cousin not to worry if she someday heard that he had met a violent end. “It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs.” He loved life enough to care about how he left it. And he had spent so much time thinking about death that he wanted his own to be special: not a quiet passing but a mysterious destruction, the kind that would inspire later generations to imagine it in various ways.