The Devil's Dictionary [with Biographical Introduction] Kindle Edition
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The definitions are often warped to suit the author's fancy and should be taken lightly. He uses many of the definitions as an opening to expound on whatever it might relate to. (Or could... Maybe.)
Despite the fanciful treatment of his subject material, he still manages to impart some interesting facts, quotes, and other disjointed things to the reader. One cannot help but be impressed with the author's command of the language and his wild and unrestrained imagination. Do not bother to read this book unless your mind can follow elasticity in meanings and your sense of humor is sufficient to take a beating and enjoy it.
I come late to Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?), one hundred years after his mysterious disappearance. (Is there any other kind?) It seems that I am not alone on the centennial, as all manner of mope and movement now claim him as akin. The most recent is the Ancient Alien crew, suggesting he found a star gate or was abducted in the zone of silence, or something, a theory thinly based on the paranormal slant to many of his short stories. I'm not saying they're wrong, but it's generally accepted Bierce was killed while observing or fighting with Villa's rebels in Mexico. I'm saying when or how he died is not particularly important, by accident, in battle or through foul play. They're lines of exploration only distracting from the story of wonderfully colorful writer, respected and revered by the luminaries of his own generation, and those that followed.
Bierce was a notably tall and handsome man. He was also notoriously contemptuous and cynical. The definitions within Devils dictionary, originating from a collection of columns penned over five years (1881-1886) in San Francisco's `The Wasp', stand as firm exhibit to that. It's easy to imagine Bierce as the cynic. He'd lived a less than the happy childhood, and witnessed firsthand the carnage of Shiloh and the southern campaign as a young Union officer in the Civil War, acquitting himself bravely, having retrieved a wounded comrade from the field under fire. It's easy to justify from his experiences in early life, most surely traumatic, a pervasive distrust of institutions - the inadequacy of government and the military, religion, love and family to answer the larger questions of existence, or even to solve the simplest of problems...
"Faith n: Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel."
"Flag n: A colored rag borne above troops and hoisted on forts and ships. It appears to serve the same purpose as certain signs one sees on vacant lots in London, `Rubbish will be shot here'."
"Friendship n: A ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul."
"Husband n: One who, having dined, is charged with the care of the plate."
"Imagination n: A warehouse of facts, with poet and liar in joint ownership."
"Poverty n: ...Its victims are distinguished by possession of all the virtues and by their faith in leaders seeking to conduct them into prosperity where they believe these unknown..."
To whichever page you flip there's always something to make you smile, and likely a chuckle or two. There's nothing conspiratorial about it to Bierce and none comes through in the tone. It's what you could expect to happen when you leave human beings in charge, and he believed it his charge as critic to set it straight - "Humanity n: The Human race, collectively, exclusive of the anthropoid poets." Bierce could be self-deprecating. He considered himself a poet, his earliest and lifelong passion. Though above all he was America's first `Social Chronicler'... I heard that term applied to Tom Wolfe. I'm not sure who said it, but it fits Bierce like a glove, a century earlier.
In contrast to the façade of curmudgeon he is reported to have shown great generosity of spirit in embracing young writers, and some contemporaries (he thought many others were hacks and said so). There were those who spoke very differently of the private man. "The atrabilious persona of the dictionary was the mask of a much hurt man." - (Angus Calder intro)
The columns of The Devil's Dictionary are important too in they brought Bierce to the attention of William Randolph Hearst, and a good job at `The San Francisco Examiner', and ultimately to National recognition. The fact that Bierce's opinions and utterances of such, verbally and in print, didn't much agree with Hearst's (son of a filthy rich mining magnate) didn't bother either one of them. Hearst thrived on the sensational, on yellow journalism. The Examiner also offered a ready outlet for his Civil War stories, what he was best known for at the time... I'm hooked, got to get more... I'll let you know what I find out about his disappearance.
The version that I got was the free Kindle edition, which is perfectly readable, even though the formatting seems a little off in some places. (I've never read it in print form, though, so I'm really no authority for comparison.) It was free though, so what is there to complain about?
This is wit, humor and skill with the pen as best as it gets. He and Samuel Clemens were marvels of their age.