April 4, 2011

Bierce: found to be a hole

The New York World reported exclusive news on April 4, 1915: Ambrose Bierce was alive.

Bierce had vanished mysteriously in Mexico while observing a revolution there, presumably as a source for writing inspiration. According to the New York World, however, Bierce's daughter had recently sent him a letter indicating that he had moved to France, where he had joined the staff of Lord Kitchener. Bierce's daughter, however, claimed that no such letter ever existed.

The report is an example of the speculation that became rampant after Bierce's disappearance. Some suggested that the author and poet knew he was going to die in Mexico, that he hoped to die in battle or, perhaps, that he killed himself there. In one letter to a friend, about two months before his final known letter, he told a friend he intended to travel to South America "if I can get through [Mexico] without being stood up against a wall and shot as a gringo. But that is better than dying in bed, is it not?"

In another letter, Bierce told a female friend:

I thank you for your friendship — and much besides. This is to say good-by at the end of a pleasant correspondence in which your woman's prerogative of having the last word is denied to you. Before I could receive it I shall be gone... I shall go into Mexico with a pretty definite purpose, which, however, is not at present disclosable. You must try to forgive my obstinacy in not "perishing" where I am. I want to be where something worth while is going on, or where nothing whatever is going on. Most of what is going on in your own country is exceedingly distasteful to me... May you live as long as you want to, and then pass smilingly into the darkness — the good, good darkness.

Either way, in his well-known work of humor, The Devil's Dictionary, Bierce defined "dead" (adj.) with a poem:

Done with the work of breathing; done
With all the world; the mad race run
Through to the end; the golden goal
Attained and found to be a hole!


  1. One has to appreciate the hauntingly poetic (or poetically haunting) quality of that letter's last sentence: "May you live as long as you want to, and then pass smilingly into the darkness--the good, good darkness."

    A romantic until his end, enigmatic though that be....

    Thanks for the intriguing post.

  2. It's a great quote! I almost titled the post "Bierce: the good, good darkness." I like "found to be a hole" because it works well with the lack of truth in the news report. Bierce's early biographers grappled with the possibility of suicide, but dismissed it quickly. Quotes like these, however, definitely make you wonder...

  3. Yes, that whole passage from the letter has a "ride off into the sunset" quality. And even if Bierce did not commit suicide per se, he could certainly have put himself in a position where death was a distinct possibility. (Almost typed that last word as "opportunity": perhaps a Freudian--or Bierceian--slip?)

  4. I love the slip either way! There is some speculation that Bierce wanted to die in battle, having himself survived through in several. (The Devil's Dictionary defines "battle" as "a method of untying with the teeth of a political knot that would not yield to the tongue.")

  5. Your "Devil's Dictionary" mention about the whole "political knot" thing circles back to another line in the letter (to a "female friend"): "Most of what is going on in your own country is exceedingly distasteful to me." To what country is Bierce referring? I wondered about that when I first read the entry, since in the posting several countries are mentioned. Was he referring to America, or another nation? Thanks for the dialogue.

  6. Woah, this "battle/political knot" thing brings up his sentiment to the "female friend," that "Most of what is going on in your own country is exceedingly distasteful to me...."

    A question: to what country is he referring? America, I presume, although it's not quite clear from the passage.

  7. The friend in question was Mrs. Josephine McCrackin of California. "Your" country was the US - so, yes, Bierce is dismissing his own country.