Of All Things
By James Smart
The National Society of Newspaper Columnists annually designates April 18 National Newspaper Columnists Day. That brings to mind a colorful pioneer of the newspaper columning line of work: Ambrose Bierce.
Bierce is known (to most people who know his name at all) for his short stories, and as the author of “The Devil’s Dictionary,” a book of sour satirical definitions.
Many of the diabolical definitions first appeared in Bierce’s newspaper columns.
He defined a bore as a person who talks when you wish him to listen. A cabbage, he said, is a vegetable about as large and as wise as a man’s head. His definition of “positive”: “Mistaken at the top of one’s voice.”
In politics, he said, a Conservative is “enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”
Bierce was born in Ohio in 1842. (He defined birth as “the first and direst of all disasters”.) He saw bloody action with an Indiana regiment in the Civil War, and after the war moved aimlessly to San Francisco and got a job as a night watchman.
He began writing, was published in local periodicals, became editor of one of them, went to London and worked in British journalism for four years, and returned to San Francisco in 1876. His journalism and fiction made him famous. His columns in weekly papers starting in 1881 established his reputation for sharp wit.
In 1887, a wealthy Californian gave a newspaper he owned to his young son to play with. The rich kid was William Randolph Hearst.
Bierce was the kind of controversial writer Hearst wanted. “We run our paper,” said Hearst, “so that when the reader opens it, he says, ‘Gee whiz!’”
So it was that Bierce one day heard a tapping on the door of his Oakland apartment. He opened it to find, he later wrote, “the youngest young man I had ever encountered.”
The youngster said he was from the San Francisco Examiner, “in a voice,” Bierce recalled, “like the fragrance of violets made audible.”
“Oh, you come from Mr. Hearst,” said Bierce.
“Then,” Bierce recounted, “that unearthly child lifted its blue eyes and cooed, ‘I am Mr. Hearst.’”
So Ambrose Bierce became a Hearst columnist. For 10 years, he regularly found fresh new ways to infuriate readers, both average folks and the famous and powerful.
Leland Stanford, the influential California U. S. Senator getting rich on railroad land deals, Bierce called Stealand Landford. When Stanford complained, he changed it to ?eland $tanford.
He once began a column about the Legislature in the state capital: “If nonsense were black, Sacramento would need gas lamps at noonday.”
He denounced the fashionable bathing suit of 1887 as “conspicuously immodest with immodesty aforethought – advisedly, intentionally, and (considering whose eyes are most interested in it) corruptingly indecent.”
Bierce led an eccentric life. In 1913, he went to Mexico to observe a civil war in progress, vanished and was never heard from again. It’s the sort of ending many readers would wish on many columnists.
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James Smart was a staff member of the old
Philadelphia Bulletin from 1948 to 1973, including 14 years as writer of the In Our Town column. During the Bicentennial period, he wrote a daily column of Philadelphia news of that day 200 years in the past. Since 1990, he has written a weekly column published by InterCounty Newspaper Group, and other Journal Register Company weeklies.