Cynicism, for Bierce, was not just an attitude; it was his life force. It’s ironic then that The Devil’s Dictionary is seen today primarily as a delightful little book of irreverent (if now anachronistic) witticisms. This is entirely Bierce’s fault. In life and in art, Bierce made it his prerogative to present himself as a Class A misanthropic know-it-all. Much of the real sensitivity and even anguish that produced The Devil’s Dictionary is obscured by an intentional ironic distance. By the time The Devil’s Dictionary was published, Bierce was 69. He had made a career as a curmudgeon, a writer with a big personality who always kept distance between himself and his public. He was famous for his motto “nothing matters” and was known as “Bitter Bierce.” Even his popular short stories, based on his experiences of the Civil War (see the classic “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”) were never autobiographical, never meant to bring readers closer to the man. He publicly attacked friends, employers, and of course, other writers. (Bierce had a literary run-in with Oscar Wilde once after the latter declared satire to be “as sterile as it is shameful, and as impotent as it is insolent.” Bierce responded in print with a torrent of insults, calling Wilde “a gawky gowk,” a “dunghill he-hen.” and the “littlest and looniest of a brotherhood of simpletons” who had “the divine effrontery to link his name with those of Swindburne, Rosetti and Morris.”) How could someone who addressed his book to “those…enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and clean English to slang” be taken all that seriously, especially by 21st-century readers? Today, The Devil’s Dictionary comes off as smart but smug. Who was Ambrose Bierce to pronounce such judgments on humanity?
more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.