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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Celebrate the centennial year of Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary

David Marsh on The Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog and Stefany Anne Golberg on Drexel University’s The Smart Set remind us that Ambrose Bierce only succeeded in publishing The Devil’s Dictionary with the title he wanted in 1911 when, at the age of 69, he included it in his Collected Works. When Doubleday, Page first brought the book out in 1906 they feared the public reaction to Bierce’s title and called it The Cynic’s Word Book (“Cynics” being as familiarly used in titles then as “Dummies” is now). Bierce dismissed this change in a letter:
Here in the East the Devil is a sacred personage (the Fourth Person of the Trinity, as an Irishman might say) and his name must not be taken in vain.
Bierce had been peppering his newspaper columns with the aphoristic definitions that fill The Devil’s Dictionary since 1881. Yet Marsh, among others, finds his writing remarkably fresh today:
While some entries have dated, much of the book remains strikingly topical: in the Rs alone we find definitions of radicalism ("the conservatism of to-morrow injected into the affairs of to-day"), referendum ("a law for submission of proposed legislation to a popular vote to learn the nonsensus of public opinion"), and riot ("a popular entertainment given to the military by innocent bystanders"). 
In some ways, Bierce was born too soon: many of his aphorisms would have made wonderful tweets. He would have savoured the controversy over the Man Booker prize ("novel: a short story padded") and phone hacking ("pillory: a mechanical device ... prototype of the modern newspaper").
Golberg offers some thoughts on why Bierce’s Dictionary has enjoyed such enduring popularity:
He was a satirist of the first order . . . he saw himself as no mere humorist, no dandy wit seeking cheap titters from parlor rooms. Rather, Bierce saw himself as a voice of authority and a harbinger of truth. No one was safe from his verbal blitz. It’s amazing that any newspaper ever employed Ambrose Bierce, who readily showered his bile on anyone and anything in society he deemed hypocritical—which was just about everyone and everything. The Devil’s Dictionary was an attack on politics, philosophy, the aristocracy. For example, a POLITICIAN was:
An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive.
In his exclusive LOA interview S.T. Joshi, editor of Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs, cites two of his favorite entries:
Bierce refined his satirical skills over the decades so that he was able to pack the biggest wallop into the smallest space. His classic definition of “Alone” (“In bad company.”) is an example. My favorite definition is that for “Cynic,” where Bierce was clearly thinking of himself: “A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.”
Read the entire interview with S. T. Joshi about Ambrose Bierce (PDF)

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs

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