The Devil Made Him Do It: The Caustic Wit of Ambrose Bierce

Book review by Lucine Kasbarian, NJ USA, 12 April 2024

The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce

Dover Publications, New York, 1993, unabridged. (Originally published as Volume VII of The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce in 1911 by the Neale Publishing Company, New York.)

*****

Incisive, dark-humored and petulant word definitions populate Ambrose Bierce’s satirical masterpiece, The Devil’s Dictionary.

This pocket compendium contains more than 1,000 self-proposed, caustic definitions for everyday words such as cannibal (“A gastronome of the Old School”), coward (“One who in a perilous emergency thinks with his legs”) and patience (“A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue”).

The Devil’s Dictionary may have been produced over 100 years ago, but the entries are as riotously cynical (and truthful) today as they were when they were first written.  The only connection this dictionary has to Satan is that the author dares to play devil’s advocate with the meanings of commonly accepted word descriptions.  This 140-page book contains more than just biting satire. Bierce’s ego-deflating word definitions are metaphors that disguise distilled truths about the absurd theater of the human condition.

Born in Ohio in 1842, this US Civil War veteran, journalist, macabre short story writer and literary critic developed into one of this country’s most celebrated and acerbic wits whose irreverent, misanthropic literary barbs were aimed at folly, self-delusion, politics, business, religion, literature and the arts.  Muckraking journalist H. L. Mencken called The Devil’s Dictionary “some of the most gorgeous witticisms in the English language.”

The entries in this work (excerpts below) could only have been written by one who had been disenchanted by life’s injustices, contradictions and disappointments and chose to express his pessimism in a mocking vein.  Keghart readers who have ever felt similarly dejected by political hegemony and hypocrisy in relation to Armenia’s predicament and appreciate sardonic humor will welcome this oeuvre.  The old chestnut, “Scratch a cynic and you’ll find an idealist,” applies to Bierce.  While the author would have described himself as a realist, anyone who reads The Devil’s Dictionary can detect the idealism concealed underneath.

Equally skilled at producing psychological horror as satire, Bierce’s short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, was one of the most frequently anthologized tales in American literature.  It was made into TV episodes for Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. Likewise, his dismal and realistic cycle of 25 war stories was called “the greatest anti-war document in American literature” by Hearst newspaperman Jerome Hopkins.  Bierce would become enraged when hearing accounts of the honor and glory of war from people who’d never seen or experienced it first-hand.

In 1914, at the age of 71, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce vanished without a trace.  In one of his final letters to a friend, he wrote, “Good-bye.  If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it’s a pretty good way to depart this life.  It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs.”  Other rumors state that he was finished off by Pancho Villa’s men during the Mexican Civil War, killed in a bar-room brawl or committed suicide in the Grand Canyon.  The Old Gringo, a fictionalized account of Bierce’s disappearance, was adapted into a film by the same name starring Gregory Peck.

What follows are just some of the bon mots from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary:

Aborigines (n): Persons of little worth found cumbering the soil of a newly discovered country. They soon cease to cumber; they fertilize.

Conservative (n): A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

Consul (n): In American politics, a person who having failed to secure an office from the people is given one by the Administration on condition that he leave the country.

Cynic (n): A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.

Daring (n):  One of the most conspicuous qualities of a man in security.

Friendless (n): Having no favors to bestow. Destitute of fortune. Addicted to utterance of truth and common sense.

Gargoyle (n): A rain-spout projecting from the eaves of medieval buildings, commonly fashioned into a grotesque caricature of some personal enemy of the architect or owner of the building.

Impunity (n): Wealth.

Lawyer (n): One skilled in circumventing the law.

Magnificent (adj): Having a grandeur or splendor superior to that to which the spectator is accustomed, as the ears of an ass to a rabbit, or the glory of a glow-worm to a maggot.

Martyr (n): One who moves along the line of least reluctance to a desired death.

Politics (n): A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.  The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

Telephone (n): An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.

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Lucine Kasbarian is a journalist, book publicist and political cartoonist.

2 comments
  1. Thank you for bringing this satirical and poignant collection of “distilled truths” to our attention, Lucine. It is especially relevant when we as a people are seemingly at battle between realism and idealism.

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