Abbot on Bierce

Abbot on Ambrose Bierce

I’ve been reading Watching the World Go By, Willis J. Abbot’s 1933 autobiography. There are anecdotes a plenty, but I had to make a quick note of this one. I’ll be writing more detailed notes pretty soon. But for now, fans of the Devil’s Dictionary might enjoy this bit:

Bierce, who was by way of being what is called to-day a columnist, was of a mordant wit, but utterly without discretion. Hearst valued his column, but dreaded its dangers. Trying to “pass the buck,” he told me to edit it and eliminate everything I thought was offensive. The very next day Bierce wrote of an actress who had been much been beloved in life, but whose funeral had been a few days before, that “always famous for her composed manner, she was now quite decomposed.” Naturally, I cut it out. Bierce instantly resigned and was lured back by Hearst—probably at an increased salary. Thereafter I left his copy alone. In the end he brought down upon Hearst the savage and unjustifiable charge of having suggested the assassination of President McKinley. William Goebel, Democratic politician who had been elected Governor of Kentucky, had been shot down from ambush and some imp of the perverse put into Bierce’s head this quatrain:

The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
Cannot be found in all the West.
Good reason! It is speeding here
To lay McKinley on his bier.

Utter doggerel, of course, without any particular reason for its writing or publishing. But malign fate caused McKinley to be shot three or four days after its publication, and, perhaps stimulated by Hearst’s rivals, public sentiment raged over this “incitement to assassination.” Distinguished clergymen preached about it, societies passed acrid resolutions, and businessmen boycotted the paper. Hearst smiled. If at all troubled he never showed it, nor do I believe he ever reproached Bierce for the blunder. (139)

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