Thursday, December 26, 2013

Ambrose Bierce’s Final Words

Ambrose Bierce in 1892
One hundred years ago today, December 26th 1913, is that last day that Ambrose Bierce was known to be alive.  During the previous months Bierce had wrapped up his affairs, and in October he left his home to re-visit a number of civil war sites, wending his way from Washington, D.C., to Mexico and then, so he said, on to South America.  That is, he planned to get to South America if he lived so long.

On October 1, 1913, he wrote to the Lora Bierce, wife of his nephew Carleton: 
I go away tomorrow for a long time, so this is only to say good-bye. I think there is nothing else worth saying; therefore you will naturally expect a long letter. What an intolerable world this would be if we said nothing but what is worth saying! And did nothing foolish—like going into Mexico and South America. . . .

Good-bye—if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!

Other letters over the next few months say much the same thing.  And then, after December 26th, the letters ceased.  We have the gist of two communications from Bierce of that date, both purportedly from Chihuahua, Mexico.  The first, from a letter to Carrie Christiansen (1872-1920), Bierce’s secretary, survives only in the form of Christiansen’s summary in a log-book.  Here is the entry in full.

Chihuahua Mexico
Dec. 26, 1913
Ridden in four miles to mail a letter. Ride from Juarez to Chihuahua hard—nights cold, days hot. Allusion to Jornada del Muerta (journey of death) of thousands of civilian refugees, men, women and children. Train load of troops leaving Chihuahua every day. Expect (next day) to go to Ojinaga, partly by rail. Mexicans fight "like the devil"—though not so effectively as trained soldiers. Addicted to unseasonable firing, many times at random. Incident at Tierra Blance—Refuge behind a sharp ridge—Story of Gringo—present of sombrero

The final words from Bierce’s pen are a typically Bierceian outburst to a longtime friend.  It is worth reproducing here in full, for its kaleidoscopic range shows the usual mixture of nuance, complexity, pettiness, and brilliance that made up Bierce’s personality.  Particularly noteworthy for its prescience is the final sentence in Bierce’s postscript:  “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”  That destination has remained unknown for a century. 

To Blanche Partington
Chihuahua, Mexico,
December 26,1913.

My dear Blanche,

    I have been regretting my harshness to you in my letter from San Antonio, Texas—or was it from Laredo? I wrote in anger, having just read your letter forwarded from Washington, and was doubtless unjust. My anger was caused partly by your destruction of Miss Soulé Campbell's new portrait of me, which I had had made more to please you than for any other reason. You had asked me for a picture.
    But also you asked me in the letter to "confess" that I cared for human sympathy, sentiment and friendship. This to me who have always valued those things more than anything else in life! —who have the dearest and best friends of any man in the world, I think, —sweet souls who have the insight to take me at my own appraisement (or, perhaps you would say, to pretend to). You don't know any of them; it would be better for you if you did. Evidently you share the current notion that because I don't like fools and rogues I am a kind of monster—a misanthrope without sentiment and without heart. I can not help your entertaining that view, but you might have kept it to yourself. The "popular" notion of me I care nothing about, but when it is thrown at me by one whom I supposed immune to it by reason of years of friendly observation it naturally disgusts me. Still, I ought to have made allowance for the pressure of your social environment and for (pardon me) your limitations.
    I was also impatient of your foolish notion that in the matter of my proposed visit to "the Andes" I was posing. I do not know why you think the Andes particularly spectacular—probably because you have not traveled much. To me they are no different in grandioseness from the Rockies or the Coast Range—merely a geographical expression used because I did not care to be more specific. The particular region that I had in mind has lured me all my life—more now than before, because it is, not more distant from, but more inaccessible to, many of the things of which as an old man I am mortally tired. What "interpretation" you put upon my letters regarding that spot you have not seen fit to inform me, which before rebuking me (I am not hospitable to rebuke) you should have done. I suppose you have a habit of "interpretation". You worship a god who (omniscient and omnipotent) has been unable to make his message clear to his children and has to have a million paid interpreters, and you are one of them. (Pardon me; you invited me to "convert you from the error of your ways.") So little do I know of your "interpretation" that I was not even aware that I had written you of my intention to go to "the Andes.” If I did, as of course I did, I must also have told you that I intended to go by the way of Mexico, which I am doing, though it looks now as if "the Andes" would have to wait.
    My enemies are fond of saying that I cannot keep my friends. They are right to this extent: many of my friends I do not keep. I can endure many vices and weaknesses in a friend, but one thing I can not and will not endure—the attribution of nasty little vices and weaknesses to me. When a friend offends in that way he (or she) sooner or later receives a formal note from me renouncing the advantage of further acquaintance. You and my foolish relatives are the only persons who have hitherto been exempt. You have offended seventy-and-seven times and I have overlooked it, but in the letter that angered me you passed the limit and (I say it with no feeling but regret) you go into the discard. No pleasure can come of a relation that is not inclusive of respect. If I am what you think me I am unworthy of your friendship; if I am not you are unworthy of mine. You will be spared henceforth the necessity of being either "ashamed" or proud of me, for I hereby withdraw your right to be either.
    It is true that the latter half of your letter was apologetic, but that was insincere, for if one perceives that a letter is offensive, before it is posted, one can put it into the waste-basket.
    So—I bid you farewell.

    Sincerely yours,
    Ambrose Bierce.

    I do not know how, nor when, you are to get this letter; there are no mails, and sometimes no trains to take anything to El Paso. Moreover, I have forgotten your address and shall send this to the care of Lora [Bierce]. And Lora may have gone to the mountains. As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.
Update 12/27/13: 

Mark Valentine has sent along a few interesting URLs.  The first brings up an earlier portrait of Bierce drawn by Soulé Campbell and printed in Bierce's Collected Works (1909):

And the second brings up a contemporary (1913) article on the artist:,2321670

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Henry S. Whitehead News

First, I'll present here my "Late Review" (one from the current issue, no. 21, of Wormwood) of Whitehead's one novel, published the year before his death. I do so primarily to share the incredibly horrid and unappealling dust-wrapper of the book, reproduced below at right.

Whitehead, Henry S. Pinkie at Camp Cherokee (New York:  G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1931)

Henry S. Whitehead (1882-1932) is remembered primarily for his short stories, many of which were originally published in Weird Tales magazine in the 1920s and early 1930s and collected posthumously in two volumes published by Arkham House, Jumbee and Other Uncanny Tales (1944) and West India Lights (1946).  Less known is the fact that Whitehead published two books during his lifetime, the first being a work of populist theology, The Garden of the Lord (1922), the second being a novel for boys, Pinkie at Camp Cherokee. 
            In the 1920s, Whitehead was involved with a number of summer camps for boys, and he was one of the owners of Camp Cherokee on Long Island, so in one sense his novel can be viewed as a kind of advertisement for the camp. Whitehead’s first story for boys, “Baseball and Pelicans,” had been submitted to Clayton H. Ernst, editor of The Open Road for Boys, and it was published in the June 1926 issue.  Ernst told Whitehead that he should write a book around the tale, and Whitehead took up this advice during the winter of 1929-30 while he was ill. The two main episodes in Whitehead’s short story were expanded into a novel titled Pinkie—Superguy.  The title was sensibly changed by the publisher to Pinkie at Camp Cherokee. It centers around a young red-haired boy from Barbados named James Roderick Evelyn Maurice Kelley-Clutton, who is nicknamed Pinkie because his skin turns pink rather than tan when exposed to the sun. The story is told by a regular boy Bill Spofford from Pencilville, Ohio. Pinkie, with his British accent and complete lack of knowledge of regular American traditions, serves as the proverbial fish out-of-water, and an object of ridicule for most of the boys at the camp, until they come to realize that not only is he talented—his running abilities win a competition, and his unorthodox batting, cricket-style, wins a baseball game—but worthy of their respect and friendship.  Of course rivalries between campers and other nearby camps are presented in a simplistic us/good versus them/bad mentality, and the chumminess between the friendly boys is often cloying and sentimentalized. The attitudes are dated, and the whole book would be a dire read save for two stories inserted as tales told to groups of boys. In one (pages 83-90), Pinkie tells a story around a campfire of a West Indies negro superstition about acquiring luck from a Dead Man’s Tooth. In the second (page 148-158), the camp Chief tells the weird life-story of a thin match.  Remarkably, this tale appeared in a slightly different and longer form as “The Thin Match” in the March 1925 issue of Weird Tales. These two inserted tales account for the only value of this book to the modern reader.  

I'd also like to call attention here to an article by David Goudsward coming out later this month in The Weird Fiction Review, no. 4, from Centipede Press. Goudsward's article is called  "Halsey and the Padré: A 14-year-old’s perspective on H. S. Whitehead".  The article shows a side of Whitehead's personality not usually explored, that of his role at a boys' summer camp.

And another piece of Whitehead lore includes the following photograph, originally published in The New York Times, for Sunday, January 26th 1930.  Upon seeing it Whitehead was inspired to write a letter to twelve-year-old Teddy Gants, the second figure from the left. 

The letter, sent from Dunedin, Florida, reads:

Dear Mr. Teddy Gants,

I noticed your picture in the N.Y. Times of Sunday, January 26th, and as I looked at it I said to myself: "There's exactly the kind of boy I want in my camp!"

So it occurred to me to drop you a line and ask if you go to camp summers, or if, perhaps, you might be interested in Pine Bluff Camp at Port Jefferson, Long Island. Pine Bluff is a mighty fine camp, with more than 100 boys, and a good place for an athlete. I've always been one, all my life, and was three years a Metropolitan District (N.Y.) Sr. Champion All-Around athlete.

Maybe if you, or your father or mother, are interested in your going to camp, you might drop me a line, and I can have the catalogue sent to you, etc. Or, if you will let me know your home address I can come in and talk it over when I come north.  It won't be very long now.

We have everything at Pine Bluff from handball up and down!

Best wishes,
Very sincerely yours,

Henry S. Whitehead

Teddy Gants, a twelve-year-old girl, noted of the letter, "Say, I wonder what kind of person that man thinks I am."  But that question should really be directed toward the letter-writer.