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

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