"There is a boom in baseball too"--The Ballad of Ambrose Bierce

Two weeks after taking over the San Francisco Examiner in 1887, William Randolph Hearst sought out Ambrose Bierce to join the Examiner staff as chief editorial writer. Bierce later wrote a column expressing, in his back-handed way, his admiration for his employer, and described their first meeting in March 1887 beginning with a knock upon his door in Oakland:

One day as I lounged in my lodging there was a gentle, hesitating rap at the door, and opening it, I found a young man, the youngest young man, it seemed to me, that I had ever confronted. His appearance, his attitude, his manner, his entire personality suggested extreme indifference. I did not ask him in...if my memory is not at fault I merely said: "Well," and awaited the result.

"I am from the San Francisco Examiner,"he explained in a voice like the fragrance of violets made audible, and backed a little away.

 "O," I said, "you come from Mr. Hearst."

 Then that unearthly child lifted its blue eyes and cooed: "I am Mr. Hearst."

                                 

  William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) ca 1888

In the year 1842, in Meigs County, Ohio, Ambrose Bierce was born on June 24 -- the day celebrated traditionally by the church as John the Baptist's birthday. Though the agnostic Bierce would scorn an astrological connection to any saint, in Bierce's fierce criticism of the follies and wickedness of the Gilded Age, is there not a reflection of the flame that burned in that fierce and uncompromising prophet? The savage cry of John in the Wilderness: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?"would not have appeared out of place in Ambrose Bierce's editorials in the Wasp or the Examiner.

An avid reader of British historian Edward Gibbon ( Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire ) and a pessimist about the anarchic, corrupting tendencies of democracy as a form of government, Bierce saw no grounds for optimism about the future of the American Republic. Bierce declared his skepticism about any Republican model of government in his Devil's Dictionary:

Republic, n. A nation in which, the thing governing and the thing governed being the same, there is only a permitted authority to enforce an optional obedience. In a republic the foundation of public order is the ever lessening habit of submission inherited from ancestors who, being truly governed, submitted because they had to. There are as many kinds of republics as there are gradations between the despotism whence they came and the anarchy whither they lead.[1]

Bierce had led a life of vast experience compared to the "Harvard brigade" of classmates and fellow Lampoon writers whom Hearst had recruited from the Class of '85. Born to an impoverished farm family in Indiana, Bierce's life--like many of his generation--changed drastically when he enlisted in the 9th Indiana at the beginning of the Civil War. He fought with the regiment in western Virginia and at Shiloh, with distinction, and by 1863 had been appointed a first lieutenant, serving as a topographical engineer with General William Hazen's brigade. As part of Sherman's western armies, Bierce took part in the battles leading up to the capture of Atlanta--but was gravely wounded in the maneuvering prior to the assault on Kennesaw Mountain in June, 1864. If "Phinney" Thayer, "Fatty" Briggs, "Genie" Lent and "Cozy" Noble had wanted to hear Bierce recount some of his tales of war, Bierce could have given them their fill of gruesome details that would characterize his later memoirs and short stories. 

Was Bierce aware of Thayer's ballads in the fall of 1887? Certainly Bierce's "Prattle" column and Thayer's ballads of romantic love triangles gone awry appeared often on the same page of the Examiner during those months. In particular, Thayer's "Casey at the Bat" and Bierce's "Prattle" column appeared next to each other on Sunday June 3, 1888. By this time, Phinney and his pal Fatty Briggs had already departed San Francisco to return to New England.

Much attention has been paid to the legend of the Mighty Casey, as it came to be known--Thayer's "Ballad of the Republic" as he subtitled it. Bierce's grim fantasy "The Fall of the Republic" had already appeared in the Examiner on March 25, and Thayer may have been aware of it back in Worcester as he picked up his pen to sketch out the 13 stanzas of "Casey." But it's worthwhile to take a closer look at the column which reposes in the archives shoulder-to-shoulder with the immortal "Casey at the Bat" -- Bierce's acerbic "Prattle," not only targeting one of America's literary luminaries, but also purveying Bierce's denunciation of the way literary criticism had become a mere tool of promotion for the literary world of his day.

Bierce's June 3 column, reproduced in part (below) demonstrates Bierce's well-known iconoclasm as he tackled William Dean Howells, the esteemed "dean" of American letters, as well as Harper's Magazine, and the profession of literary criticism as regarded the proliferation of novels in both Britain and America:

This in two countries, in one of which the art of novel writing is dead, in the other of which it has not been born. Truly this is an age of "astonishing literary activity"; our novelists are as lively and diligent as maggots in the carcass of a horse. There is a boom in baseball, too.

 William Dean Howells and Samuel Clemens, whose friendship had a lasting influence on American literature. Howells was one of the first to appreciate the writings of both Clemens and Henry James. Howells himself is best known today for his novel The Rise of Silas Lapham

 Prattle  (June 3, 1888), The San Francisco Examiner

I made some strolling comments in these columns last week upon current literary criticism and the resolute determination of the critics to achieve ingenuity-- that hatefullest  thing in literature-- at any cost of sense and lucidity. This of its method: In spirit it Is distinctly devotional. About the shrine of every author awaits a cloud of critics to pay an orderly and decorous homage to his genius. There is no crowding: if one of them sees that he cannot perform his prostration until after his saint shall have been forgotten along with the intellectual miracles he wrought, that patient worshiper turns aside to level his shins at another shrine. There are shrines enough for all, God knows I

The meanest, because the ablest of all this sycophantic crew is Mr. Howells of Harper's, himself a saint and his own adorer, he finds every month, and reads, two or three books-- always novels of high literary merit. As no man who has anything else to do can critically read more than two or three books a month and I will say for Howells that he is a conscientious reader--and as some hundreds are published in this [same] period, [one is ]  anxious to know-how many books of high literary merit he would find if he could read them all. But Mr. Howells is no ordinary sycophant--not he. True, having by mischance read e book divinely bad, even when judged according to his own test, and having resolved to condemn nothing except in a general way--as the artillerists in the early days of the civil war used to " shell the woods "-- he does not propose to lose his labor, and therefore commends the book along with the others; but as a rule he distributes the distinctions that he has to confer according to a system-- to those, namely, whose work in fiction most nearly resembles his own. That is his way of propagating the Realistic faith which his poverty of imagination has compelled him to adopt and his necessities to defend. "Ah, yes, a beautiful animal," said the camel of the horse--"if he only had a hump!

To show what literary criticism has accomplished in education of the public taste I beg to refer the reader to the current number of Harper's Magazine.  There he will find a paper by one Bowker on contemporary English novelists--he novelists and she novelists-- to the number of about forty. And only the " eminent " ones are mentioned!. To most American readers some of the books of most of these authors are more or less familiar, and nine in ten of these readers will indubitably accept Mr. Bowker's high estimate of the genius of the authors themselves. They have one good quality-- they are industrious: most of them have published from ten to forty novels each, the latter number being the favorite at this date, and eliciting the Bowkerian lively admiration. The customary rate of production is one a year, though two are not unusual, there being nothing in English law forbidding.  Mr. Bowker has the goodness to tell us all he knows about these persons methods of work; that is to say, all that they have told him. The amount of patient research, profound thought and systematic planning that goes to the making of one of their books is (naturally) astonishing ! . Unfortunately it falls just short of the amount that kills.

Add to the forty eminent English novelists another forty American, equally eminent at least in their own country and similarly industrious. We have then an average annual output in the language of, say, ninety novels which have the right to expect to be widely read and enthusiastically reviewed. This in two countries, in one of which the art of novel writing is dead, in the other of which it has not been born. Truly this is an age of " astonishing literary activity"; our novelists are as lively and diligent as maggots in the carcass of a horse. There is a boom in baseball, too.

So Bierce took a sideways shot at baseball -- which (like all sports) he considered a waste of time!  

The "Bowker" satirized in Bierce's column appears to have been R. R. Bowker (1848-1933), journalist and an editor both of Publishers Weekly and Harper's Magazine.

Finally, Bierce demonstrated in his June 3 column that he, too, could write poetry--which he often inserted into his Sunday columns, including this untitled piece which versifies his scorn of the literary types of the Gilded Age--"leeches" and "parasites" as he  caricatured them--in a series of couplets reminiscent of Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man" (1733-1734):

Let higher themes engage my weary pen--

The follies, not of critics but of men.

Be it mine no more the wanderings to trace

Of the reviewers' self-directed race--

Their wire-drawn fancies, finlcally fine,

Of diligent vacuity the sign.

Let them In jargon of their trade rehearse

The moral meaning of the random verse

That runs spontaneous from the poet's pen

To be half-blotted by ambitious men

Who hope with his their meaner names to link

 By writing o'er it in another ink

The thoughts unreal which they think they think,

 Until the mental eye In vain inspects

The curst palimpsest to discern the text.

 

The lark ascending heavenward, load and long

Sings to the dawning day his wanton song;

The moaning dove, attentive to the sound.

Its hidden meaning hastens to expound:

Explains Its principles, design-- in brief,

Pronounces it a parable of grief.

The bee, just pausing ere he daubs his thigh

With pollen of a hollyhock near by.

Declares he never heard in terms so just

The labor problem thoughtfully discussed. .

The browsing ass looks up and clears his whistle

To say: " A monologue upon the Thistle !'

Meanwhile the lark, descending, folds his wing

And innocently asks: "What! Did l sing?"

 

O literary parasite! who thrive

Upon the fame of better men, derive

Your sustenance by suction, like a leech,

And, for you preach of them, think masters preach---

Who find it half is profit, half delight,

To write about what you would never write--

 Consider, pray, how sharp had been the throes

Of famine and discomfiture in those

You write about If they'd been critics, too,

 And doomed to write of nothing but of you!

 

Lo! where the gaping crowd surrounds yon tent,

To see the lion resolutely bent !

The prosing showman who the beast displays

Grows rich and richer daily in its praise.

But how if to attract the curious yeoman

The lion owned the show and showed the showman?

 

 

 

 [1] Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1993) p. 105. Compiled over several decades, the work was first published in 1906 as The Cynic's Word Book before publication as The Devil's Dictionary in 1911.

 [2] See Roy Morris, Jr.'s extraordinary biography, Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1995), p.197.

 #CaseyattheBat #BalladoftheRepublic #AmbroseBierce 

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