Write It Right, Ambrose Bierce’s Blacklist of Literary Faults

In addition to his famous Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce also composed another dictionary of sorts, Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults. Sample entry:

Commit Suicide. Instead of “He committed suicide,” say, He killed himself, or, He took his life. For married we do not say “committed matrimony.” Unfortunately most of us do say, “got married,” which is almost as bad. For lack of a suitable verb we just sometimes say committed this or that, as in the instance of bigamy, for the verb to bigam is a blessing that is still in store for us.

Bierce’s tongue-in-cheek introduction is particularly funny:

The author’s main purpose in this book is to teach precision in writing; and of good writing (which, essentially, is clear thinking made visible) precision is the point of capital concern. It is attained by choice of the word that accurately and adequately expresses what the writer has in mind, and by exclusion of that which either denotes or connotes something else. As Quintilian puts it, the writer should so write that his reader not only may, but must, understand.

Few words have more than one literal and serviceable meaning, however many metaphorical, derivative, related, or even unrelated, meanings lexicographers may think it worth while to gather from all sorts and conditions of men, with which to bloat their absurd and misleading dictionaries. This actual and serviceable meaning—not always determined by derivation, and seldom by popular usage—is the one affirmed, according to his light, by the author of this little manual of solecisms. Narrow etymons of the mere scholar and loose locutions of the ignorant are alike denied a standing.

The plan of the book is more illustrative than expository, the aim being to use the terms of etymology and syntax as little as is compatible with clarity, familiar example being more easily apprehended than technical precept. When both are employed the precept is commonly given after the example has prepared the student to apply it, not only to the matter in mind, but to similar matters not mentioned. Everything in quotation marks is to be understood as disapproved.

Not all locutions blacklisted herein are always to be reprobated as universal outlaws. Excepting in the case of capital offenders—expressions ancestrally vulgar or irreclaimably degenerate—absolute proscription is possible as to serious composition only; in other forms the writer must rely on his sense of values and the fitness of things. While it is true that some colloquialisms and, with less of license, even some slang, may be sparingly employed in light literature, for point, piquancy or any of the purposes of the skilled writer sensible to the necessity and charm of keeping at least one foot on the ground, to others the virtue of restraint may be commended as distinctly superior to the joy of indulgence.

Precision is much, but not all; some words and phrases are disallowed on the ground of taste. As there are neither standards nor arbiters of taste, the book can do little more than reflect that of its author, who is far indeed from professing impeccability. In neither taste nor precision is any man’s practice a court of last appeal, for writers all, both great and small, are habitual sinners against the light; and their accuser is cheerfully aware that his own work will supply (as in making this book it has supplied) many “awful examples”—his later work less abundantly, he hopes, than his earlier. He nevertheless believes that this does not disqualify him for showing by other instances than his own how not to write. The infallible teacher is still in the forest primeval, throwing seeds to the white blackbirds.

Read/peruse/download Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right at Project Gutenberg.

“An Inhabitant of Carcosa” by Ambrose Bierce

“An Inhabitant of Carcosa”

by

Ambrose Bierce

For there be divers sorts of death — some wherein the body remaineth; and in some it vanisheth quite away with the spirit. This commonly occurreth only in solitude (such is God’s will) and, none seeing the end, we say the man is lost, or gone on a long journey — which indeed he hath; but sometimes it hath happened in sight of many, as abundant testimony showeth. In one kind of death the spirit also dieth, and this it hath been known to do while yet the body was in vigor for many years. Sometimes, as is veritably attested, it dieth with the body, but after a season is raised up again in that place where the body did decay.

Pondering these words of Hali (whom God rest) and questioning their full meaning, as one who, having an intimation, yet doubts if there be not something behind, other than that which he has discerned, I noted not whither I had strayed until a sudden chill wind striking my face revived in me a sense of my surroundings. I observed with astonishment that everything seemed unfamiliar. On every side of me stretched a bleak and desolate expanse of plain, covered with a tall overgrowth of sere grass, which rustled and whistled in the autumn wind with heaven knows what mysterious and disquieting suggestion. Protruded at long intervals above it, stood strangely shaped and somber- colored rocks, which seemed to have an understanding with one another and to exchange looks of uncomfortable significance, as if they had reared their heads to watch the issue of some foreseen event. A few blasted trees here and there appeared as leaders in this malevolent conspiracy of silent expectation. Read More

“The Man and the Snake” — Ambrose Bierce

“The Man and the Snake”

by

Ambrose Bierce

I

It is of veritabyll report, and attested of so many that there be nowe of wyse and learned none to gaynsaye it, that ye serpente hys eye hath a magnetick propertie that whosoe falleth into its svasion is drawn forwards in despyte of his wille, and perisheth miserabyll by ye creature hys byte.

Stretched at ease upon a sofa, in gown and slippers, Harker Brayton smiled as he read the foregoing sentence in old Morryster’s “Marvells of Science.” “The only marvel in the matter,” he said to himself, “is that the wise and learned in Morryster’s day should have believed such nonsense as is rejected by most of even the ignorant in ours.”

A train of reflections followed—for Brayton was a man of thought— and he unconsciously lowered his book without altering the direction of his eyes. As soon as the volume had gone below the line of sight, something in an obscure corner of the room recalled his attention to his surroundings. What he saw, in the shadow under his bed, were two small points of light, apparently about an inch apart. They might have been reflections of the gas jet above him, in metal nail heads; he gave them but little thought and resumed his reading. A moment later something—some impulse which it did not occur to him to analyze—impelled him to lower the book again and seek for what he saw before. The points of light were still there. They seemed to have become brighter than before, shining with a greenish luster which he had not at first observed. He thought, too, that they might have moved a trifle—were somewhat nearer. They were still too much in the shadow, however, to reveal their nature and origin to an indolent attention, and he resumed his reading. Suddenly something in the text suggested a thought which made him start and drop the book for the third time to the side of the sofa, whence, escaping from his hand, it fell sprawling to the floor, back upward. Brayton, half-risen, was staring intently into the obscurity beneath the bed, where the points of light shone with, it seemed to him, an added fire. His attention was now fully aroused, his gaze eager and imperative. It disclosed, almost directly beneath the foot rail of the bed, the coils of a large serpent—the points of light were its eyes! Its horrible head, thrust flatly forth from the innermost coil and resting upon the outermost, was directed straight toward him, the definition of the wide, brutal jaw and the idiotlike forehead serving to show the direction of its malevolent gaze. The eyes were no longer merely luminous points; they looked into his own with a meaning, a malign significance. Read More

“The Middle Toe of the Right Foot” — Ambrose Bierce

“The Middle Toe of the Right Foot”

by

Ambrose Bierce

I

It is well known that the old Manton house is haunted. In all the rural district near about, and even in the town of Marshall, a mile away, not one person of unbiased mind entertains a doubt of it; incredulity is confined to those opinionated persons who will be called “cranks” as soon as the useful word shall have penetrated the intellectual demesne of the Marshall Advance. The evidence that the house is haunted is of two kinds; the testimony of disinterested witnesses who have had ocular proof, and that of the house itself. The former may be disregarded and ruled out on any of the various grounds of objection which may be urged against it by the ingenious; but facts within the observation of all are material and controlling.

In the first place the Manton house has been unoccupied by mortals for more than ten years, and with its outbuildings is slowly falling into decay—a circumstance which in itself the judicious will hardly venture to ignore. It stands a little way off the loneliest reach of the Marshall and Harriston road, in an opening which was once a farm and is still disfigured with strips of rotting fence and half covered with brambles overrunning a stony and sterile soil long unacquainted with the plow. The house itself is in tolerably good condition, though badly weather-stained and in dire need of attention from the glazier, the smaller male population of the region having attested in the manner of its kind its disapproval of dwelling without dwellers. It is two stories in height, nearly square, its front pierced by a single doorway flanked on each side by a window boarded up to the very top. Corresponding windows above, not protected, serve to admit light and rain to the rooms of the upper floor. Grass and weeds grow pretty rankly all about, and a few shade trees, somewhat the worse for wind, and leaning all in one direction, seem to be making a concerted effort to run away. In short, as the Marshall town humorist explained in the columns of the Advance, “the proposition that the Manton house is badly haunted is the only logical conclusion from the premises.” The fact that in this dwelling Mr. Manton thought it expedient one night some ten years ago to rise and cut the throats of his wife and two small children, removing at once to another part of the country, has no doubt done its share in directing public attention to the fitness of the place for supernatural phenomena. Read More

Language (Ambrose Bierce)

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Future (Ambrose Bierce)

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“An Arrest” — Ambrose Bierce

“An Arrest”

by

Ambrose Bierce

Having murdered his brother-in-law, Orrin Brower of Kentucky was a fugitive from justice.  From the county jail where he had been confined to await his trial he had escaped by knocking down his jailer with an iron bar, robbing him of his keys and, opening the outer door, walking out into the night.  The jailer being unarmed, Brower got no weapon with which to defend his recovered liberty.  As soon as he was out of the town he had the folly to enter a forest; this was many years ago, when that region was wilder than it is now.

The night was pretty dark, with neither moon nor stars visible, and as Brower had never dwelt thereabout, and knew nothing of the lay of the land, he was, naturally, not long in losing himself.  He could not have said if he were getting farther away from the town or going back to it – a most important matter to Orrin Brower.  He knew that in either case a posse of citizens with a pack of bloodhounds would soon be on his track and his chance of escape was very slender; but he did not wish to assist in his own pursuit.  Even an added hour of freedom was worth having.

Suddenly he emerged from the forest into an old road, and there before him saw, indistinctly, the figure of a man, motionless in the gloom.  It was too late to retreat: the fugitive felt that at the first movement back toward the wood he would be, as he afterward explained, “filled with buckshot.”  So the two stood there like trees, Brower nearly suffocated by the activity of his own heart; the other – the emotions of the other are not recorded.

A moment later – it may have been an hour – the moon sailed into a patch of unclouded sky and the hunted man saw that visible embodiment of Law lift an arm and point significantly toward and beyond him.  He understood.  Turning his back to his captor, he walked submissively away in the direction indicated, looking to neither the right nor the left; hardly daring to breathe, his head and back actually aching with a prophecy of buckshot.

Brower was as courageous a criminal as ever lived to be hanged; that was shown by the conditions of awful personal peril in which he had coolly killed his brother-in-law.  It is needless to relate them here; they came out at his trial, and the revelation of his calmness in confronting them came near to saving his neck.  But what would you have? – when a brave man is beaten, he submits.

So they pursued their journey jailward along the old road through the woods.  Only once did Brower venture a turn of the head: just once, when he was in deep shadow and he knew that the other was in moonlight, he looked backward.  His captor was Burton Duff, the jailer, as white as death and bearing upon his brow the livid mark of the iron bar.  Orrin Brower had no further curiosity.

Eventually they entered the town, which was all alight, but deserted; only the women and children remained, and they were off the streets.  Straight toward the jail the criminal held his way.  Straight up to the main entrance he walked, laid his hand upon the knob of the heavy iron door, pushed it open without command, entered and found himself in the presence of a half-dozen armed men.  Then he turned.  Nobody else entered.

On a table in the corridor lay the dead body of Burton Duff.

“Dictionary” — Ambrose Bierce

Dictionary

(From The Devil’s Dictionary, of course).

Teju Cole’s Dictionary of Received Ideas

Yesterday on Twitter, Teju Cole shared a series of definitions—some ironic, some hilarious funny, all perceptive.

The series of definitions immediately reminded me of Ambrose Bierce’s sardonic work The Devil’s Dictionary, but Cole later tweeted that he had Gustave Flaubert’s Le Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues (The Dictionary of Received Ideas) in mind as a model.

Cole reiterated Flaubert’s influence again when he published the tweets today at The New Yorker under the title “In Place of Thought“—a little sample:

AMERICAN. With the prefix “all,” a blonde.

CHILDREN. The only justification for policy. Always say “our children.” The childless have no interest in improving society.

HILARIOUS. Never simply say “funny.”

HIP HOP. Old-school hip hop, i.e., whatever was popular when you were nineteen, is great. Everything since then is intolerable.

HIPSTER. One who has an irrational hatred of hipsters.

INTERNET. A waste of time. Have a long online argument with anyone who disagrees.

JAZZ. America’s classical music. The last album was released in 1965.

LITERALLY. Swear you’d rather die than use “literally” as an intensifier.

POET. Always preceded by “published.” Function unknown.

Bonus—from Flaubert’s Dictionnaire:

BLACK – Always preceded by “pitch”.

CHILDREN – Affect a lyric tenderness towards  them, when people are about.

INTRODUCTION — Obscene word.

LITERATURE — Idle pastime.

METAPHORS — Always too many in poems. Always too many in anybody’s writing.

OPTIMIST — Synonym for imbecile.

POETRY — Entirely useless; out of date.

THINK (TO) — Painful. Things that compel us to think are generally neglected.

“…he enjoyed a sort of dual existence” (Another Riff on Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day)

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Art by Charles Dellschau (1830 Prussia – 1923)

He had brought with him a dime novel, one of the Chums of Chance series, The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth, and for a while each night he sat in the firelight and read to himself but soon found he was reading out loud to his father’s corpse, like a bedtime story, something to ease Webb’s passage into the dreamland of his death.

Reef had had the book for years. He’d come across it, already dog-eared, scribbled in, torn and stained from a number of sources, including blood, while languishing in the county lockup at Socorro, New Mexico, on a charge of running a game of chance without a license. The cover showed an athletic young man (it seemed to be the fearless Lindsay Noseworth) hanging off a ballast line of an ascending airship of futuristic design, trading shots with a bestially rendered gang of Eskimos below. Reef began to read, and soon, whatever “soon” meant, became aware that he was reading in the dark, lights-out having occurred sometime, near as he could tell, between the North Cape and Franz Josef Land. As soon as he noticed the absence of light, of course, he could no longer see to read and, reluctantly, having marked his place, turned in for the night without considering any of this too odd. For the next couple of days he enjoyed a sort of dual existence, both in Socorro and at the Pole. Cellmates came and went, the Sheriff looked in from time to time, perplexed.

At odd moments, now, he found himself looking at the sky, as if trying to locate somewhere in it the great airship. As if those boys might be agents of a kind of extrahuman justice, who could shepherd Webb through whatever waited for him, even pass on to Reef wise advice, though he might not always be able to make sense of it. And sometimes in the sky, when the light was funny enough, he thought he saw something familiar. Never lasting more than a couple of watch ticks, but persistent. “It’s them, Pa,” he nodded back over his shoulder. “They’re watching us, all right. And tonight I’ll read you some more of that story. You’ll see.”

Riding out of Cortez in the morning, he checked the high end of the Sleeping Ute and saw cloud on the peak. “Be rainin later in the day, Pa.”

“Is that Reef? Where am I? Reef, I don’t know where the hell I am—”

“Steady, Pa. We’re outside of Cortez, headin up to Telluride, be there pretty soon—”

“No. That’s not where this is. Everthin is unhitched. Nothin stays the same. Somethin has happened to my eyes. . . .”

“It’s O.K.”

“Hell it is.”

—From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Against the Day (215).

1. There’s so much I like about this passage.

2. First, Pynchon explicitly ties together two groups of his characters here. Pynchon connects the Traverses of Colorado with those champions of the ether, The Chums of Chance.

And he does it through a novel, which I’ll get to in a minute.

3. I’ve already remarked on the adventurous, even light-hearted tone of the Chums of Chance episodes, which often buoy the narrative out of its byzantine winding.

4. The Chums passages contrast strongly with the Colorado episodes featuring the Traverses.

While Pynchon is not really known for his pathos or the depth of his characters, the Traverse story line is genuinely moving. We see the family disintegrate against the greed of the Colorado mining rush. Patriarch Webb cannot hold his family together, and he gives over to a deep bitterness; his union becomes his raison d’etre, and he undertakes dangerous secret missions to fight the forces of capitalism. It’s worth giving Webb’s opinion at length:

“Here. The most precious thing I own.” He took his union card from his wallet and showed them, one by one. “These words right here”—pointing to the slogan on the back of the card— “is what it all comes down to, you won’t hear it in school, maybe the Gettysburg Address, Declaration of Independence and so forth, but if you learn nothing else, learn this by heart, what it says here—‘Labor produces all wealth. Wealth belongs to the producer thereof.’ Straight talk. No doubletalking you like the plutes do, ’cause with them what you always have to be listening for is the opposite of what they say. ‘Freedom,’ then’s the time to watch your back in particular—start telling you how free you are, somethin’s up, next thing you know the gates have slammed shut and there’s the Captain givin you them looks. ‘Reform’? More new snouts at the trough. ‘Compassion’ means the population of starving, homeless, and dead is about to take another jump. So forth. Why, you could write a whole foreign phrase book just on what Republicans have to say.”

5. It’s also worth pointing out that Webb is likley the Kieselguhr Kid: He has a secret identity and secret powers, like many of the characters who inhabit Against the Day.

6. The Traverse passages recall the social realism of Steinbeck at times, with a dose of the moralizing we might find in Upton Sinclair. There’s also a heavy dash of Ambrose Bierce’s cynicism, and something of Bret Harte’s milieu here.

A kind of ballast for Pynchon’s flightier whims? Not sure.

7. Returning to our initial citation:

As prodigal son Reef Traverse moves his father’s corpse across Colorado, he reads from The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth. We learn that he’s had the dime novel for years and we learn of its physical condition — “dogeared, scribbled in, torn and stained from a number of sources, including blood.” The book is a kind of abject survivor, a physical totem with powers of endurance, which, in turn, grants metaphysical powers on its user-reader.

8. (Parenthetical (i.e. unexplored) aside: The cover of The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth features handsome, uptight Lindsay Noseworth facing off against a “bestially rendered gang of Eskimos.” Here is our Manifest Destiny; here is our White Man’s Burden).

9. The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth allows Reef brief transcendence of time (“whatever ‘soon’ meant”) and space (it provides him escape from his jail cell).

10. Also: The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth grants its reader the power to read in the dark. There is something of a huge in-joke here that all late-night readers will appreciate.

Also: the major motif of At the End of the Day is darkness and light. The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth works as a kind of self-illuminating object outside the confines of the physical world, but only when the user is not conscious of this power (“As soon as he noticed the absence of light, of course, he could no longer see to read”).

11. The Chums of Chance at the Ends of the Earth bestows upon Reef, its operator,  “a sort of dual existence, both in Socorro and at the Pole.” This relationship, again, won’t be unfamiliar to voracious readers. Hell, many of us chase that transcendent space the rest of our lives. The older we get, the harder it is to get back to Dickensian London or Rivendell or Crusoe’s island or Narnia or Thornfield Hall or wherever it was that we got to live out part of our dual existence.

Here Reef, a grown-ass man, gets to be one of the Chums and traverse an alien frontier.

12. And the biggie: Somehow this dime novel wakes the dead.

Now, it’s easy to say that Webb doesn’t really talk to Reef, just as we can easily say that Reef doesn’t really head to the pole with the Chums, doesn’t really transcend time and space, etc. We could look for simple answers in psychology—Reef has internalized his father’s voice; Reef is going mad.

But I think Pynchon’s presentation of the scene suggests something more—but something I don’t know how to name or describe, only a fifth of the way into this book. Something to look for in any case.

And so thus end with Webb’s line: “Somethin has happened to my eyes.”

“One Summer Night” — Ambrose Bierce

“One Summer Night” by Ambrose Bierce

The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead: he had always been a hard man to convince.  That he really was buried, the testimony of his senses compelled him to admit.  His posture – flat upon his back, with his hands crossed upon his stomach and tied with something that he easily broke without profitably altering the situation – the strict confinement of his entire person, the black darkness and profound silence, made a body of evidence impossible to controvert and he accepted it without cavil.

But dead – no; he was only very, very ill.  He had, withal, the invalid’s apathy and did not greatly concern himself about the uncommon fate that had been allotted to him.  No philosopher was he – just a plain, commonplace person gifted, for the time being, with a pathological indifference: the organ that he feared consequences with was torpid.  So, with no particular apprehension for his immediate future, he fell asleep and all was peace with Henry Armstrong.

But something was going on overhead.  It was a dark summer night, shot through with infrequent shimmers of lightning silently firing a cloud lying low in the west and portending a storm.  These brief, stammering illuminations brought out with ghastly distinctness the monuments and headstones of the cemetery and seemed to set them dancing.  It was not a night in which any credible witness was likely to be straying about a cemetery, so the three men who were there, digging into the grave of Henry Armstrong, felt reasonably secure.

Two of them were young students from a medical college a few miles away; the third was a gigantic negro known as Jess.  For many years Jess had been employed about the cemetery as a man-of-all-work and it was his favorite pleasantry that he knew “every soul in the place.”  From the nature of what he was now doing it was inferable that the place was not so populous as its register may have shown it to be.

Outside the wall, at the part of the grounds farthest from the public road, were a horse and a light wagon, waiting.

The work of excavation was not difficult: the earth with which the grave had been loosely filled a few hours before offered little resistance and was soon thrown out.  Removal of the casket from its box was less easy, but it was taken out, for it was a perquisite of Jess, who carefully unscrewed the cover and laid it aside, exposing the body in black trousers and white shirt.  At that instant the air sprang to flame, a cracking shock of thunder shook the stunned world and Henry Armstrong tranquilly sat up.  With inarticulate cries the men fled in terror, each in a different direction.  For nothing on earth could two of them have been persuaded to return.  But Jess was of another breed.

In the gray of the morning the two students, pallid and haggard from anxiety and with the terror of their adventure still beating tumultuously in their blood, met at the medical college.

“You saw it?” cried one.

“God! yes – what are we to do?”

They went around to the rear of the building, where they saw a horse, attached to a light wagon, hitched to a gatepost near the door of the dissecting-room.  Mechanically they entered the room.  On a bench in the obscurity sat the negro Jess.  He rose, grinning, all eyes and teeth.

“I’m waiting for my pay,” he said.

Stretched naked on a long table lay the body of Henry Armstrong, the head defiled with blood and clay from a blow with a spade.