The Pleasantest PrattlerOn May 1, 2019 by Elyse
Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911
Ambrose Bierce—author, Civil War veteran and pre-muckraker—was one of the most influential journalists of his day, no doubt thanks in part to wit “so keen that it pierces a man before he realizes what is the matter with him.” For years, he wrote a column titled Prattle, which he used to attack “pretty much everything—religion, patriotism, war, politicians, feminists, Chinese missionaries, horseshoes, misguided punctuation, lengthy speeches, and innumerable other targets.” One contemporary newspaper dubbed him “the pleasantest prattler on all the Pacific coast.”
This reputation made him ideal for a special assignment, delivered via telegram in January 1896, from his publisher at the San Francisco Examiner, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst:
Railroad combination so strong in Washington that seems almost impossible to break them, yet it is certainly the duty of all having interests of the coast at heart of make most strenuous efforts. Will you please go to Washington for the Examiner?– The Salt Lake Herald, January 23, 1896
At the time, the powerful Central Pacific and Southern Pacific railroads were many millions of dollars in debt to the U.S. government for loans taken out thirty years earlier to build the Transcontinental Railroad. They sought to pass a bill in Congress forgiving their debt, epitomizing Ambrose’s definition of a corporation:
Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.– Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911
The railroads’ champion was executive Collis Huntington, a man known for his ruthlessness and shady business dealings. His own biographer characterized him as “vindictive,” “sometimes untruthful” and “interested in comparatively few things outside of business.”
The proposed legislation set off a furor in California, where many decried the railroads’ corrupt and monopolistic practices and their meddling in the state’s political and judicial systems.
Lest you think Hearst mounted this campaign out of the goodness of his heart and concern over industry consolidation, keep in mind his business empire would eventually include nearly 30 newspapers across the country, while his emphasis on sensationalism at the expense of facts led to a new reporting style: yellow journalism.
Regardless of his boss’ motivations, Ambrose was all in:
I shall be glad to do whatever I can toward defeating Mr. Huntington’s funding bill and shall start for Washington on Monday evening next.– The Salt Lake Herald, January 23, 1896
The newspaper went on to note that with Ambrose on the case, “For once in his life Mr. Huntington is entitled to sympathy.”
And so, that “cold-blooded assassin of character” went to Washington, D.C. to cover the proceedings. A few choice words from two of the more than a dozen columns he wrote on the legislative battle illustrate why even the villainous Huntington deserves our sympathy:
Huntington Lying In His Last Ditch: Driven to the Wall by the Exposure of His Infamies, the Magnate Crawls Before the Senate committee on Pacific Railways and Seeks to Draw the curtain on His Own Black Record by Calumniating Those Who Would Bring Him to Justice
. . . Mr. Huntington is not altogether bad. Though severe; he is merciful. He tempers invective with falsehood. He says ugly things of his enemy, but he has the tenderness to be careful that they are mostly lies.– The San Francisco Examiner, February 2, 1896
At about 11 o’clock this morning a persistently unfriendly Providence again placed Mr. Huntington between Senator Morgan and the deep blue sea. . .
The first subject was the missing books of the Contract and Finance Company, which Mr. Huntington was quite sure that he had never seen, but whose destructions he had first advised, then suggested and finally was not quite sure he had anything to do with. Mr. Huntington’s caution grew with reflection, and it is probable that eventually he will sturdily have opposed the destruction of those books.– The San Francisco Examiner, February 19, 1896
Ambrose’s acerbic columns did their job, and within a few months, the bill was defeated:
Ambrose returned home to a hero’s welcome, and the railroads eventually repaid their debts in 1909.
His war against the railroads was hardly the most dramatic chapter of Ambrose’s life. As a young man, he fought for the Union in the Civil War. His heroics, which included several near-death experiences, an escape from Confederate captors in Georgia and the rescue of a fellow soldier while under heavy enemy fire, earned him a promotion to sergeant major. By one account, after the war ended, he flipped a coin to decide if he would pursue a literary or military career. I surely don’t need to tell you which way the coin landed.
Ambrose never lost his taste for adventure. In 1913, at the age of 71, he traveled to Mexico and joined the army of Pancho Villa, which was fighting in the Mexican Revolution. He made it as far as Chihuahua with the army but then seemed to disappear from the face of the earth. Some say he was executed by a firing squad, while others contend he committed suicide. In either case, he was never seen again.
His death is a mystery, but his legacy is not:
Bierce led a most remarkable life—half hermit, half Bohemian, and altogether egotistical and cynical. In the west he was the most hated and feared of writers, and also the most courted and spoiled. He lampooned nearly everybody in political and private life with hair raising audacity. As the dean of Pacific coast letters he made and unmade authors and poets. The dilettante worshiped him. He has been called “the American Swift” “the last of the satirists” and “the Maupassant of the west.” He was an iconoclast of the first order.– Baily Millard, the New York Times, as reported in the Las Vegas Optic, December 15, 1914.
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Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above sources. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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