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American Curmudgeons

In the nineteenth century, American writers began to distance themselves from the influence of England to create a truly American literary identity. One attempt was literary realism, a philosophy that tried to represent contemporary society as it truly was. In the journalistic sphere, this experiment grew largely through the efforts of newspapermen Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain in the 1870s and 1880s. It reached full bloom under the cynical editorial reign of H. L. Mencken in the early 1900s.

Undergirding the writings of these three men was a fervent desire to puncture the myth of culture and to expose stupidity, vanity, and corruption through scorn and ridicule. All three, in their way, belonged to what one critic has termed “the cantankerous school” of American writing, an institution that offers master classes in sardonic satire, acidic invective, and merciless truth.

The exhibit was curated by Morgan Swan and was on display in the Class of 1965 Galleries from January 7 to February 28, 2013.

You may download a small, 8x10 version of the poster: AmericanCurmudgeons.jpg. You may also download a handlist of the items in this exhibition: AmericanCurmudgeons.

BS345.A2 E4 1663

American Curmudgeons poster

Materials Included in the Exhibition

Case 1. Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce (1841-1913?) was an American journalist, satirist, and contemporary of Mark Twain. Often called "Bitter" Bierce, he is best known for his much-anthologized short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and his satiric book of definitions known as The Devil's Dictionary. However, he is still a relatively unknown luminary within the American literary constellation. One reason may be that Bierce did not consider himself a humorist, but instead was a master of wit, which he believed was a more sophisticated if less lucrative pursuit: “Wit may make us smile, or make us wince, but laughter—that is the cheaper price that we pay for an inferior entertainment, namely, humor.” Bierce’s disappearance in 1913, while following the exploits of Pancho Villa’s army in Mexico, is a mystery that has never been solved. One writer, several years after Bierce’s disappearance, adroitly encapsulated Bierce’s impact upon American literature by claiming that all people “may be divided into two classes; those who have never heard of Ambrose Bierce, and those who consider him the greatest short-story writer that America has produced since Edgar Allan Poe.”

  1. Ambrose Bierce. The Fiend’s Delight. London: John Camden Hotten, 1872. Bierce 16
    1. This collection of short fiction and newspaper excepts, as well as those comprising “Nuggets and Dust” and “Cobwebs from an Empty Skull,” was published in England by Bierce under the pen name “Dod Grile.” Bierce, Twain, and other writers had traveled to London in the 1870s in an attempt to protect their published works from piracy in the UK, a technically legal but ethically questionable practice at the time.
  2. Ambrose Bierce. Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California. London: Chatto and Windus, 1872. Bierce 32. Also available online via Hathi Trust.
    1. Mark Twain despised this book and panned it, stating, “There is humor in Dod Grile, but for every laugh that is in his book, there are five blushes, ten shudders and a vomit. The laugh is too expensive.” However, Twain’s distaste for the text may have been because he read the collection of essays as attempts at humor, something that Bierce deliberately avoided in favor of “wit.”
  3. Ambrose Bierce. Cobwebs from an Empty Skull. London: G. Routledge and Sons, 1874. Bierce 7
  4. Ambrose Bierce. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Other Stories. Little blue book, no. 1054. Girard, Kan.: Haldeman-Julius, 1909. Bierce PS1097 .O357 
    1. Of Bierce’s early three publications, this book alone garnered praise from Mark Twain, who commended it in a letter to a mutual friend. Many years later, Twain would select seven fables from the text for inclusion in Mark Twain’s Library of Humor.“Ambrose Bierce.” The Biblio. Anonymous, 1924. The July 1924 issue of The Biblio, a self-professed “journal for book lovers,” was dedicated to Ambrose Bierce and his profound impact upon American literature.
    2. As may be guessed by examining the picture on the first page, Bierce bore a passing resemblance to Samuel Clemens. Late in life, when a close friend once sent him a picture of Clemens as a joke, he replied, “O yes, I suppose I look like the late Mark Twain—I’ve been mistaken for him all my life, sometimes most amusingly."
  5. Ambrose Bierce. Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. San Francisco: E.L.G. Steele, 1891. Bierce 39
    1. Unlike Twain, who essentially fled the Civil War, Bierce enlisted four days after Lincoln put out a call for volunteers. He participated in some of the most most brutal battles of the war, including the battle of Shiloh, and received a serious head wound for his efforts. The senseless horror and tragedy that Bierce confronted during the war informed much of his writing, including Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, a collection of short stories set in the Civil War and published in 1891.
    2. Perhaps his most well-known short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” appears in this book and is an excellent example of Bierce’s technical mastery and his war-weary cynicism. H. L. Mencken once wrote of Bierce that he was “the first writer of fiction ever to treat war realistically.”
  6. Ambrose Bierce and Carroll D. Hall. Selections from Prattle. The California literary pamphlets: no. 3. San Francisco: The Book club of California, 1936. Bierce 34.
    1. Despite Bierce’s fame for his dictionary and short stories, he made his living primarily as a journalist. Bierce was well-known for an ongoing weekly column called “Prattle” that unerringly skewered society’s pretensions with a few clever turns of phrase. This pamphlet, published decades after his disappearance, reprints several of the razor-sharp barbs drawn from Bierce’s bottomless rhetorical quiver over a period of thirty-one years. This page shows excerpts from the San Francisco News Letter, where Bierce first began his rise to prominence.
  7. George Sterling. To Ambrose Bierce. New York: Neale, 1910. Bierce 61
  8. Ambrose Bierce and Samuel Loveman. Twenty-One Letters of Ambrose Bierce. Cleveland: G.Kirk, 1922. Bierce 41. Also available online via Hathi Trust.
    1. Later in life, Bierce became a mentor and patron for a number of aspiring poets and writers, among them George Sterling and Samuel Loveman. Here are a poem dedicated to Bierce by Sterling and a printing of correspondence between Loveman and Bierce. In his penultimate letter to Loveman, Bierce recommends that he contact H. L. Mencken about reviewing his poetry and provides contact information. Three months later, Bierce would vanish, never to be seen again.
  9. Ambrose Bierce. “Wit and Humor.” The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce. New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1911. Volume 10. Baker Berry 816 B474 I  v.10
    1. In this essay, Bierce defines what he sees as a vital distinction between the literary arts of humor and wit: “Humor is tolerant, tender; its ridicule caresses. Wit stabs, begs pardon—and turns the weapon in the wound. Humor is a sweet wine, wit a dry; we know which is preferred by the connoisseur.” Bierce names Twain’s work, among countless others, as a prominent example of humor, while the only description he can provide of wit is that it is “made in France.”
  10. Ambrose Bierce. The Cynic’s Word Book. London: A. F. Bird, 1906. Bierce 10
    1. Along with his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Bierce is most commonly known today for this book of humorous “definitions,” originally published as The Cynic’s Word Bookbut as of 1911 titled The Devil’s Dictionary. The work is a wonderful distillation of Bierce’s ascerbic satire. Each entry provides a stinging critique of mankind in an artful and clever way. Of particular interest here is Bierce’s definition of a humorist.


Case 2. Samuel Langhorne Clemens

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), known more familiarly as Mark Twain, was the greatest American humorist of his day and one of the most gifted writers that the United States has ever produced. Renowned for his barbed witticisms about American culture and human nature, he is arguably most famous for his controversial novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Clemens was born in 1835 in Hannibal, Missouri, and progressed through a number of stalled careers. He settled upon journalism after writing some successful newspaper sketches such as “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” By the time of his death in 1910, Mark Twain had become a national icon whose cult of personality had grown beyond his literary achievements. As one admirer said upon hearing of Twain’s passing, “His death is a National loss, but we have the consolation that he and his genius belonged to and were of us.”

  1. Mark Twain. What is Man? New York: De Vinne Press, 1906. Val 816 C59 Y611. Also available online via Hathi Trust.
    1. Twain published What is Man? only four years before his death. It is the crystallization of potentially inflammatory ideas that Twain had been pondering for more nearly three decades. Twain was reluctant to release the book because, in his own words, he “dreaded (and could not bear) the disapproval of the people around [me].” Consequently, Twain’s name does not appear on the title page or anywhere else in the book. What is Man? asserts that people are merely machines, shaped entirely by external events and motivated only by self-interest.
    2. In a piece for the New York Evening Mail in 1917, H. L. Mencken claimed that What is Man? and another late work, The Mysterious Stranger, were the most accurate reflections of the real Mark Twain. Mencken avowed that “Mark Twain dead is beginning to show far different and more brilliant colors than those he seemed to wear during life, and the one thing no sane critic would say of him to-day is that he was the harmless fireside jester…that he was once so widely thought to be.”
  2. Mark Twain. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. New York: C.L. Webster & Co., 1889. Val 816C59 P31 or Rare Book PZ3.C59 Co
    1. This book, written several years after Huckleberry Finn, represents a significant shift in Twain’s writing. In the novel, a 19th-century engineer named Hank Morgan travels back in time to early medieval England and quickly uses his knowledge of science to take control of society. Although it is reminiscent of his earlier works that dispensed humorous satire in a seemingly lighthearted way, there is a unsettling bitterness about humanity’s destructive nature in this book that anticipates the philosophical tack of Twain’s later works like What is Man? or The Mysterious Stranger.
  3. Mark Twain. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's Comrade). London: Chatto & Windus, 1884. Rare Book PS1305 .A1 1884
    1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was first printed in London in 1884 and later in the U.S. in 1885. Twain established his relationship with his London publishers, Chatto & Windus, while visiting England in the 1870s. Ambrose Bierce was instrumental in connecting Twain with Chatto & Windus, and would later recommend Huckleberry Finn to a friend, saying, “See if you don’t find more there than mere funning.”
    2. H. L. Mencken was also transfixed by the work after reading it at a very young age. Much later in life, Mencken would claim that the novel was “worth the whole work of Emerson with two-thirds of the work of Whitman thrown in for make-weight, and that one chapter of it is worth the whole work of Whittier, Longfellow, and Holmes.”
  4. Mark Twain. The Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrim's Progress. Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Company, 1869. Rare Book PS1312 .A1 1869 or Val 816C59 R81 or 1926 Coll C5925i
    1. Twain’s account of an 1869 trip along the Mediterranean and to the Holy Land aboard a decommissioned Civil War ship called the Quaker City was his best-selling book during his lifetime. The book was generated from a sequence of newspaper articles sent back to the U.S. by Twain during his voyage. In 1934, H. L. Mencken would venture abroad with this book in hand as his primary guide.
  5. Mark Twain. The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches. New York: C. H. Webb, 1867. Rare Book PS1322 .C4 1867 
    1. This collection of twenty-seven short stories was Mark Twain’s first book; until then, his writings had appeared only in newspapers and magazines. The title work was Twain’s first nationally successful story. After its publication (according to his editor), Twain “scaled the heights of popularity at a single jump, and won for himself the sobriquet of The Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope.”
  6. Mark Twain, Robert J. Burdette, William Dean Howells and E. W. Kemble. Mark Twain's Library of Humor. New York: C. L. Webster, 1888. Rare Book PN6157 .T9 1888. Also available online via Hathi Trust.
    1. By the 1880s, Mark Twain had become such a popular humorist in Europe and the U.S. that his name could sell just about anything. The Library of Humor is a perfect example of just such a venture. Twain joked in a note on the flyleaf that “those selections in this book which are from my own works were made by my two assistant compilers, not by me. This is why there are not more.” In reality, Twain was minimally involved with the collation and editing of this text, with the lion’s share of the work falling to his friend William Dean Howells.


Case 3. H. L. Mencken

H. L. Mencken (1880-1956) was a journalist, magazine editor, book critic, and caustic wit. Born in Baltimore, he came to national prominence as a vitriolic editorialist for the Baltimore Sun, to which he contributed regularly for over forty years. As editor of The Smart Set and The American Mercury, Mencken was one of the most influential voices in America. An impressive if amateur linguistic scholar, he published significant treatises on the English language. He was a friend to Ambrose Bierce and a lifelong devotee of Mark Twain, the latter of whom had an early and enduring impact upon Mencken’s approach to literature. Still, despite his admiration for Twain’s humor and his resultant deftness within that particular genre, Mencken’s own rhetorical inclination drifted more towards immediate and deadly stabs of cynical wit than the drawn-out elaborations that characterized Twain’s satire. He was, in his own words, “a gay fellow who heaves dead cats into sanctuaries and then goes roistering down the highways of the world.”

  1. The Little Review. Chicago: Margaret C. Anderson, 1917-18. Rare Book  AP2 .L647  v.4, no.1-12 1917-1918 
  2. H. L. Mencken. Letter from H. L. Mencken to Ezra Pound, 08/28/17. Papers, 1909-1956. MS-693, Box 1.
    1. In addition to his role as relentless scourge of the “booboisie,” H. L. Mencken was the co-editor of several influential literary magazines, notably The Smart Set and The American Mercury. He was as untiring in his support of writers and journalists in whom he saw merit as he was in castigating those who in his opinion were utterly without talent. Here, in a letter written during his tenure as co-editor of The Smart Set, Mencken puts his influence to work, recommending various writers to another influential editor, Ezra Pound of The Little Review. In this letter, Mencken plays upon the slogan of The Little Review, “Making No Compromise with the Public Taste,” by stating that financial obligations require his own magazine to make aesthetic compromises constantly in order to sell copies. Mencken’s literary acumen is evidenced here by his assertion that Pound has been “getting some excellent stuff” into his magazine; only seven months later, the first chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses would be published within its pages, marking the first appearance of one of the most important novels of the century.
  3. H. L. Mencken. The American Language; a Preliminary Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1919. Mencken 65. Also available online via Hathi Trust.
    1. Much like Ambrose Bierce and Mark Twain, Mencken was fascinated with the English language, particularly its American evolution. His experience as an editor of a magazine published in both England and the United States exposed him to variations in grammar, intonation, and other differences between writers from these nations. His curiosity about these differences led him to search for a scholarly, scientific text and, finding none, he took it upon himself to “make a first sketch of the living speech of these States.” Mencken’s first edition sold fairly well and this success encouraged him to continue exploring the subject, although his forays into American vernacular grammar were sometimes greeted with academic snobbery.
  4. H. L. Mencken. Happy Days, 1880-1892. 1st ed. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1940. Mencken 88
    1. Happy Days is the first of a trilogy of autobiographical books written by Mencken and focuses on his formative years as a child in Baltimore, Maryland. This book was notable primarily for its relatively up-beat tone, which stood in marked contrast to Mencken’s more familiar invective of the time. In one of its chapters, “Larval Stage of a Bookworm,” Mencken relates his initial childhood encounter with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, stating that “its impact was genuinely terrific” upon an eight-year-old boy. Mencken would continue to read this life-changing work regularly, at least once a year, well into his forties, and claimed that it had a “more powerful and durable” influence on his love affair with words than any other book he read as a child.
  5. H. L. Mencken. A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles from Ancient and Modern Sources. l ed. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1940. Mencken PN6081 .M49 c.2
  6. H. L. Mencken. Quotation cards. Papers, 1909-1956. MS-693, Boxes 4-9.
    1. Mencken’s intense curiosity about language and his evident mastery of its usage often led him down an intellectual path typically tread only by academics. His self-professed amateurism in this area did little to slow his eager acquisition of new knowledge concerning his native tongue. Mencken’s dictionary was borne out of years of painstaking research, transcription, and organization of thousands of quotations written out on humble note-cards. The numerous proverbs contained within the book, many of which are suspected to be of Mencken’s creation, hearken back to Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary and resonate with Twain’s irascible humor as well.
  7. H. L. Mencken. “Heil Roosevelt!” Typescript. Papers, 1909-1956. MS-693, Box 3, Folder 19.
  8. H. L. Mencken. “Heil Roosevelt!” Baltimore Sun, September 22, 1940.
    1. Mencken, perhaps predictably, was an unabashed admirer of German philosopher Frederich Nietsche. He reviled democracy as a system that allowed the “booboisie,” or the inferior masses of the ignorant lower classes, to rule over their intellectual superiors. Mencken also despised President Franklin D. Roosevelt and felt that the New Deal was a waste of public funds. In this editorial from the Baltimore Sun, Mencken trains his full powers upon Wendell Willkie, the failed Republican presidential candidate, but also skewersRoosevelt in the process. Mencken’s emendation of the original title of the article, as seen here in the original typescript, is emblematic of his “brief, vivid, villainous” wit.