Ambrose Bierce, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, all in the same space: newsletter, May 21, 2021

May 23, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, newsletter, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,374) on Friday, May 21, 2021.

One of the great commonalities of the lives of noted authors is that a great many of them over the last two centuries began professionally in the same way: they worked as journalists and very often for newspapers. There are no better teachers of writing than the environment of an active newsroom and the pressure of a deadline.

Newswriting requires the writer how to distill information and ideas into a coherent form that those who read it can understand easily. This is no natural phenomenon that occurs through genes or other unseen forces. Instead, the ability to write coherently and understandably is the product of concentration, trial and error, and, most of all, hard work.

With the demise of newspapers and newsrooms over the past two decades, I wonder where our next set of great writers will be trained. Somewhere comparable, I hope. With that thought, have a great weekend.

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Ambrose Bierce, the cynic who disappeared

Satirist and professional cynic Ambrose Bierce left his audience in the same way that Amelia Earhart did, only 25 years earlier. He disappeared without a trace.

And like Ms. Earhart, much has been made of that disappearance — investigations, speculation, rumors, stories and even movies. The results were the same. Nothing substantial was ever found. No clues, no evidence, no witnesses, nothing.

Unlike Ms. Earhart, however, Bierce has pretty much disappeared from the American consciousness. And that’s unfortunate indeed.

Ambrose Bierce lived a life worth remembering and wrote much that should still be read and pondered.

Chief among the vast body of writing that he left behind when he vanished in Mexico in 1913 is The Devil’s Dictionary, a set of witty and cynical definitions that was compiled over 30 years of newspaper writing and published in 1906.

Here’s a sample:

Advice, n.  The smallest current coin.

Air, n.  A nutritious substance supplied by a bountiful Providence for the fattening of the poor.

Education, n.  That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.

Elegy, n.  A composition in verse, in which without employing any of the methods of humor, the writer aims to produce in the reader’s mind the dampest kind of dejection.

Hog, n.  A bird remarkable for the catholicity of its appetite and serving to illustrate that of ours. Among the Mahometans and Jews, the hog is not in favor as an article of diet but is respected for the delicacy of its habits, the beauty of its plumage, and the melody of its voice. It is chiefly as a songster that the fowl is esteemed; a cage of him in full chorus has been known to draw tears from two persons at once.

Lap, n.  One of the most important organs of the female system—an admirable provision of nature for the repose of infancy, but chiefly useful in rural festivities to support plates of cold chicken and heads of adult males. The male of our species has a rudimentary lap, imperfectly developed, and in no way contributing to the animal’s substantial welfare.

Litigation, n.  A machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage.

Bierce was unrelentingly cynical and negative in his commentary and fiction, and critics complained that he lacked imagination. In his defense, he had much to be cynical about. He had spent most of the American Civil War as a soldier, beginning as an infantryman and later as a topographical officer. He participated in some of its major battles of the war including Shiloh and Chickamauga.

After the war, Bierce became one of the most prolific and influential writers and journalists of the late 19th century. His story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” appears in hundreds of anthologies and is one of the most widely read pieces of American writing hope that or any era.

The Devil’s Dictionary, quoted above, is considered a masterpiece of wit and genius.

In 1913, Bierce told reporters that he was headed to Mexico to witness firsthand the revolution that was taking place there. He was never seen again. Some believe that he never went to Mexico nor did he intend to. Rather, he went to some remote location and committed suicide. In any event, no remains were ever found.

The Devil’s Dictionary can be found here at Project Gutenberg.


The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

When Dashiell Hammett stopped being a detective and became a writer

Lillian Hellman, playwright, novelist, and long-time friend and companion to Dashiell Hammett, tells the story about when Dashiell Hammett left the Pinkerton Detective Agency and turned himself into a writer.

Hammett had served in the U.S. Army during World War I but had spent most of his service time in the hospital. He was one of the many who contracted Spanish flu and later tuberculosis. After the war, Hammett with back to his pre-war job as an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency in San Francisco.

Hammitt wasn’t much of a traveler, but he had expressed an interest occasionally in going to Australia. One of the agency’s clients was an insurance company that hit insured a shipment of gold from Australia. Before the ship docked in San Francisco, he radioed ahead that the gold was missing.

The ship was covered with Pinkerton detectives once it arrived in port, but no gold was found. The people who ran Pinkerton were convinced the gold was still on board, and they assigned Hammett to travel on the ship back to Australia. A few hours before the ship sailed, Hammett was aboard looking for the gold. He had happily packed his bags and was looking forward to free passage to the place he had always wanted to see.

In a last-ditch effort to find the gold, Hammett climbed to the top of one of the ship’s smokestacks and had a look around. He then looked down the stack and saw the gold. He shouted down to a fellow detective, “I found the gold. They moved it here.”

As Hellman writes:

He said that as the words came out of his mouth, he said to himself, “You haven’t sense enough even to be a detective. Why couldn’t you have discovered the gold one day out to sea?” He fished out the gold, took it back to the Pinkerton office, and resigned that afternoon.

(Lillian Hellman in a 1965 article about Hammett in the New York Review of Books. A subscription may be required.)


Verse and Vision: Poems and painting from a couple of years ago

(I shared this list last month in a newsletter but later found out that none of the links in the original version of the newsletter work. I have tried to correct that with the list below.)

A couple of years ago a colleague at the Blount County Public Library asked me to record a poem because April is National Poetry Month. One thing led to another, and by September, I had made about 20 video recordings of poems recited as voiceovers for watercolor paintings that had some relationship to the poem or the poet.

Before April 2021 gets away from us, I thought it might be a good idea to reprise that list in honor of this year’s National Poetry Month, and I hereby invite you to revisit any of those videos with the links below:

Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abby by William Wordsworth

The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

1492 and The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The House of Rest by Julia Ward Howe

Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scott

Ole Bert: In His Own Words by Bert Garner

In the Highlands and Consolation by Robert Louis Stevenson

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer

The Old Clock on the Stairs by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Evening Star and Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray

My Heart and I by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Most of these videos were recorded out of doors on a small porch at the side of my house. I did that because the natural light is better than anything I can set up inside. Now that the weather is turning warmer, I may revive this Verse and Vision series. Any suggestions about poems or paintings would be greatly appreciated.


Vic C.: Jim, in reference to the French and Indian War, I wonder if that is still being included in curricula today.  Some 30 years ago, I was teaching a course in Excel and wanted to show what happens when text extends beyond a cell width.  I asked the students, who seemed to be in their early twenties, to type the first few words of the Gettysburg Address.  Even with prompts, they couldn’t. 
I changed it to “Mary had a little lamb” and that worked.  Later, when I read some of the class reviews, it was clearly stated that I had made them feel stupid.  It took me a long time to realize that they had never been taught that in school.  I think I was especially upset about that because I was, quite frankly, a lousy history student, but I certainly remembered the lesson about Lincoln’s speech, though I didn’t really appreciate its content until I was much older. 
I am reminded that my father once told me that he was also bad at history.  (This from a guy who did the NY Times crossword in ink.)  He said that he could only remember a few dates: 1066, the Battle of Hastings; 1215, the signing of the Magna Carta; 1588, the Spanish Armada.  To that, I added Washington’s birth year, 1732.  Now, the reason for the last was that 1.732 is the square root of 3.  And here’s one for you.  Do you remember (circa 1957, when I learned it) ST DAPIACL?  I found a somewhat obscure reference for it at: The Naysayer (  Interestingly, there is a type in the note calling it a ‘pneumonic’ device.  Maybe it helped him breathe better.
Phyllis P.: Thanks for the poetry list. I was a practitioner of the lost art of poetry memorization, and there are some old favorites here. Some Emily Dickenson, perhaps? And more Shakespeare.
Elizabeth F.: Great issue! Enjoyed it all from the Big Apple to larger-than-life Axis Sally et al is a great leap!  Thanks!
Jennifer S.: What a fascinating exploration of the origins of the term “The Big Apple”! I had always assumed that the nickname hearkened back to an agricultural past, but, of course, you know the old chestnut about what happens when we assume. Teased by your summary, I clicked over to read Popova’s essay, and I found the story behind the slang delightful — as delightful as a 1 lb.-5 oz. apple! She concludes, ” beginning a new life in New York City has remained a wager of the biggest existential apple,” and although I have not personally felt the lure of that wager, I recognize the power it has wielded in our culture, and which it still wields! (Witness _Hamilton_’s, “In New York you can be a new man”!) Thanks for an intriguing insight into the term. I will have to use this as a trivia question in one of my future quizzes! 

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: The percussionist

Best quote of the week:

“Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have. I think your proofreader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a fairly clear course, provided I get both sidewalks and the street between. Raymond Chandler (1888-1959),  Letter to the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, Jan. 18, 1947 | Letters of Note (Vol. 1)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Axis Sally, the broadcasting voice that worked for the other side

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