AuthorTopic: Nothing New Under the Sun  (Read 83 times)

Offline Eddie

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Nothing New Under the Sun
« on: August 13, 2018, 06:28:19 AM »
I whiled away the hours of a rainy Sunday reading about Ambrose Bierce and his contemporaries, who included Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and later, Jack London and the poet George Sterling, who is the guy who founded the arts community in Carmel.

Twain left California and went back East as soon as he got some fame and money. Bret Harte went to London and lived the rest of his life there, but never wrote anything nearly as good as his early stories from the 1870's.

It's my view that Bierce probably committed suicide and made it look like he disappeared in Mexico. It's pretty clear to me he was on a trip that was the equivalent of RE's planned  trip next summer. He had spent the last couple of months before he disappeared visiting the old Civil War battlefields where he'd fought and been wounded as a young Union soldier.

So many things remind me of now. They were at the end of an era. Bierce was a product of his Puritan roots and the affluence he married into (his wife was the daughter of a silver baron). Probably a Republican. Jack London got rich off his books and owned a fine ranch in California, and had a posse of hangers-on, whom he financially supported. A child of poverty, he was a Socialist.

Legend is that George Sterling became enamored with London and introduced him to Bierce, and they once had a drinking contest at the Bohemian Grove, the place where the movers and shakers of our country still get together. Bierce's brother Albert, known as Grizzly, lived on his own piece of land just across the Russian River from the infamous Grove.

It is said that they traded insults and argued politics and literature until they both got extremely drunk, and then they both passed out side by side on the river bank with a bottle of Cognac between them. 

That area is one of the most beautiful spots on the planet, now a region of old river resorts and vineyards that cultivate the best pinot noir grapes, which are fussy. I can't imagine what it must have been like in 1910, inhabited by the old guys from the gold rush days, who were dying off.

George Sterling moved to Carmel, because it was a beautiful spot too, and so much cheaper than SF (not anymore,LOL). He started a community of artists and painters and his stamp is still felt in those parts. It was Bohemian too, which in those days meant you could get away from the Victorian morals and swim and sunbathe in your birthday suit.

Like all happenings, it eventually went pear-shaped and there were a number of suicides and at least one murder. It was a popular thing to carry cyanide pills in those days, if you were a cutting-edge Bohemian, in order to have a "door" to the prison of mundane life.

Bierce lived in San Francisco, which was a modern city in 1912, at the end of his time there. He had retired, pretty much, but he still often wrote from midnight until dawn. He kept a skull on his desk, and he had a menagerie of birds and lizards. He must have admired Poe, who had been dead since before the war. In addition to his biting social satire stuff, he wrote some good horror stories.

It was still the era of the railroads, and he must have traveled by train through the southland, stopping at Shiloh, which he had written about in a great style that presaged the realism of Hemingway.

He had received a head wound, which he had some problems with in his old age. I expect he probably had severe headaches, which is common with survivors of head truama.

Interestingly, most of Bierce's very best work happened in a binge of writing that started about the time his first son died, and his wife left him, between 1889 and 1891.

In Mexico, there was a revolution going on, a peasant uprising against the big landowners, many of whom were foreigners, One of them was Bierce's boss, William Randolph Hearst. He had 20,000 head of cattle expropriated by the rebels, which no doubt pissed him off greatly. It went on for years, through a succession of regimes that rose and fell.

AB outlived both of his sons, who died young, one from suicide at 17, after being rejected by a girl, and the other by illness brought on by chronic alcoholism.

He separated from his wife after 16 years of marriage, in 1888, but in 1904 she finally divorced him, and she died the next year.

He was an old drunk with few ties left to family or the planet. Some people think he went to Mexico because he wanted to die in battle, or at the hands of Villa's revolutionaries. He certainly wasn't hot to aid their cause.

He rode the train to El Paso and to points South. 

More later, on Ambrose Bierce, and bit about Pancho Villa. He was an interesting guy too.
« Last Edit: August 14, 2018, 06:13:10 AM by Eddie »
What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.

Offline Eddie

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Re: Nothing New Under the Sun
« Reply #1 on: August 13, 2018, 07:30:05 AM »
Jack London was a known racist.  Even though he was a socialist.

 I think it's good to remember that the "workers movement" in America in the late 19th/early 20th century was a white worker's movement. Workers, not being the educated intellectual type, tended  to think of recent immigrants, who worked cheap (especially the Chinese, in the West) as part of the problem and not part of the solution.

Our modern concept of liberalism did not exist. Groups of socialists gathered in public in SF were known to enjoy throwing rocks at innocent Chinese passers-by. Bierce, always a harsh social critic, called the whites out on their racism.

He was also not in favor of the nascent US imperialism that was well in progress by the end of his writing career.

London thought whites were a pure race. Bierce thought nobody was pure. And his general outlook was that the masses of people were stupid sheep,  and always being manipulated by politicians.....a view I must admit I tend to share.
« Last Edit: August 13, 2018, 09:12:59 AM by Eddie »
What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.

Offline Eddie

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Re: Nothing New Under the Sun
« Reply #2 on: August 13, 2018, 07:41:56 AM »
A number of books, mostly novels, speculate about what happened to Ambrose Bierce "in the deserts down in Mexico" as the song says. There are perhaps a half-dozen.

The guy who wrote Forrest Gump, Winston Groom, wrote a book in recent years titled "El Paso", that uses the plot device. But the best known historical fiction piece is by the late, great Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes. They made it into a bad movie in the 1980's, that starred a very old Gregory Peck as Bierce. It got bad reviews, anyway, although Peck's performace was supposed to be okay. He was a great actor. The book and the movie are both titled Old Gringo. (Gringo Viejo in the original Spanish.)

I hit Half-Price Books and picked up a paperback copy, which I intend to read on the airplane.
What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.

Offline Eddie

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Re: Nothing New Under the Sun
« Reply #3 on: August 13, 2018, 09:08:41 AM »
You can sort of track public perception of historical events by the way Hollywood treats them in the movies. This is Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa in 1934. A bit politically incorrect by today's standards.

Faye Wray, always the fragile uber-white feminine heroine, gets in the heart again, this time it's a death-by-richochet, apparently.

She's gonna die. You know it as soon as you see the trickle of blood on her hot lips.

How do you think Hollywood would treat Villa now?

<a href="http://www.youtube.com/v/1v2I0RVQAIk&fs=1" target="_blank" class="new_win">http://www.youtube.com/v/1v2I0RVQAIk&fs=1</a>

Late in the days of the Mexican Revolution, a few years after AB's disappearance, Pancho Villa made money by letting Hollywood film his battles. They even made him a fancy uniform to wear, which he was only supposed to wear when he was being filmed. Many of the photos of him today show him in his movie uniform. I'm not making that up. It is said by some that he actually timed his attacks for good light, so the American film-makers could get good footage. Newsreels were a hot item at the movies.

When Ambrose Bierce rode the train into Mexico, it was still the days of silent films. Mack Sennet was a hot item, with his brand new Keystone Cops.  Cars were pretty new, but there were plenty of rich people in San Francisco who were buying them. The Detroit Electric was popular.

In SF, the hills were a problem for cars, for reasons that had to do with power, which was limited, and brakes, which weren't too good, and only on the back wheels. Front wheel brakes were still deemed suspicious when Eddie Rickenbacker tried to sell them to Americans some years later.

Why, that would just make your car flip right over, right? Ford and Chevy put him out of business with that unassailable logic. Americans are not known for deep thinking.

Most people still rode in buggies, or took the streetcars in SF in 1912 and 1913, at the end of AB's time there.

San Francisco was being rebuilt, after the extremely badly managed events of the 1906 earthquake and (especially) the subsequent fire wiped a good part of the town right off the map. The local US Army base commander, a real moron, put the city under de facto martial law, and proceeded to do almost everything wrong. The lucky people evacuated early. Carmel got a population boost, as a result.

Around the general time frame that AB went to Chihuahua to meet Pancho, Wells Fargo was busy trying to do a backroom deal to get back 120-odd bars of silver that Villa stole from a train heist. Goldbugs might note that at the time, in the throws of the revolution, he had no market for the stolen booty in Mexico. The other side were the ones with money to buy gold and silver, and there was no liquidity.

That might note an honorable mention.

Wells Fargo paid a ransom of 50K, which came at a particularly opportune time for Villa, who was hurting for the money. The total value of the stolen silver was only 160K at the time, and WF never got back 28 of the bars, which Villa reported as having been stolen by his men, and impossible for him to trace.

As I said, AB's boss William Randolph Hearst, himself the scion of a gold and silver baron, had a lot of ranch land in Mexico, and took it up the wazoo from the rebels, who stole his cattle. Reminds me of the modern day libertarians in Argentina, like Bill Bonner and Doug Casey.

I think there's a great niche for a book about AB and Villa, that looks at things from a new perspective. Lots of intrigue was going on, and it wasn't at all clear who were the good guys, most of the time.




« Last Edit: August 13, 2018, 09:16:47 AM by Eddie »
What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.

Offline Eddie

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Re: Nothing New Under the Sun
« Reply #4 on: August 13, 2018, 09:47:03 AM »
Two people worth mentioning who have more-or-less fallen through the cracks of history, are Pancho Villa's first wife (he is said to have married as many as 26 times) and his brother Hipolito, 32, three years younger than Pancho's age in 1913, which was only about 35.

The paisano revolutionaries were young, and they were proud, and didn't like being called bandits, which they felt robbed them of their legitimacy for killing, which they did a lot of, and not in compliance with any sense of worry about civilian casualties or international conventions of military behavior.

One of the big landowners was an ex-pat Scot, named William Benton. When he called Pancho a bandit to his face, it is said the elder Villa came across the table and tried to kill him with his bare hands. It's easy to see how a rich American like AB, with his Gilded Age POV, might have offended the rebels, accidentally or on purpose.

Anyway, Hipolito seems to have been the quintessential hot-headed younger brother, and at least one account suggests he might have killed AB because he was critical of Villa.

The first wife, by the name of Maria Luz Corral Villa, was herself  from a poor village. It can be assumed that she approved of her Robin Hood, who was careful to throw some food and money to the poor, although he kept a lot for himself. She was only 18 when Villa swept her off her feet, and her parents disapproved. She was a Catholic girl, and when her father requested Villa give his confession prior to the marriage, Villa reportedly told him there weren't enough hours in a day to recount all his sins.

Luz, as she was called, had blue eyes. When AB came to Chihuahua, she would have been still grieving the death of her only child, who was poisoned by a servant at the behest of one of  Villa's many enemies. She gave the rest of her life to taking care of other people's children, raising several of Pancho's offspring by other women, and starting an orphanage for children whose parents died in the war. After Villa died, she turned their 50 room house in Chihuahua City into a private museum, where she continued to raise kids and she used the 1 peso admission to support a separate orphanage. She lived until 1981 in the house she shared with Pancho and the rebels, and now it's a state-owned museum.

Hipolito left Chihuahua City after Pancho was murdered in 1923 and moved to Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, where he had some businesses, but also he might also have been the head of the local gambling ring, a precursor to today's cartels. He lived until 1964, and is said to have died in poverty.


« Last Edit: August 13, 2018, 11:18:14 AM by Eddie »
What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.

Offline Eddie

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Re: Nothing New Under the Sun
« Reply #5 on: August 13, 2018, 11:31:00 AM »
One more tidbit.

One thing London and Bierce did agree on, which is noteworthy, is that giving women the vote wasn't a good idea. Part of the objection was that it was generally considered that women would support the Temperance Movement, which for most 19th century male writers was a real problem.

As it turned out, maybe they weren't that wrong, given that American (white) women would get the vote in a few years, and that Prohibition came with that.
« Last Edit: August 13, 2018, 12:25:38 PM by Eddie »
What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.

Offline Surly1

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Re: Nothing New Under the Sun
« Reply #6 on: August 13, 2018, 05:33:42 PM »
One more tidbit.

One thing London and Bierce did agree on, which is noteworthy, is that giving women the vote wasn't a good idea. Part of the objection was that it was generally considered that women would support the Temperance Movement, which for most 19th century male writers was a real problem.

As it turned out, maybe they weren't that wrong, given that American (white) women would get the vote in a few years, and that Prohibition came with that.

I got to read the better part of your Ambrose Bierce musings while waiting on a doc. Absolutely fascinating. I consider myself relatively read in on American history, and I had no idea about a lot of this.

Well done.
"It is difficult to write a paradiso when all the superficial indications are that you ought to write an apocalypse." -Ezra Pound

 

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