Its always interesting to discover the personal side of famous writers. While looking around for material for another post I came across some information on one of my favorite writers, Ambrose Bierce, and his passion for cycling. And having a passion for Bierce, I thought I’d share it with you.
Ambrose Bierce doesn’t draw nearly enough attention among researchers and readers today, but he was a major American writer in the last decades of the nineteenth century, and the first decade of the twentieth. His range was deep, narrow, and dark. “Bitter Bierce” was the tag that stuck on him, and his most read and respected works are the sardonic book of epigrams and definitions known as the Devil’s Dictionary, and his gruesomely realistic tales of the Civil War. His works of horror writing are still shocking for Bierce’s casual discussions of the unspeakable – the short story “Oil of Dog” describes using human babies in patent medicine, for instance. His newspaper columns were filled with squabbles with public figures. His death remains a mystery; his last letter was dated December 26, 1913, from Mexico, and its believed he died, possibly by firing squad, the following year during the revolution in that country.
But while the prose was dark, and the end murky, the life had bright spots. One was cycling. Where and when he took up riding I’ve not come across, but he rode, and his letters often mentioned bike riding. Bierce had asthma, and the vigor of riding a bike helped him restore his health. Or at least until his 1895 accident, described in an article in the San Francisco Call.
“Ambrose Bierce will never again be seen astride a bicycle, and the probabilities are that he will in future be restricted in the use of one of his lower limbs, if, indeed, the case is no more serious. Mr. Bierce has been for a couple of years past an expert and enthusiastic cyclist, and his tall form, clad in conventional bicycle costume, has been a familiar sight on Oakland streets as he wheeled to and from his residence and the Atheneum Club, or among the more secluded and better paved thoroughfares of the city. It was also his custom to make long trips in the country awheel, the litterateur declaring that more inspiration could be gained from a spin through a pleasant country lane with resplendent nature all about than by hours of patient thinking in the crowded precincts of a city. Usually these journeys were accomplished alone, and the author always returned refreshed and invigorated from his outings.
“Recently Mr. Bierce returned from a protracted visit to Los Gatos, where he had been recuperating, and took apartments at The Washington in Oakland, where it had been his custom to reside when in the Athens of the Pacific. After getting settled he made plans for a long trip awheel and a run to St. Helena, with several days of rest and quiet at that pretty town, varied by short spins about the adjacent country was on the program. The journey was about accomplished, when, in passing over a dangerous portion of the road where a deep canyon flanked one side of the highway, he lost control of his wheel and started down the grade at a rapid rate. After making several ineffectual efforts to regain the use of his pedals and thus check the speed of his wheel, Mr. Bierce devoted his attention to keeping his bike in the middle of the road and free of the rocks and ruts that were encountered at intervals.
“He succeeded admirably for some time, but a slight miscalculation of the extent of a curve around which he was compelled to pass made him lose his balance and in an instant the wheel toppled over throwing the rider down the bank with terrific force.”
According to the newspaper report Bierce struck his head and was unconscious for a time. When he came to, he crawled up to the road and was picked up by a passing carriage. His injuries aside from the blow to the head included a broken collarbone and fractures to an ankle and kneecap. He reluctantly gave away his bicycle.
But Bierce still had enthusiasm for cycling, enough that late in life he could work the wheel into the Devil’s Dictionary. While women were a constant subject of Bierce’s sharp pen – “the most widely distributed of all beasts of prey” – he also opposed authority that limited freedom, and when a woman named Charlotte Smith claimed cycling was immoral for ladies, Bierce knew she had a special place in his book. We end with Ms. Smith’s claim to immortality, as it appears in the Devil’s Dictionary.
SMITHAREEN, n. A fragment, a decomponent part, a remain. The word is used variously, but in the following verse on a noted female reformer who opposed bicycle-riding by women because it “led them to the devil” it is seen at its best:
The wheels go round without a sound—
The maidens hold high revel;
In sinful mood, insanely gay,
True spinsters spin adown the way
From duty to the devil!
They laugh, they sing, and—ting-a-ling!
Their bells go all the morning;
Their lanterns bright bestar the night
With lifted hands Miss Charlotte stands,
Good-Lording and O-mying,
Her rheumatism forgotten quite,
Her fat with anger frying.
She blocks the path that leads to wrath,
Jack Satan’s power defying.
The wheels go round without a sound
The lights burn red and blue and green.
What’s this that’s found upon the ground?
Poor Charlotte Smith’s a smithareen!