Magazine | February 6, 2012, Issue

Acid Test

Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs, edited by S. T. Joshi (Library of America, 880 pp., $35)

Everything changed for Ambrose Bierce the day he was shot in the head. At least that’s one theory about how a bright young man from Horse Cave Creek in Ohio went on to become his generation’s leading cynic. This was the guy, after all, who gave us The Devil’s Dictionary, which defined “PEACE” as “a period of cheating between two periods of fighting” and “WAR” as “a by-product of the arts of peace.” People still snicker over “MARRIAGE, n.: The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two.”

The head wound came a day before his 22nd birthday, at Georgia’s Kennesaw Mountain in 1864, when Bierce was a soldier in the Union Army. He had volunteered to fight immediately after Fort Sumter’s fall and lived through the awfulness of Shiloh and Chickamauga. His skull, he said, had “broken like a walnut.” He went home to recuperate, split with his fiancée, and returned to active duty within three months. For most of the rest of his life, which ended mysteriously, he was a professional writer.

The Civil War era is known for its remarkable literature, from the speeches and letters of Abraham Lincoln to the poems of Walt Whitman. Yet the war’s veterans, for all of their accomplishments, wrote little fiction about battles or leaders. Mark Twain served in a Confederate militia for a couple of weeks and lit out for the territories, headed for greatness but never to write anything of significance about his country’s epic struggle. Lew Wallace, a Union general, put out Ben-Hur, but it didn’t recount the war either. (It also belongs to that rare category of achievement: the novel that was made into a better movie.) It took Stephen Crane, born six years after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, to write The Red Badge of Courage, the most acclaimed fictional rendering of the conflict.

Yet there was Bierce, standing by himself, producing a string of short stories on the Civil War that anticipate the artistic disillusionment of 20th-century modernism. They are all included in the Library of America’s new compilation of Bierce’s work, edited by S. T. Joshi, along with the complete Devil’s Dictionary and other pieces. Several of these entries rise to the level of masterpiece, such as “Chickamauga,” the tale of a young boy who wanders onto a grisly battlefield, failing to understand what the reader knows that he sees. A soldier with a bloody face reminds him of a “painted clown.” A crawling casualty looks like one of his father’s slaves, offering a game of horsey: He collapses as the child tries to hop on, throws the boy from his back, and turns to reveal that he’s missing his lower jaw. At the end of the story, the child makes for a “guiding light — a pillar of fire,” where he encounters a terrible surprise about war’s devastation.

By all accounts, Bierce was a capable soldier. His early enlistment suggests manly idealism — but the reality of combat would alter any illusions he ever held about glory and honor. Twice in battle, he dodged Confederate bullets to help injured comrades. One man died, a fate that possibly confirmed in Bierce’s mind “the intrinsic absurdity of valorous deeds,” as Roy Morris Jr. puts it in his excellent 1995 biography, Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company. (The amusing subtitle comes from another of Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary quips: “ALONE, adj. In bad company.”) At other moments, Bierce witnessed scenes evoking profound disgust — such as one of hogs feasting on the faces of the dead, which he worked into his story “The Coup de Grâce.” He also may have watched a cannonball decapitate a mounted colonel, whose headless body continued to ride on horseback, like a Sleepy Hollow nightmare, before eventually tipping off.

After the war, Bierce moved to San Francisco and became a journalist, soon earning a reputation for slashing sarcasm. Gloom may have been a natural part of his temperament, but his personal life aggravated the condition. His marriage was unhappy even before a teenage son committed suicide. Another son died of pneumonia. Bierce himself suffered from chronic asthma. Small wonder that this line appears in The Devil’s Dictionary: “MISFORTUNE, n. The kind of fortune that never misses.”

#page#In the 1880s, Civil War veterans began to write of their experiences, producing a flood of memoirs and magazine articles. Bierce contributed to this effusion of autobiography — see his essay “What I Saw of Shiloh” — but made his lasting mark around the same time with his weird fiction. Bierce ranks with Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft as one of America’s three finest writers of horror, with tales of ghostly hauntings, invisible monsters, and resurrection men. This genre holds wide but not universal appeal, and Bierce always found ways to generate discomfort. In a collection called The Parenticide Club, one story starts this way: “Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity . . .” Here’s another: “Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father — an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.” It takes a certain kind of reader to keep going. Clifton Fadiman once said that death was Bierce’s favorite character. Edmund Wilson refined the claim, saying that death was his only character.

Bierce’s signal achievement was “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” one of the world’s best-known short stories. A condemned man stands on a bridge, ready to be hanged by his captors — but unready for the cosmic joke that’s about to be played on him. (It became a celebrated episode of The Twilight Zone.) It’s the sort of story that demands a second reading immediately following the first because only then can the full richness of Bierce’s narrative, which brims with double meanings, become perceptible. Stephen Crane admired the tale: “Nothing better exists,” he once said. Bierce refused to return the compliment, heaping scorn on the young whippersnapper — a case in which jealousy may have warped judgment.

Bierce befriended Percival Pollard, a critic who rated Crane’s career-making novel as merely “an imitation of Bierce.” When Pollard died in 1911, Bierce was one of just five people to attend the funeral. (Memo to critics: Don’t expect large crowds at your burial.) There, he met H. L. Mencken, in what was apparently their sole encounter. Although Mencken didn’t write horror fiction, he would become Bierce’s journalistic successor. Both men displayed savage wit and shared a loathing for religion, corruption, and the political class.

Contemporaries thought of Bierce primarily as a journalist. Today, he’s remembered as a writer of fiction — and that’s how the Library of America volume has chosen to treat him, excluding the newspaper columns that made him famous in his day. It’s hardly the first such omission: Bierce himself kept this content from the Collected Works that came out near the end of his life. Journalism is of course ephemeral, but Bierce did some of his best work in San Francisco papers. To a crook who tried to rob a safe in a city office, Bierce offered memorable advice: “This is rushing matters; the impatient scoundrel ought to try his hand at being a Supervisor first. From Supervisor to Thief the transition is natural and easy.” A modern anthology of this material would make for good entertainment.

Late in his career, Bierce even took a turn at muckraking. In 1896, his employer of many years, William Randolph Hearst, dispatched Bierce to Washington, D.C., to cover Collis P. Huntington, a railroad tycoon who had given his name to a city in West Virginia. Huntington was lobbying Congress for a law to delay or cancel the repayment of a $75 million federal loan. Bierce’s hard-hitting reports compelled Huntington to approach his nemesis on the steps of the Capitol. “Every man has his price,” said Huntington, suggestively. “My price is $75 million,” replied Bierce. “If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States.”

The date of Bierce’s birth is known but not the date of his death. Shortly after Christmas in 1913, he famously vanished, possibly in Mexico. Death has been a pretty good career move for a lot of 27-year-old rock stars, and it worked out well for this 71-year-old writer: Ever since, the question of what happened to him has been a literary parlor game. Was Bierce shot by Pancho Villa? Was he killed at the Battle of Ojinga? Did he sneak into a cave near the Grand Canyon, put a gun to his head, and deliver the fatal blow that had eluded a Confederate gunman so many years earlier? Nobody ever discovered a body. The only certainty is the uncertainty — and the sense that Bierce had managed to write a fitting conclusion to his own life’s story.

John J. Miller — John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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