Ambrose Bierce (1842–1913) is arguably the finest not-quite-first-rate writer in nineteenth-century American literature. Civil War veteran, contrarian journalist, master of the short story, muckraker, epigrammatist, and versifier, he is today most widely known for that word hoard of cynical definitions, The Devil’s Dictionary, and for a handful of shockingly cruel stories about the Civil War.
In those dozen or so “tales of soldiers,” gathered in the collection eventually titled In the Midst of Life (1892, augmented in 1898 and 1909), a brother shoots his brother, a sniper is compelled to kill his father, and a cannoneer obeys the order to destroy his own house, where his wife and child await his return from battle. The best known of these contes cruels, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” has been called—by Kurt Vonnegut, himself a kinder, gentler Bierce—the greatest short story in American literature. Surely, no first-time reader ever forgets the shock of its final sentences.
Throughout these gruesome episodes of war, there is no armor against fate, as seeming coincidence assumes the character of tragic destiny. Bierce himself always insisted that most of his Civil War fiction was based on fact. As he wrote in a letter, “It commonly occurs that in my poor little battle-yarns the incidents that come in for special reprobation by the critics as ‘improbable’ and even ‘impossible’ are transcripts from memory—things that actually occurred before my eyes.” The Battle of Shiloh, for instance, took place near Owl Creek.
While we associate Bierce primarily with California and with San Francisco in particular, he was, in fact, a widely traveled man. Born in Ohio, he turned out to be the youngest surviving child of a zealously Christian couple who gave their ten children names beginning with A: Abigail, Amelia, Addison, Aurelius… Growing up on a hardscrabble farm in Indiana, he gained most of his education from the books in his father’s library (supposedly the finest in the area) but also managed to spend a year at the Kentucky Military Institute.
When the Civil War broke out, Bierce immediately enlisted with the 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment and rose to become a brevet major. He fought all over the South—at Shiloh, Chicka- mauga, Missionary Ridge; he marched with Sherman through Georgia. Shot during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in 1864, he carried the bullet in his skull for the rest of his life. He was even captured by Confederates in Alabama, but managed to escape. While his stories and memoirs reveal war as hell, Bierce, the scout and topographical engineer, always looked back on his service as the most exhilarating time of his life.
Following Lee’s surrender, Bierce’s former commanding officer persuaded him to serve as the mapmaker and engineering attaché for a survey expedition of western military posts. Denied the rank he deserved, Bierce abandoned the army as a career and instead settled in San Francisco, where he met the author Bret Harte and began to write poetry and satirical prose for various newspapers, with increasing success and renown. After he married Mollie Day in 1871, his father-in-law underwrote a trip to England and there Bierce lived (in Bristol, London, and Bath) for three years, contributing squibs and satirical pieces to Fun, a rival to Punch. In England Mollie gave birth to two sons (both of whom would die young, one committing suicide in jealous despair at sixteen, the other succumbing to drink and pneumonia at age twenty-six) while her husband published his first three books, comprised of humorous sketches: The Fiend’s Delight (1873), Nuggets and Dust (1873), and Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874). When Mollie traveled to California for a visit, she wrote to Bierce that she was pregnant with a third child, their daughter Helen, and so compelled her reluctant spouse to return to San Francisco.
Despite his success with his writing, in 1880 Bierce was readily lured to North Dakota, where he spent a year managing a mining company. When that enterprise began to fail, he headed home to Oakland—which he sometimes called “Terminopolis”—and settled into his most productive period as a writer, establishing himself during the next fifteen years as the leading journalist on the West Coast. In 1887, he was hired as chief editorial writer for the San Francisco Examiner. His first encounter with its owner, William Randolph Hearst, is worth quoting:
Many years ago I lived in Oakland, California. One day as I lounged in my lodging there was a gentle, hesitating tap at the door and, opening it, I found a young man, the youngest young man, it seemed to me, that I had ever confronted. His appearance, his attitude, his manner, his entire personality suggested extreme indifference. I did not ask him in, instate him in my better chair (I had two) and inquire how we could serve each other. If my memory is not at fault I merely said: “Well,” and awaited the result.
“I am from the San Francisco Examiner,” he explained in a voice like the fragrance of violets made audible, and backed a little away.
“O,” I said, “you come from Mr. Hearst.”
Then that unearthly child lifted its blue eyes and cooed: “I am Mr. Hearst.”
In 1896 Hearst sent his best man to Washington, D.C., where Bierce’s reporting helped sink Collis P. Huntington’s attempt to wiggle out of immediate repayment of a huge government loan to his railroad empire. (This story—Bierce’s greatest sheerly journalistic triumph—is the subject of a book to be published later this year, Dennis Drabelle’s The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took on the Central Pacific Railroad.) Having by this time separated from Mollie, Bierce stayed on in Washington, contributing to Hearst’s various newspapers and magazines, dining at the Army-Navy Club, and regularly paddling a canoe out on the Potomac. An exceptionally handsome and attractive man, he also continued a series of discreet love affairs with older, experienced women. During the final half-dozen years of his life, Bierce turned his remaining energies to overseeing a twelve-volume edition of his Collected Works.
Nothing, however, in a richly colorful life became Bierce like the leaving of it. In 1913 the old gringo—as he is called in a 1985 novel of that name by Carlos Fuentes—crossed the border into Mexico, ostensibly to view the war being conducted there by Pancho Villa. He was never heard from again. His last letter home ended: “I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” For years afterward, there were rumors that he had been sighted in Mexico or that he had surfaced in Britain as an aide to General Pershing or that he’d shot himself in the Grand Canyon. As his early biographer Carey McWilliams wrote: “Nothing so augmented the interest in Ambrose Bierce as his disappearance. Obscurity is obscurity, but disappearance is fame.”
As a writer, Ambrose Bierce holds multiple claims on our interest. His fragmentary Civil War memoirs are appalling and sickeningly vivid first-person accounts of various battles; “What I Saw at Shiloh” and “A Little of Chickamauga” are particularly strong. As a journalist in the 1880s and 1890s, Bierce’s unrelenting iconoclasm earned him the nickname “the wickedest man in San Francisco” at a time when there was plenty of Bay Area competition. His snarky, blog-like “Town Cryer” and “Prattler” columns appeared three to six times a week in various newspapers and assailed the rich and respected, with particular attention to the politicians, business tycoons, and clergymen of the day. Bierce’s lifetime work for The Argonaut, The Wasp, The San Francisco Examiner, and other papers has been reckoned to total five million words, not to overlook an additional 500,000 words of correspondence. While much of this material is dated, much of it also remains intensely readable, as in the following observations (taken from a 1968 selection of the journalism, The Ambrose Bierce Satanic Reader, compiled by Ernest Jerome Hopkins). Naturally, Bierce is frequently witty, at his best in a wry, understated way:
The newspapers are publishing a story of a man who lived a week with a knife-blade in his brain. Perhaps he did, but it must have been a mean, spiritless kind of existence, wholly unenjoyable and discouraging. We would almost as lief be dead as to have knives and forks in our brain.
And he can be surprisingly heartless:
Mr. Parton says Mrs. Stowe has lived a life of heroic virtue. With her face, a life of virtue is no very difficult matter. When Nature conferred upon her her peculiar charms, we imagine the operation might have been called, “Chastity made easy.”
Yet his language is always pungent:
Ever since he [Mark Twain] left California there has been an undertone of despair running through all his letters like the subdued wail of a pig beneath a washtub.
Not least, Bierce can toss off epigrams and caustic observations with the dyspeptic exuberance of H.L. Mencken (who much admired the older writer’s wit and vituperative mastery):
Woman would be more charming if one could fall into her arms without falling into her hands.
“Bitter Bierce” eventually made a comfortable living from his columns in the periodicals owned by William Randolph Hearst, but he always viewed himself as far more than a penny-a-line hack. His animosity for Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw (who, he claimed, stole witticisms from him), his disdain for the genteel William Dean Howells, and his sense of rivalry with Mark Twain make it clear that he longed to be viewed as their peer.
Today we sometimes think of Bierce as a kind of “regionalist,” with that word’s dismissive connotation of the folksy and second-rate. But the fastidious, even dandyish writer loathed the use of dialect in fiction, and championed purity of diction and grammatical correctness. (See his “little blacklist of literary errors, Write It Right—beastly title, chosen with a naked and unashamed commercial purpose.”) He read the Bible through at least three times, all of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and much of the satirical work of Swift and Voltaire. In a letter he calls Alexander Pope’s version of the Iliad his favorite English translation; he judged Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” to be “the most nearly perfect poem in the English language.” His correspondence and journalism allude frequently to the work of Tolstoy, Hugo, Zola, Maupassant, and Poe, as well as to many American contemporaries, from Henry James down to Edwin Markham and Gertrude Atherton (who once rebuffed his advances).
While never a literary essayist per se, Bierce could nonetheless be a shrewd critic. Writing to a friend about Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, he says:
It is a most disagreeable book, as a whole. London has a pretty bad style and no sense of proportion. The story is a perfect welter of disagreeable incidents…. I confess to an overwhelming contempt for both the sexless lovers.
Now as to the merits. It is a rattling good story in one way; something is “going on” all the time—not always what one would wish, but something. One does not go to sleep over the book. But the great thing—and it is among the greatest of things—is that tremendous creation, Wolf Larsen. If that is not a permanent addition to literature it is at least a permanent figure in the memory of the reader…. You may quarrel with the methods, but the result is almost incomparable.
Throughout his life Bierce also published verse—much of The Devil’s Dictionary includes bits of illustrative poetry and doggerel—and it’s been estimated that a fifth to a sixth of his total oeuvre is in rhyme. Imagery mattered most to him; hence his ardent championship of the California romantic George Sterling, whose “The Wine of Wizardry” he judged the “greatest poem in English since Keats and Coleridge.” Bierce’s own poetry—found mainly in Shapes of Clay (1910) and Black Beetles in Amber (1911)—is well summed up by its modern editor, Donald Sidney-Fryer:
The grim presence of Death stalks through most of his personal poems, even his love sonnets and other pieces. Bierce’s verse at its best is austere, even angular, with an almost provincial sparseness; rather like a corpse whose bones have been clean-picked by some thoughtful scavenger. As always, there is something harsh and unyielding, and even cold, about Bierce and his best work.
In later years, Bierce readily accepted the position of artistic arbiter and guru to various literary aspirants, many of them young women. The youthful Ezra Pound (or his father Homer Pound) even sent him the manuscript for “The Ballad of the Goodly Fere,” an early dialect poem about Christ. Still, the best known of Bierce’s admirers and acolytes, apart from Sterling, are the weird-tale writers W.C. Morrow (The Ape, the Idiot and Other People) and the intensely reclusive Emma Dawson (An Itinerant House).
As the author of supernatural tales himself, particularly of those with a distinctly visceral gruesomeness, Bierce stands as the major American figure between Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. (The only rival claimant, Fitz James O’Brien, author of “The Diamond Lens,” “What Was It?,” and “The Wondersmith,” was killed in 1862 during the Civil War.) Bierce had no use for the refined eeriness of the English-style ghost stories of Henry James and Edith Wharton, and instead preferred a kind of Yankee Grand Guignol, setting his haunting descriptions of fateful coincidence and horrific revelation in uncut forests and abandoned mining towns, or turning out deliciously tasteless tall tales that recall the black-humored excesses of Kind Hearts and Coronets or the novels of Bret Easton Ellis.
Take, for instance, the opening sentences from three of the four stories that make up a grouping called “The Parenticide Club”—the title echoing Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Suicide Club”:
Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity….
(“My Favorite Murder”)
My name is Boffer Bings. I was born of honest parents in one of the humbler walks of life, my father being a manufacturer of dog-oil and my mother having a small studio in the shadow of the village church, where she disposed of unwelcome babes.
(“Oil of Dog”)
Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father—an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.
(“An Imperfect Conflagration”)
In “The Hypnotist,” the last of these tales of family homicide, we meet a young man with a powerful talent for hypnotism. While still a boy, our narrator starts off by hypnotizing a classmate into giving him her lunch, day after day after day. This eventually leads to unforeseen complications:
The plan that I finally adopted to free myself from the consequences of my own powers excited a wide and keen interest at the time, and that part of it which consisted in the death of the girl was severely condemned, but it is hardly pertinent to the scope of this narrative.
When he is finally released from prison, the hypnotist turns his piercing eyes on the warden, saying, “You are an ostrich.” Bierce then pauses and begins a new paragraph:
At the post-mortem examination the stomach was found to contain a great quantity of indigestible articles mostly of wood or metal. Stuck fast in the oesophagus and constituting, according to the Coroner’s jury, the immediate cause of death, one door-knob.
The story ends with the narrator using his mesmeric power to convince his parents that they are rival wild stallions: the old man and woman kick and bite each other to pieces. But the last deadpan paragraph of “The Hypnotist” runs:
Such are a few of my principal experiments in the mysterious force or agency known as hypnotic suggestion. Whether or not it could be employed by a bad man for an unworthy purpose I am unable to say.
Bierce’s obsession with intrafamily murder is obviously played for sick laughs here, but in the disturbing supernatural tales gathered in the “Civilians” section of In the Midst of Life and throughout Can Such Things Be? (1893), there are no laughs, at best only the rictus of the corpse’s smile. Here the dead don’t know that they are dead. A husband returns to his abandoned house, where the wife and children he has slain await him. An invisible creature tears a hunter to pieces. A beautiful young woman may actually be a ravenous were-panther. An automaton goes berserk and destroys its inventor.
In “The Suitable Surroundings”—not as well known as “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot,” “The Damned Thing,” “The Eyes of the Panther,” or “Moxon’s Master”—a man reads a ghost story so powerful that it kills him. This chiller was a particular favorite of H.P. Lovecraft, who may have used its premise to create his own accursed book, The Necronomicon. In Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft notes, with a master’s insight, that many of Bierce’s stories
are obviously mechanical, and marred by a jaunty and commonplacely artificial style derived from journalistic models; but the grim malevolence stalking through all of them is unmistakeable, and several stand out as permanent mountain-peaks of American weird writing.
The Everest of these mountain peaks is “The Death of Halpin Frayser.” A hundred years ago in 1911, the literary critic Frederic Taber Cooper was already writing that “in all imaginative literature it would be difficult to find a parallel for this story in sheer, unadulterated hideousness.” What precisely happens, however, and why is left deliberately ambiguous. It opens, like many of Bierce’s tales, with a man alone in the woods. Before long, the narrative deliberately disorders our senses, as Halpin Frayser first imagines that the trees sweat blood, then remembers his virtually incestuous relationship with his beautiful mother, and eventually encounters a belle dame sans merci in a dream.
Or is it a dream? Just as “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” may be viewed as a variant on Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s “The Torture by Hope,” in which a condemned man is allowed to think he is escaping from prison but is recaptured at the last moment, so “The Death of Halpin Frayser” possesses something of the sickly sweet atmosphere and power of the story Bierce himself judged the greatest in American literature, “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Poe, he emphasized, “wrote tragic tales of the supernatural; so do I.”
Like Poe, Bierce also practiced a compact unity of effect in all his fiction: nightmarish intensity is his watchword. He famously dismissed the novel as
a short story padded. A species of composition bearing the same relation to literature that the panorama bears to art. As it is too long to be read at a sitting the impressions made by its successive parts are successively effaced, as in the panorama. Unity, totality of effect, is impossible; for besides the few pages last read all that is carried in mind is the mere plot of what has gone before.
In the greatest tales, shrewdly notes the editor of Bierce’s letters, Bertha Clark Pope, “his unit of time is the minute, not the month.”
Bierce’s most sustained narrative is the Swiftian future history “Ashes of the Beacon.” While much admired by S.T. Joshi, the editor of the recently issued Library of America collection, this satire strikes me as a tedious lambasting of the author’s bugbears, chiefly democratic government, suffragism, insurance, the labor movement, and religion. “For the Ahkoond” is shorter and more amusing. In the year 4591 the explorer-narrator departs alone from Sanf Rachisco, crosses the Ultimate Hills (the Rocky Mountains), and uncovers traces of various early inhabitants of North America, including “a partly civilized race of people known as Galoots.” No doubt for reasons of space, Joshi’s Library of America compilation leaves out “The Land Beyond the Blow,” which further lampoons American culture and includes a section in which the nominees for president and vice-president consist of an idiot and a corpse. (This story can be found in The Fall of the Republic and Other Political Satires, edited by Joshi and David E. Schultz, 2000).
Still, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)—originally published as The Cynic’s Word Book (1906)—remains Bierce’s most diverting book, allowing him to be sardonic, abusive, witty, politically incorrect, and shocking, as he pleases. Here are some of the entries under A:
Academe, n. An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.
Academy, n. (from academe). A modern school where football is taught.
Admiration, n. Our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.
Affianced, pp. Fitted with an ankle-ring for the ball-and-chain.
Ambidextrous, adj. Able to pick with equal skill a right-hand pocket or a left.
Many of the entries are “enriched” with bits of verse from Bierce’s several heteronyms, including Jorrock Womley, Polydore Smith, Ambat Delaso, Jum Coople, Offenbach Stutz, and, his favorite, Father Gassalasca Jape, S.J. While some definitions are heavy-handed and obvious, others display a subtlety that a French courtier would envy, as when Bierce defines beauty as “the power by which a woman charms a lover and terrifies a husband” and marriage as “the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.”
Then again, some of Bierce’s wordplay in The Devil’s Dictionary is rather winningly juvenile: “Hydra, n. A kind of animal that the ancients catalogued under many heads”; and “Nonsense, n. The objections that are urged against this excellent dictionary.” The entry “Regalia” inspires a long list of fictionalized sodalities and secret societies, including “the Oriental Order of Sons of the West,” the “Polite Federation of Gents-Consequential,” and “the Mysterious Order of the Undecipherable Scroll.”
No one-volume collection of Ambrose Bierce’s writing is entirely satisfying, but the Library of America omnibus comprises nearly all the important works, under the editorship of our leading Bierce scholar. Nevertheless, this edition doesn’t wholly supersede the 1946 Collected Writings edited by Clifton Fadiman, which managed to include the Fantastic Fables, all the “Parenticide Club” tales, and “The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter,” a long story written with G.A. Danziger (though fundamentally an adaptation of a German original). Fadiman does, however, leave out the Swiftian political satires, and neither his book nor the Library of America volume reprints any letters or journalism.
The best course is to draw on the Joshi and Fadiman compilations, then supplement them with A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce (edited by Joshi and Schultz, 2003) and the journalism gathered in The Satanic Ambrose Bierce. While four books may seem like a lot of Bierce, if you enjoy his derisive wit you’ll want them all.