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Arch Di Peppe reviews "Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Dictionary, Tales, and Memoirs"
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A taste for the macabre always "haunted" Bierce's writing. The section in this book of his ghost stories will satisfy the reader. Most are set in the post-Civil War West, where hard men and women fall victim to eerie circumstances. There is just enough truth to carry the reader through the stories, and the characters who deserve it get their just rewards--both good and bad.
Bierce was without equal in his short-story writing about the Civil War--the only one working in that genre who was an actual combat soldier of the period. While Stephen Crane might be remembered for "The Red Badge of Courage," he wasn't even born until 1871, six years after the war ended. Bierce had the rare quality of not only writing tight description and believable dialog, but also of taking you inside the minds of his characters. Both a physical and psychological level exist in these stories. Don't try to hurry through his work. Bierce said that every word should stand for four. The reader cannot anticipate his stories' twists and turns.
Bierce's talent was forged from experience. He was there at Shiloh. He was there at Chickamauga, at Missionary Ridge, at Franklin, and he received a serious head wound at Kennesaw Mountain that left him with excruciating headaches for the rest of his life. As was the case with other combat writers who followed him, post-traumatic stress syndrome etched his words into the consciousness of a generation and beyond. His legacy lives in Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms" and in Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse Five."
The constant threat of violent death, the useless slaughter of close friends and innocents, absolute terror, and the insanity, incompetence, and callousness of leaders always torment him. He carries on anyway. The stories are at once poignant, jarring, sadly funny, and insightful. Finally, we are left with one important question: How can we keep doing this to every generation for millennia after millennia?
Bierce was the second man in his town to volunteer for the Ninth Indiana. He left a patriot. He returned something else entirely. While he scorned those who avoided service, he had no great love for government. He carried tremendous respect for the men with whom he stood shoulder to shoulder for almost the entire war. At the end, he was a changed man. His journalistic colleagues in San Francisco knew him as "Bitter Bierce"; his own motto was "Nothing Matters."
If the best art comes from the most pain, then Bierce earned his place among the great writers of America. His impact permeates our culture, whether we are able to attach his name to it or not.
Arch Di Peppe, a history enthusiast, lives in Stafford County.