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War is hell, and it begat a 'Devil' of a good writer

November 15, 2012 12:10 am


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Ambrose Bierce saw the ghastliness of war (left) as a combat soldier in the Union Army, and it stoked in him a rare genius, well distilled in "Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs" (above) by S.T. Joshi.

The time, a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the early autumn of 1861. The place, a forest's heart in the mountain region of southwestern Virginia.

IF you are of a certain age and inclination, it would not be difficult to believe that those two first sentences were written as an introduction to an episode of "The Twilight Zone." They were, in fact, published 68 years before that popular television series, penned by writer/journalist Ambrose Bierce in a short story titled "The Mocking-Bird." The connection is more than casual: "Twilight Zone" creator Rod Serling was well aware of Bierce's work.

Ambrose Bierce was long known as the master of the surprise ending. In "The Mocking-Bird," twin brothers separated at an early age and fighting on different sides in the Civil War end up simultaneously killing each other without ever knowing of the strange irony.

If you have ever heard of Bierce, you are probably either an English major or a cult-film buff. No less a personage than Kurt Vonnegut said that Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" was "the greatest American short story." Vonnegut was far from alone in his estimate. Don Habibi of the University of North Carolina credits Bierce with inventing the literary device of combining distended time and the flash-forward in "Occurrence." He then traces its use throughout modern world literature and film in a who's-who of the giants of both art forms.

All of this brings us full circle back to Serling and Bierce, because the last "Twilight Zone" episode produced was a 1962 French adaptation of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." It won the equivalent of the British Academy Award for short film in 1963 and an American Academy Award for best short subject in 1964.

All of his future influence would have amazed Bierce, who at the end of his life was also at the end of his rope--without friends and family, largely by his own fault. He had married a beautiful and vivacious woman and did everything he could to ruin that relationship with his deep dark moods and his absenteeism from the home. His two sons died tragically, and only an adoring daughter survived him.

Near the end of his life, he felt mostly forgotten and unappreciated. His multiple-volume anthology of work was a literary and financial failure. If a lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client, a writer who edits his own anthology has an egotistical idiot for a client. Even the best writers seldom know when to stop. They are often so enamored of their work that leaving out even one piece of it is tantamount to leaving a child behind at a train station. Bierce proved this.


There turns out to be a light at the end of the tunnel, albeit a posthumous one. S.T. Joshi has done a wonderful job distilling Bierce's work in "Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Dictionary. Tales, & Memoirs [Library of America, 2011, 864 pp]." Joshi's work leaves the reader with just enough of the writer's best work. It is an ample taste. The reader can stop there or hunt for more online or in libraries. (Read "Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company" by Roy Morris Jr. for an in-depth look at the writer's complex life).

"The Devil's Dictionary" lifts cynicism to an art form. It was originally published in 1906 under the title "The Cynic's Word Book" because in those times it was taboo to mention the Devil in the title of a nonreligious book. Bierce originally began publishing segments of the work in the San Francisco magazine The Wasp. The installments were very popular in their day. Here are just a few entries:

1. Marriage, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.

2. Patience, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.

3. Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

4. Amnesty, n. The state's magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.

5. Fidelity, n. A virtue peculiar to those who are about to be betrayed.

This book would be worth the price for "The Devil's Dictionary" part alone.


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.

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