AMBROSE BIERCE: ALONE IN BAD COMPANY
Ambrose Bierce’s macabre lexicography, The Devil’s Dictionary, once defined a cynic as “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” That definition could also stand as a reasonable assessment of the writer himself, whose clear-eyed pessimism stood in marked contrast to the general feeling of optimism predominant in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. The origin of his cynicism is not difficult to locate, for Bierce was one of the few noteworthy writers to endure the holocaust of the American Civil War and live to tell about it.
In an era when people regarded the works of such authors as Oliver Wendell Holmes (“Old Ironsides”), Alfred Lord Tennyson (“The Charge of the Light Brigade”) and Rudyard Kipling (Soldiers Three) as the zenith of military writing, Bierce’s grim Civil War stories, particularly “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “Chickamauga” and “What I Saw of Shiloh,” made critics and readers feel uneasy. For that matter, most of Bierce’s writing made the public feel uneasy. He once wrote in reply to his critics that they should “continue selling shoes, selling pancakes or selling themselves. As for me, I sell abuse.” And for four contentious, controversial decades he made a living doing just that, lambasting politicians, jurists, lawyers, big business, fellow writers, religion, family values and anything else he considered pretentious and hypocritical. Indeed, one senses in Bierce a hard-won conviction that the best and brightest of his generation had been lost on the battlefield, leaving behind merely the greedy, the foolish and the cowardly. Such men were easy targets for the Biercian lance.
Roy Morris, Jr.’s new biography,Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company (Crown Publishers, New York, $30), is a welcome examination of the life of a shamefully neglected American writer whose current fame seems to rest as much on his enigmatic demise in January 1914 as it does on his mordant literary output. The title itself is appropriately derived from another definition in The Devil’s Dictionary: “Alone, adj. In bad company.” Certainly, that is how Bierce spent the majority of his days.
Born in Ohio to a large fundamentalist religious family in 1842, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce received his unusual first name through his father’s odd custom of inflicting names beginning with the letter “A” upon all his children. By the time he got around to his ninth offspring, the best his father managed to come up with was “Ambrose.” Bierce hated his name, and he also hated his parents, particularly his mother, whom he blamed for not loving him enough. At age 15, he happily left his family behind him, going to work as a printer’s devil in northern Indiana.
Considering the anti-war nature and general cynicism of his writing, it is somewhat surprising to learn that Bierce was, in fact, among the first volunteers to join the Union Army in 1861, and that he had a highly distinguished career in that service. Enlisting as a private in the 9th Indiana Volunteer Infantry, Bierce received a battlefield commission and eventually became a brigade staff officer for Brig. Gen. William Hazen. He saw action in numerous engagements, including Shiloh and Chickamauga, and was taken out of active service after being struck in the head by a Mini? bullet at Kennesaw Mountain on June 27, 1864.
Bierce’s literary career began shortly after the Civil War, when he resigned from the Army because of the War Department’s refusal to grant him a permanent captain’s commission, which he had been promised by Hazen. Finding himself at loose ends in San Francisco following a Western scouting expedition, Bierce began writing articles to earn a little extra money. By the end of the decade his sardonic wit had firmly established his reputation as the “Wickedest Man in San Francisco,” a title he wore with characteristically perverse pride.
It is less difficult to comprehend why Ambrose Bierce was not considered a great writer in his own day than to understand why he is not considered a great writer today. As a professional iconoclast, “Bitter Bierce” managed to antagonize most of the notable figures of his era with his fiery newspaper columns. He was the first in a long line of notable newspaper columnists specializing in social commentary, from H.L. Mencken to Jimmy Breslin and Art Buchwald. For the sharpness and darkness of its wit, however, Ambrose Bierce’s writing remains in a class by itself. Who else could dismiss a book in one nine-word review, “The covers of this book are too far apart,” or skewer a political enemy with the pointed epitaph, “Here lies Frank Pixley–as usual”?
Bierce was more than just a newspaper columnist, however. He was also a talented writer of short stories in a variety of genres. Although never a novelist–his Devil’s Dictionary defined the novel as “a short story padded”–Bierce wrote numerous stories about the Civil War, the West, and what would later be called “the supernatural.” Many of his stories are unsurpassed for their sense of grisly, black humor, as much an acquired literary taste 100 years ago as it is today.
It is Morris’ contention that the Civil War provided the defining influence on Bierce’s peculiar writing style. Most biographers gloss over his military career, almost as though it were the life of an entirely different person. Morris, on the other hand, spends almost the first 100 pages of his biography detailing the campaigns, personalities and battles to which the young Ambrose Bierce was exposed in his pre-literary youth. As both a literary scholar and an expert on Civil War history–as well as, incidentally, the editor of America’s Civil War–Morris is clearly in his element in his understanding of both Bierce the writer and Bierce the soldier. Morris concludes, in his epilogue, that the one thing that will always differentiate Bierce from his more talented contemporaries Mark Twain and Stephen Crane is “the personal quality of his witness.”
When the “timeworn image of Bitter Bierce” is stripped away, says Morris, “what finally remains is 1st Lt. Ambrose Bierce, Ninth Indiana Infantry, the bloodied veteran of Shiloh, Chickamauga, Pickett’s Mill, and a dozen other battlefields who had experienced war on a scale–both large and small–that no other American writer had ever known in the half century preceding World War I. His true significance…remains grounded in his undeniable pride of place as the first American witness to modern war and the evil banality with which men die.” Morris points out that Bierce “looks at the most horrific sights with a flat perception that is almost affectless–almost, but not quite, for the sheer act of witnessing is in itself an act of profound pity.”
Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company is highly recommended, either as a personal view of the effects of the Civil War on a sensitive young writer, or as the examination of the equally fascinating world of the so-called Gilded Age and its reigning b?te noire, Ambrose Bierce.