Thursday, April 24, 2014

Homage to Ambrose Bierce

I'm reading Ambrose Bierce's recollections of the Civil War, and am impressed once again by him as a man and as a writer.  I find his descriptions of the battles of Shiloh and Chickamauga particularly striking, for reasons unclear to me.  They are direct, cool reportage of mass slaughter by a participant in the chaos, and the prose is significantly different from that he would employ in his fiction, where he could sometimes be baroque, and his highly acerbic critiques and essays regarding various topics.   He does criticize some of the generals, true, but his criticism is unusually mild.  And he writes very little of himself and his deeds; when he does so, he shows no self-regard.

"Bitter" Bierce he was sometimes called, as was noted by Mencken in a piece he wrote about his encounter with Bierce at a funeral of a fellow-critic, and it seems Bierce did not disappoint on that occasion.  Mencken writes that he described in considerable detail and with amusement unfortunate cremations he had witnessed and their consequences.  Bierce and Mencken had later encounters as well, and would correspond in a friendly way, but Bierce was much older than Mencken, and despite their common contrariness and iconoclasm it seems that Mencken's view of the older man was ultimately somewhat uncharitable.

For my part, much as I admire the Sage of Baltimore, I think Bierce the more rounded and sophisticated man and writer.  Mencken had no experience of war, and like many who have not been soldiers could be somewhat cavalier about it.  Mencken was not a traveler, and Bierce seldom stopped wandering.  Finally and at a fairly mature age he ventured into Mexico during the days of Pancho Villa, and may have departed this life as he "predicted" in a letter--stood up against a wall and shot.  It's not known how he died or where he was buried, if indeed he was buried.

Bierce wrote fiction which was at times almost fascinating, similar to that of Poe as in the case of Occurrence at Owl Creek.  The war story he wrote in which a child encounters a group of wounded soldiers slowly crawling in an effort to reach water is chilling.  Bierce was a poet, an epigrammatist, as well as a journalist and critic.  Mencken, wisely I think, didn't venture into those areas.  Mencken was a critic, always.  He was a good one I believe, but his position as an amused, educated, intelligent observer became at times too elevated.  He had elitist tendencies, and was too quick to condemn people based on such characteristics as race and culture; thus his fondness for Nietzsche and his uncomfortably kind review of Mein Kampf.

Bierce was an honest and fierce man who was able to use words well and so was able to communicate peculiarly American experiences in a manner which was direct but also could be ornate, in a classic style.  I doubt he shared with Mencken, Hemingway and others the belief that Huckleberry Finn was the great American novel.  Perhaps in expressing that doubt I'm expressing my own feelings for that work of Twain; it's not a book a favor.  Bierce like Poe and Stephen Crane doesn't have the reputation other American authors have, but I think him far more interesting than most of our writers.

It's unfortunate such people are not given the same regard as the more popular artists we tend to laud excessively, for various reasons.  They are more attractive politically, more easily taught (always important in our Great Republic, where most of us are only taught art), more romantic, more erotic, more normal.  They are not interesting, however.

The soldier-adventurer-author is an attractive figure (and was to such as Hemingway, who longed to be one), and can be a Romantic figure as well.  Bierce was all that but it isn't possible for me to think of him as a Romantic.  The Civil War was in no sense a Romantic war, and Bierce wasn't inclined to rhapsodize about anything.   He was too much of a cynic, in the modern sense at least.  What a life he lead!  One must admire a man who lived as he did.


  1. You may be interested in the discussion of another aspect of Bierce's work in "The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took on the Notorious Central Pacific Railroad." 2012 by Dennis Drabelle. Hearst hired Bierce as a special correspondent on a bail-out bill when the RRs -- too big to fail corporations in the late 19th century -- were pressing for a debt forgiveness bill. Bierce was instrumental in the defeat of that particular bailout although, one has to admit, a somewhat mitigated bailout eventually did become law. It makes a riveting story for the early 21st century. The more things change....

  2. Hi. You might be interested in "The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took on the Notorious Central Pacific Railroad." a 2012 book by Dennis Drabelle, for its very different perspective on AB. Hearst hired him to help stop a bailout bill being promoted by the Central Pacific, debt forgiveness. Since the RRs were the "too big to fail" corporations of their day, the whole incident has obvious parallels with our own day.