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Bierced | The Nation

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Bierced

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There are writers who glorify and writers who testify. Bierce is often compared to Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway, glorifiers, mostly because all three were Americans who wrote about war. But one of the reasons Bierce has probably been forgotten, in comparison with them, is that he's so deeply misunderstood. Whereas Crane and Hemingway wrote about war, Bierce wrote about being a soldier. It's worth pointing out that he's the only writer among them who ever actually fought in the military.

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About the Author

Victor LaValle
Victor LaValle is the author, most recently, of the novel Big Machine and a recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship.

Valor doesn't equal literary value, but Bierce's experiences are singular. His best fiction asks you to inhabit that role rather than simply survey it. He testifies. Bierce has more in common with artists of perception like Isaac Babel and Jean Rhys. Babel's Red Cavalry stories express events during the Polish-Soviet War, all of them as dynamic and improbable as Bierce's best; Rhys's early novels, like After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, don't just illustrate the lives of dissolute and demolished young women; they're more like invitations to endure that self-destruction ourselves.

Bierce's reputation has suffered because of a common mistake in literary criticism. He's compared to writers he looks like rather than writers he writes like.

Bierce wrote startlingly vivid portrayals of the improbable, the seemingly impossible, a quality probably best described as the uncanny. The term actually appears, here and there, in a number of his stories. "Uncanny" is generally defined as "having or seeming to have a supernatural or inexplicable basis; beyond the ordinary or normal; extraordinary." Bierce's dismissal of the probable and his passionate belief in the impossible were nurtured by his experiences in the Civil War, the external manifestation of our nation's internal crisis that Faulkner called "the fever which had cured the disease."

America was battling to redefine itself. Institutions that had helped found this nation were under threat of being dismantled. The great gears of transformation were grinding the whole damn country down. States' rights versus the will of the federal government. Injustices, once seen as inherent to the system, were being challenged in the courts and on the streets. Americans, on all sides, were losing their minds because of the pressure and the fear. And somewhere in Georgia, Ambrose Bierce had a bullet lodged behind his left ear. I highly doubt Bierce would've been able to fathom, let alone imagine, our present era. But he might've recognized it.

The United States has found itself fighting two wars, and the commander in chief is a black guy from Hawaii. The largest banks in our financial system practically write laws and then have their elected officials simply co-sign the bills. Old white folks show up at political rallies packing heat and threatening secession. Everyone swears they're broke in the midst of the recession, but Apple sold 300,000 iPads the first day the gadget was on sale. And by the way, a giant oil slick is attacking the Gulf Coast.

We too are living in an uncanny age. Sometimes I can't keep my Hutarees and my Bernankes straight. Iran may get itself some nuclear bombs sooner than we think, and China threatens either to call in our debts or collapse, choking on its own contaminated air. Times like these can start to seem so fantastic, so improbable, that the straight story just won't capture the near-pandemonium. I don't believe the world is coming to an end, but on certain days it sure as hell can feel that way. Which is really what Ambrose Bierce was trying to approximate in his fiction. The experience of the uncanny. The settings and circumstances may have changed between his time and ours, but his sensibilities seem particularly attuned to the world we live in now.

His fiction can help to expose the lie at the heart of so much contemporary literary fiction, which holds that realism is the most honest way to capture life in our times. I'm saying that viewpoint is plain wrong, or at least uninspired. And Ambrose backs me up. His definition of realism in The Devil's Dictionary suggests another way to think of that particular school of writing: "realism, n. The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads."

Bierce often resorted to horror, whether grisly war stories or even supernatural tales, but he didn't do this to avoid writing about reality; he used the genre to confront the truths of his day—the monstrosity of battle, the terror of extinction.

Read Bierce and try not to think of soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Read Bierce and consider the ways "probability" can be a poor test; sometimes realism just fails. Every era needs a genre through which it understands itself. We are living in the age of the uncanny once again. Time to testify.

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