On June 23, 1864, Ambrose Bierce was in command of a skirmish line of Union soldiers at Kennesaw Mountain in northern Georgia. He’d been a soldier for three years, and in that time had been commended by his superiors for his efficiency and bravery during battle. He’d been pretty fortunate so far. Three years of hard fighting—on the ground and wielding a rifle—without serious injury. But that day in June a Confederate marksman shot Ambrose Bierce right in the head.
The bullet fractured Bierce’s temporal lobe and got stuck in his skull, behind his left ear. He was sent by railroad to Chattanooga for medical care, riding along with other wounded soldiers on an open flat car for two days, their bodies covered by nothing more than a tarp. They rode this way through the June heat of Georgia, as well as drizzling rains. At night the "bright cold moonlight" gave Bierce jarring headaches. Somehow, none of this killed Ambrose Bierce—one of American literature’s great stubborn bastards.
In fact, nobody knows how Bierce died. In 1913, at the age of 71, he traveled from Northern California to Mexico. He wanted to check out all the ruckus Pancho Villa had been causing. Bierce departed and was never seen or heard from again. By then he’d become famous as the caustic columnist for, among others, William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. He’d been hired personally by Hearst. Bierce’s columns attacked corporate malfeasance and government incompetence, and sometimes just railed about the failings of the entire human race. Besides fiction and journalism, Bierce also wrote book reviews. He wasn’t a soft touch. One of his most famous reviews is one sentence long: "The covers of this book are too far apart." By the time of Bierce’s disappearance, his literary reputation had been overshadowed by writers like Mark Twain and Stephen Crane. And today, a century of reader indifference has succeeded where that Rebel sniper failed. Ambrose Bierce is long dead (probably!), and his stories have pretty much been buried. But perhaps the time has finally come to resurrect them.
Ambrose Bierce was born on June 24, 1842, in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio, a fundamentalist community not far from the West Virginia border. His parents were true believers who might’ve had a bit of an odd streak as well. Ambrose was the tenth child in the family, and the names of his nine older siblings were Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew and Albert. Ambrose Bierce hated his folks. He rarely depicted parents in his fiction, but if they appeared at all it was usually as having recently died—sometimes at the hands of a very Bierce-like narrator. In fact, one of Bierce’s books was a collection of stories called The Parenticide Club. No one’s claiming Bierce was the most likable dude in American literature.
Ambrose’s father, Marcus Aurelius Bierce, held many jobs—farmer, shopkeeper and county overseer of the poor—though he enjoyed no successes in any of these professions. But he was an avid reader. His personal collection of books was possibly the largest in the county. And it was in his father’s library that Bierce began his life as a serious reader. Though Bierce rarely said a nice word about his family, he never denied the great gift of his father’s collection.
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If Bierce is known today, it’s for writing the kind of reference work he might’ve longed to find on his father’s bookshelves. The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911, is a collection of warped, witty and just plain cruel definitions of words in common American usage:
abstainer, n. A weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.
hearse, n. Death’s baby-carriage.
heathen, n. A benighted creature who has the folly to worship something that he can see and feel.
lecturer, n. One with his hand in your pocket, his tongue in your ear and his faith in your patience.
The Devil’s Dictionary goes on like this, and you can see the appeal. The definitions are short, the ideas easy to grasp, the humor reliably fierce. The Devil’s Dictionary reads like a collection of great Twitter posts. And as people do with tweets, they can swipe Bierce’s best lines and recite them as nearly their own. The reflected glory of reposting.
It’s an understandable pleasure. A lot of these definitions are bitingly funny. And maybe The Devil’s Dictionary has endured longer than Bierce’s fiction because its tone seems more modern, its confluence with our time apparently easier to appreciate.
But before Bierce could write any books, he had to leave the family farm. In Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, Roy Morris Jr. notes that Bierce’s family moved to Indiana when he was 4. For the next eleven years Ambrose was an isolated child, aloof from his siblings as well as his schoolmates. He didn’t even like dogs or cats. His favorite animals were snakes and lizards.
At 15 Ambrose left the family to work for the Northern Indianan, an abolitionist newspaper. His father was an early antislavery advocate, but it seems just as likely that Ambrose took the job to get away from the family farm or because he liked to write. The job didn’t last long; he was supposedly accused of theft and quit after his name had been cleared. Sometime after that he landed in the home of his Uncle Lucius.
Lucius Bierce was a military man who liked to argue and had an appealing swagger, a man who’d witnessed a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina, and become an even more ardent abolitionist than Bierce’s father. In 1838 Lucius led a militia across Lake Erie and into Windsor, Ontario, with plans to "liberate" the town from the British yoke. The plan failed, but the legend was a hell of a lot more interesting to Ambrose than Marcus Bierce’s story of poverty and piousness. The argumentative, ambitious, self-important Ambrose had found a man he could admire and emulate.
Then, on April 12, 1861, the Battle of Fort Sumter popped off in South Carolina. On April 19, Ambrose enlisted in the Union Army: Company C, Ninth Indiana Volunteers.
He was 18.
In four years of fighting, Ambrose Bierce saw impossible things. And much to his regret, he remembered them. In time he wrote some of them down.
In the realm of fiction, Bierce wrote short stories exclusively. He disdained novels. In a short essay titled "The Short Story" he dismisses novels as "mere reporting." Here he took aim, specifically, at realist literature. His problem with realism lay in the question of "probability." Could this incident really have happened? Would a person ever do such a thing? Bierce found this line of reasoning preposterous, if only because it meant a story’s limits were determined by the reader, not the writer. It meant that if a reader couldn’t imagine that such an event was possible, probable, then somehow the writer had failed. Toward the end of the essay Bierce blows his top. "Probability? Nothing is so improbable as what is true. It is the unexpected that occurs; but that is not saying enough; it is also the unlikely—one might almost say the impossible."
Declarations like these could easily come across as trite if expressed by many other writers. They could be taken as the noises of nothing but a thin-skinned author trying to defend himself against claims that his fiction is unconvincing, unbelievable. But Bierce isn’t so easy to dismiss.
His most famous story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," concerns Peyton Farquhar, a Southern planter from an established Alabama family. He’s been captured by the Union Army and is to be hanged for acts in support of the "Southern cause." The story contains a surprise ending, and while it is somewhat effective, it is also uncharacteristic because Bierce had a weakness for twist endings that rarely worked at all. But that’s OK; much as with Stephen King and Martin Amis, you don’t read Ambrose Bierce for the finale. You read him for the profound perceptual play:
He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift—all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or nearby—it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each stroke with impatience and—he knew not why—apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife: he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.
In another powerful story, "The Affair at Coulter’s Notch," Bierce writes of a face-off between two batteries of well-fortified Confederate cannons, twelve in total, and a single Union cannon crew led by Captain Coulter. Coulter’s crew is forced into an open notch and ordered to engage in a firefight just because a general in the field wants to see if the stories of Coulter’s bravery are true. Though Coulter hesitates, he follows the order. He and his crew wheel one cannon out to the notch and commence firing. Soon the twelve Confederate cannons respond and the two sides are lost in the thunderous explosions and enormous clouds of artillery smoke. Each time one of Coulter’s cannons is destroyed, his crew wheels a new one up to the notch so the fight can continue. Eventually the Union officers ride up to the notch to check on Coulter and his men:
Within that defile, barely broad enough for a single gun, were piled the wrecks of no fewer than four. They had noted the silencing of only the last one disabled—there had been a lack of men to replace it quickly with another. The debris lay on both sides of the road; the men had managed to keep an open way between, through which the fifth piece was now firing. The men?—they looked like demons of the pit! All were hatless, all stripped to the waist, their reeking skins black with blotches of powder and spattered with gouts of blood. They worked like madmen, with rammer and cartridge, lever and lanyard. They set their swollen shoulders and bleeding hands against the wheels at each recoil and heaved the heavy gun back to its place. There were no commands; in that awful environment of whooping shot, exploding shells, shrieking fragments of iron, and flying splinters of wood, none could have been heard. Officers, if officers there were, were indistinguishable; all worked together—each while he lasted—governed by the eye. When the gun was sponged, it was loaded; when loaded, aimed and fired. The colonel observed something new to his military experience—something horrible and unnatural: the gun was bleeding at the mouth! In temporary default of water, the man sponging had dipped his sponge into a pool of comrade’s blood.
This kind of prose is what Bierce rattles off on the regular, and even his weakest stories contain some pungent moment, even just an aside. A belch across the table at probability. An assertion that sometimes fiction’s job is to conceive the inconceivable.
In light of such writing, Bierce’s disdain for "mere reporting" becomes clearer. While it’s true his work often made use of personal experiences—particularly as a soldier in the Civil War—a reader would be hard-pressed to call it straight journalism. The journalistic endeavor—at least theoretically—is grounded in objectivity. The goal is to get you to understand what happened, when and to whom. But Bierce is a beast of subjectivity. He means for the reader to experience these events as fully as the written word allows. He doesn’t just want to tell you what happened. He wants you to understand how it felt.
In another piece, "Chickamauga," Bierce fictionalizes one of the most hellacious battles of the Civil War, one in which he fought. In the story a child wanders into the woods near his home, away from his mother, and comes across a mass of wounded soldiers fleeing the titular battlefield:
They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction. Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly past them, then resuming their movement. They came by dozens and by hundreds; as far on either hand as one could see in the deepening gloom they extended and the black wood behind them appeared to be inexhaustible. The very ground seemed in motion toward the creek. Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on, but lay motionless. He was dead. Some, pausing, made strange gestures with their hands, erected their arms and lowered them again, clasped their heads; spread their palms upward, as men are sometimes seen to do in public prayer.
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.
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.