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Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Editor

May 14, 2005 1:08 am

AMBROSE GWINNETT BIERCE is, I believe, the most underappreciated American author--and was an astonishing lexicographer. Bierce, an Ohio native, was the only real writer to have participated in the Civil War.

All manner of Puffinstuffs and Frothingsloshes wrote apologias for their failures or copious, grand memoirs of their great exploits, but Bierce was the only Civil War participant whose literary success was built on his status as an author, not as a soldier. Stephen Crane, who garnered great fame for his "Red Badge of Courage," never served in the Civil War.

What is most significant about Bierce's wartime service is the impact the conflict had on his work. Bierce wrote about a Frankensteinlike monster long before the theme was picked up by author Mary Shelley.

He wrote about death, irony and the sudden kind of terror that can freeze a scream in the throat before it can emerge. Bierce captured and crystallized the stomach-knotting fears that wake us in the night--the ones that we know are real but remain unacknowledged because few of us have the courage to contemplate them for long.

Bierce could write about these things with authority, because he, like so many other Civil War soldiers, had to confront them time and time again. Bierce dealt with these fears by writing some of the most taught, suspenseful and terror-filled stories ever told.

Bierce wrote with diabolical cleverness about the horrid battle of Chickamauga--not as seen by a commanding officer, or even a common soldier--but through the eyes of a perplexed little boy. His protagonist is astounded by the sudden appearance of strange, surrealistic crawling creatures who make strange sounds and leave a jumbled trail of accouterments as they slither jerkily along the ground toward a creek to slake the desperate thirst of the seriously wounded.

Bierce liked to lull the reader into believing that "aha, this is another cliched story, with a predictable ending," then slam him with a shock-inducing conclusion that strikes with the suddenness and acute force of a loose porch board that has been tread upon, swings up and delivers a well-placed nail in the eye.

If you haven't seen the short film "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" you have not seen the finest little piece of cinema (in my mind at least) ever produced. It's one that fully captures the pathos and wholesale insanity of the Civil War.

The film has very little violence, especially by today's standards, but it's a Bierce story. A sensitive writer, he brilliantly vented the pain he accumulated in battle after battle through his pen.

Rod Serling was so impressed with this remarkable little story that when he presented it on his immortal TV series "The Twilight Zone," he insisted that the network take the unprecedented step of leaving "Owl Creek" uninterrupted by commercials.

Serling's solemn and moving introduction of "Owl Creek" can only be described as a reverential tribute to Bierce. It may be the only "Twilight Zone" episode that Serling neither wrote nor produced.

Bierce, who served as a Union officer, was a man of great integrity and character. Long after the war, he was incensed when he heard of a Maryland farmer who was running pigs over a Confederate graveyard. In his inimical fashion, Bierce brought publicity to the matter, and implied that if the pen was not sufficient to handle the job, he would resort to whatever means was necessary to remedy the situation. One ignored Bierce at great risk.

His son tried to emulate his old man's "pen or sword, in accord" philosophy, but, not being possessed of the latter's talents with a brace of Colt pistols, was promptly shot dead.

Bret Harte and Robert Service (another set of wannabe dilettantes with pens) may have written about Western bad actors and gunmen, but Bierce could write about these topics with real authority.

Bierce's skills with a pen could make or break an artist's or performer's career, and he was widely feared in the San Francisco Bay area as "Bitter Bierce."

Although at first glance Bierce may be perceived as a broken warrior working out his war-induced post-traumatic syndrome with a pen, he was also renowned as a humorist and made a living for several years by writing comedic pieces for a tough London audience under a farcical nom de plume.

"The Devil's Dictionary" is a hard work to put down, and gives great insight into his brilliant, sardonic and humorous mind. Here are a few samples from it:

"Telephone, n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance."

"Neighbor, n. One whom we are commanded to love as ourselves, and who does all he knows how to make us disobedient."

"Learning, n. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious."

In keeping with the finest tradition of the man, no one can actually prove that Bierce ever died. In 1913 or so, at a greatly advanced age, Bierce was last heard from as he rode south to hang out with Pancho Villa--for no other reason than there was something exciting going on down there. An adrenaline junkie, he wasn't going to miss it.

One thing I can state with certainty is that Bierce is still alive and well at the library. Those who study him will learn how to compose stories unmatched in clarity, precision and, best of all, brilliant brevity.

Many have written with objectivity and erudition about the Civil War, dryly imparting facts and dates and recollections, mostly true. But those who really want to experience the war, subjectively and viscerally, who want to be not mere witnesses, but participants, should open one of Bierce's works. No Civil War collection, no matter how extensive or wide-ranging, is complete without him.

BOB SARGEANT is a freelance writer living in Spotsylvania County.

Copyright 2005 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.