Great American Cynic


By Benjamin Schwarz

October 2011 Atlantic

bierce4THE LIBRARY of America—that ambitious, authoritative, canon-defining publishing project that has since 1979 been issuing its handsome, uniform volumes printed on for-the-ages stock—has at last bestowed its honors on Ambrose Bierce, with a collection of his most significant writings. That this beatification has taken so long is as explicable as it is inexcusable. Bierce, after all, has always been best known for being undeservedly unknown. He himself resignedly acknowledged that his “notoriety as an obscurian may be said to be worldwide and apparently everlasting,” and Arnold Bennett confirmed: “You may wander for years through literary circles and never meet anybody who has heard of Ambrose Bierce, and then you may hear some erudite student whisper in an awed voice: ‘Ambrose Bierce is the greatest living prose writer.’”

Our national intellectual and literary inclination has perennially favored uplift, and craved what Bierce’s contemporary and admirer William Dean Howells called “a tragedy with a happy ending”—so, although Bierce wrote exemplary American prose, his unrelieved pessimism rubs deeply against the American grain. For most readers, he’s at best difficult to warm to—and in fact, once they’re familiar with his outlook and sensibility, they’re likely to find him repellent.

Bierce defined that outlook and his approach to writing in his essay “To Train a Writer”: “He should free himself of all doctrines, theories, etiquettes, politics.” A writer, he averred, must “know and have an ever-present consciousness that this is a world of fools and rogues … tormented with envy, consumed with vanity, selfish, false, cruel, cursed with illusions …” Bierce, whose reactions to the world ran from ironic dismay to Olympian scorn, has always been easy to dismiss as merely cynical—a quality freighted with the implication of a pose. But Bierce’s cynicism could not have been more honestly acquired.

Born into a high-minded if hardscrabble abolitionist family (his favorite uncle had supplied the broadswords that John Brown used to hack pro-slavery families in Kansas), Bierce—tall, fierce-eyed, with a military bearing—enlisted as a private at the very start of the Civil War. He won a battlefield commission (he received an astonishing 15 commendations for bravery under fire, twice risking his life to save wounded companions on the battlefield) and saw ferocious combat through nearly the entire length of the war, including at Shiloh (his regiment sustained the most casualties of any that fought in that battle, one of the war’s bloodiest), Chickamauga, and Kennesaw Mountain—where he was nearly killed when his skull was “broken like a walnut” by a Confederate bullet. The great male writers of the late 19th century—Henry James, Henry Adams, Howells, Mark Twain—all avoided combat (Twain served briefly in the militia, but lit out for the territories before encountering any violence). When not yet a man, Bierce, as his biographer Roy Morris observes, experienced battle at an intensity unknown to any other American writer in the 50 years before the First World War.

Emerging from the charnel house, Bierce shunned any effort to invest the butchery with meaning—including the North’s smug myth of a Battle Cry of Freedom (still cherished by many contemporary historians, as it flatters their sense of their own righteousness). For him the war was nothing more—could be nothing more—than a meaningless and murderous slaughter, devoid of virtue or purpose. The youth who joined the ranks, Bierce would later say, was dead. But his ordeal gave birth to a lonely, stoic, and bitter rectitude, a sensibility that was the impetus of his career as a writer and—most lastingly—of his compressed, astringent prose style.

Imbued with the hard-won understanding that efforts toward improvement range from the jejune to the self-regarding to the shabby to the vicious, at the start of his writing life Bierce resolved that his “future programme” would be to make “war upon every man with a mission.” So fortified with what he called “a judgment undimmed by politics and patriotism,” he made his way as a reporter and editor in San Francisco in the Gilded Age, an era of big profits and abundant graft. He didn’t crusade against venality, but he did expose it mercilessly and with sardonic condescension (in California he probably remains most famous for his prolonged conflict with the corrupting Southern Pacific railroad, a menacing enemy worthy of his dark disdain). He also caustically reported the abuse of despised minorities. (Of the Mormons he wrote: “Excepting the Jews and Chinese, I know no worthier large class of people than they.” While he made clear that he didn’t “care a copper” for them, he despised “the falsehood, stupidity and injustice that this harmless people have suffered.”) For good reason, Bierce went about the city armed with a revolver.

But of course there’s nothing as ephemeral as journalism, however slashing and courageous, and this volume’s editor wisely excludes Bierce’s decades-spanning contributions to the craft. The tiny knot of Bierce’s admirers has always hung the writer’s claim to greatness on what H. L. Mencken anointed as “the most brilliant stuff, first and last, that America has ever produced … the true masterpiece of the one genuine wit that These States have ever seen”—The Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce’s collection of acidic, elegantly wrought definitions of common words (“RELIGION, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable”). This Swiftian tour de force (it could not say things truer and clearer in fewer words) is among the most eccentric books in American literature, and it retains its intensely disturbing quality—not least for the off-kilter way that its sparkling, epigrammatic style jars with the mordancy of its vision.

In addition to the Dictionary, this volume demonstrates that Bierce’s writings on the Civil War itself should secure his high-secondary place in thevlcsnap-2010-05-10-22h19m13s29 canon. “The real war,” Walt Whitman knew, “will never get into the books.” And in fact, excepting Bierce’s work, it didn’t. The war harrowed Bierce, and for decades he probed it in fiction and historical reportage. His short stories—grotesque, hallucinatory—lighted on momentary fragments of life on the edge of battle (a deaf-mute boy takes for a sort of circus parade a retreating line of atrociously wounded men trudging to a quiet place to die). His nonfiction accounts marshaled events and laid out the field of battle (Bierce served as a topographical engineer) with unequivocal lucidity, not for mere expository purposes but to serve his inexorable dramatic momentum. Regardless of the form he chose, to convey the real war Bierce developed an innovative prose style—limpid, severe, restrained, at once offhand and punctilious—that allowed him to take in the most dreadful scenes (a soldier’s face with “a great red gap” where his lower jaw ought to have been, wild boars eating the stomachs of still-living battlefield casualties) with a flat precision.

Bierce’s seminal contribution to American letters is that “sharp-edged and flexible style, like the ribbon of a wound-up steel tape-measure,” as Edmund Wilson perfectly defined it. But that style emerged from Bierce’s compulsion to reveal a truth that remains unacceptable—or only selectively acceptable—today. It’s all very nice to decry the horror of war, but to Bierce its obscenity and its meaninglessness were merely integral to those of life. Bierce’s friend the editor Bailey Millard explained why all the leading publishers of the day rejected Bierce’s war fiction: they “admitted the purity of his diction and the magic of his haunting power, but the stories were regarded as revolting.” Understandably so, given what Bierce knew to be our delusional and self-serving tendencies.

Carey McWilliams, that muckraking California journalist whose 1929 biography of Bierce remains the most astute assessment of the man and the writer, wrote hopefully, “Only one thing … is needed to insure Bierce’s place in American and world literature: a one- or two-volume edition of the best of his writing.” We now have that volume. Will it accomplish what McWilliams and the other members of Bierce’s coterie of champions have wished? Any true cynic (“CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be”) already knows the answer.

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