A Good Opinion of Bierce
M.A. Schaffner


photo credit: Library of Congress

One afternoon during my high school years I went to the local library to look into a dictionary I had seen mentioned somewhere, I can’t now imagine where. I should probably note that my high school years overlapped the climactic campaigns of the Vietnam war, the tiny local library was tucked away in an obscure corner of the main naval station at Subic Bay, Republic of the Philippines, and the news that morning in Stars and Stripes was all about Operation Dewey Canyon in the A Shau valley. Opening the book at random I found the following definition:

Flag, n. A colored rag borne above troops and hoisted on forts and ships. It appears to serve the same purpose as certain signs that one sees on vacant lots in London – “Rubbish may be shot here.”

I quickly shut the book and looked over my shoulder. Around the base the flag waved everywhere. Across the South China Sea men were being shot in droves. Who was this guy? How dare he?

Paging back to the introduction I discovered that the author had been a fairly well known journalist and a contemporary of Mark Twain. He was also a veteran of the civil war who had risen from private to major, served in several major battles, including Shiloh and Chickamauga, and had suffered a serious wound at Kennesaw Mountain. He was famous (sort of), a hero (in a way), and the work in my hands was, though not terribly well known, literature. So despite its contents, it was OK. Neither my parents nor the local authorities could take it away from me.

Thus I met Ambrose Bierce, through the slender Dover edition of The Devil’s Dictionary. Within the hour I reached the following definition – as timely now as when I first read it, as well as when he first penned the lines:

Patriotism, n. Combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name...In Doctor Johnson’s famous dictionary patriotism is defined as the last resort of a scoundrel. With all due respect to an enlightened but inferior lexicographer I beg to submit that it is the first.

This man Bierce saw rubbish in a lot of things I had been raised to respect. I liked that, perhaps more than I had any right to at age fifteen. Now past fifty, I find that life has led me to like it even more. What was painfully funny in the time of Nixon and Vietnam remains so in the age of Bush and Iraq, although this is not necessarily a good thing. If no other more obvious signs present themselves we will know that Utopia or the Kingdom of Heaven on earth has arrived when The Devil’s Dictionary is no longer funny. Until then, no Standards of Learning are complete without it.

But Bierce’s dictionary would for some years remain the only work of his I truly enjoyed. I tried his ghost stories and found them satisfyingly eerie but a bit fusty. Like many army and navy brats I enjoyed military history, so I tried Bierce’s war stories, too. But these I found strange and depressing. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” I recognized – it had been made into a short film some years earlier and actually shown at my junior high school in Virginia. Yet the end was not just unhappy, it was viciously so, as if the writer wanted to rub our noses in his bleak point of view. I liked Stephen Crane and The Red Badge of Courage a lot better. Crane’s “realism” was much easier to take than Bierce’s hallucinatory and opinionated prose, and the story of the young man overcoming his fear of battle to become a hero appealed to me – even if a young man disapproves of a particular war, he would like to think he would acquit himself well in it.

I recently discovered that Bierce’s contemporaries had their own problems with his war stories. When The Atlantic Monthly reviewed the collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians in its July 1892 issue, the writer felt moved to observe:

We have heard much of the book in certain quarters, and we feel wholly safe in saying that in one particular the half was not told us. It has never been our fortune to read a collection of tales so uniformly horrible and revolting. Told with some power, and now and then with strokes of wonderfully vivid descriptions, with plots ingenious in their terror and photographic in their sickening details, we must pronounce the book too brutal to be either good art or good literature.

If you have not read the stories you might wonder just what the reviewer found so horrible and why – if Bierce wrote with such brutal honesty about war – he remains something of a cult figure. In truth, for an age that makes best sellers of serial killings, the relatively few horrific details in Bierce’s stories should not prove shocking were it not for the suspicion that the author has not totally invented them. And such details gain added pungency from the plots, which refuse to compromise with popular expectations of fiction – if not for a happy ending, then one that shows some progress, or development of character, or at least increased understanding.

Stephen Crane does exactly this when he takes a young man with visions of glory, exposes him to actual battle, has him run, wrestle with his cowardice, and then return to battle and even carry his regiment’s flag in a victorious charge. The protagonist ends as a changed man, and changed for the better. Crane’s concise sentences and plain dialog have led several generations to apply the label of “realism” to this work.

In savage contrast, Bierce’s protagonists do not change. Instead, each crisis or complication uncovers a little more of an intrinsic flaw that ultimately destroys them. Dutiful, if disturbed soldiers end up shooting family members, shelling their own homes, slaughtering comrades, or killing themselves. Bierce marches his hapless protagonists to their dismal ends with the relentless cadence of a column of infantry advancing in pointless assault. He wants us to know that war has neither glory nor escape. Each tale repeats the lesson as if to add emphasis. No one leaves unscathed, including the reader.

While some of the plot twists strain belief, I think it’s our own naiveté that explains how Crane ended up with the reputation of realist and Bierce with that of fantasist. One example may serve to illustrate why I think the truth is the other way around. Here’s a group of dead infantrymen, as described by Crane:

Under foot there were a few ghastly forms motionless. They lay twisted in fantastic contortions. Arms were bent and heads were turned in incredible ways. It seemed that the dead men must have fallen from some great height to get into such positions. They looked to be dumped out upon the ground from the sky.

Very concise, laconic language, the kind that Hemingway would gain fame for. Here, on the other hand, is Bierce in “Chickamauga”:

There, conspicuous in the light of the conflagration, lay the dead body of a woman – the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood. The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles – the work of a shell.

Revolting indeed. But which is more realistic? Crane’s bodies have been mysteriously dumped by an unseen hand. Bierce’s dead woman has been mangled by a shell. And – not to dwell on the grotesque, but to show that Bierce, though writing fiction, wants very much to convey a truth that he has himself experienced – we have this scene from the non-fiction work, “What I Saw of Shiloh”:

Dead horses were everywhere; a few disabled caissons, or limbers, reclining on one elbow, as it were; ammunition wagons standing disconsolate behind four or six sprawling mules. Men? There were men enough; all dead apparently, except one, who lay near where I had halted my platoon to await the slower movement of the line—a Federal sergeant, variously hurt, who had been a fine giant in his time. He lay face upward, taking in his breath in convulsive, rattling snorts, and blowing it out in sputters of froth which crawled creamily down his cheeks, piling itself alongside his neck and ears. A bullet had clipped a groove in his skull, above the temple; from this the brain protruded in bosses, dropping off in flakes and strings. I had not previously known one could get on, even in this unsatisfactory fashion, with so little brain. One of my men whom I knew for a womanish fellow, asked if he should put his bayonet through him. Inexpressibly shocked by the cold-blooded proposal, I told him I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.

Bierce’s descriptions are fantastically horrible because the truth is sometimes fantastically horrible. It can be mitigated neither by victory in battle nor literary theories about character development. We can never know how much of Bierce’s perspective would have developed without the war, or how much of it derived from the hot piece of metal that cracked his skull at Kennesaw Mountain and nearly killed him. He could be the most notable example of PTSD in American letters. But he will not be denied his view of the world.

It took some years but eventually I grew to appreciate, if not entirely share, that view. Take Bierce’s use of character as a deadly trap rather than a basis for growth. We’d rather believe the latter (and continue sustaining multiple genres of self-help literature), but in my own life I’ve met many people – bureaucrats, poets, and other varieties of fellow citizens – who are fundamentally the same as the archetypes I encountered in high school. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just that we seem reluctant to acknowledge it as more naturally human than constant upward development. And Bierce’s identification of hypocrisy as what we might today call a core human value continues to resonate as I open the morning paper to another story on secret police powers derived from the “Patriot Act,” or watch a television commercial for an SUV named “Sequoia,” or see liquor store lotteries touted as a laudable means of funding public education. In that context, I suppose it makes sense that of the two writers, Bierce and Crane, the one considered as having written a realistic novel about the civil war is the one who did not serve in it.

Fortunately for the reader, Bierce leavened his outrage with stories that, like The Devil’s Dictionary, convey the same apprehension of reality with a wry humor that can turn viciously funny. In one case he deploys this in a war story. “Jupiter Doke” narrates the adventures of a politician commissioned as a general, given command of a brigade, and put out as bait for a much larger Confederate force. Bombastic, cowardly, and betraying an incompetence beyond the scope of mere idiocy, Dokes nonetheless wins the greatest upset victory of the war. The story is so outrageous that Bierce makes no attempt to tell it in simple narrative; instead he pulls together a series of parodies of official letters, after action reports, newspaper stories, and journal entries, each funny in themselves, but together a satiric tour-de-force. I can’t let a year go by without re-reading it, and each time I wish he were back today to concoct a similar work with variations on today’s strategic plans, reinvention manuals, motivational texts, and epics of cheese moving.

And that sense of what Bierce could, and probably would do today is a large part of why he has remained, if not my greatest literary hero, then my most constant one. His fierce allegiance to truth, and his equally decisive attempts to find humor in it, suggest over and over that he has lived in my world.

To a very great degree this is literally true. Though best known as a San Francisco journalist, for about the last fifteen years of his known life (he disappeared in Mexico in 1913), Bierce lived in Washington, the same city that I have worked in for more than thirty years. He was first sent here by William Randolph Hearst to lead the Examiner’s fight against a “funding bill” pushed by the railroad baron Collis P. Huntington. Huntington’s Southern Pacific Railroad had been the beneficiary of substantial government loans and land grants – many of them provided as Bierce and his comrades were under fire. The “funding bill” would provide a 99 year extension to the deadline for repayment of $75,000,000. But Hearst had chosen his agent well. Bierce’s reportage sold very well but was anything but objective. A mild sample would be this statement from his account of Huntington’s first day of testimony on the Hill: "Today he not only appeared, but took his hand out of all manner of pockets long enough to hold it up and be sworn."

Legend has it that Huntington, when warned by another reporter that Bierce was on his way from San Francisco, simply said, “What’s his price?” Bierce heard of this and responded to Huntington with a quote that his colleagues were happy to turn into copy for the next day’s front pages: "My price is seventy-five million dollars. If when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States."

Congress denied Huntington his bill. Bierce would stay long after his victory, leaving at last only for the tour that ended in his disappearance in revolutionary Mexico.

Happily for me, all of the places where Bierce resided in Washington remain more or less extant. The Army-Navy Club remains only as a façade over newer construction, but the townhouses at 18 Iowa (now Logan) Circle, and 1825 Nineteenth Street stand intact, as do the Olympia apartment building at 14th and Euclid and the El Dorado at 1321 Yale (now Fairmont) Street. Until its restoration a few years ago the Olympia’s original sign was covered by one reading, “Mansion of Love/King Solomon’s Temple of Truth.”

Other reminders abound. Many autumns ago I chanced to become the host of an orphan squirrel who would live in my house until her death some six and half years later. Shortly after meeting Jenny I walked across Lafayette Square where several more of her species approached me looking for handouts. Experience must have taught them that for every few thousand humans who traverse their territory, one is capable of being trained to regularly return with food. I was one of those, and while I now longer transport peanuts in bulk to urban squirrels, I try never to pass through a park in DC without a few tidbits for them. Somehow I think it would be bad luck. But imagine how I felt, reading The Letters of Ambrose Bierce, when I came across this passage in an October 9, 1909 letter to the poet George Sterling:

" …And the squirrels in the public parks think me the finest fellow in the world. They know what I have in every pocket. Critics don’t know that – nor nearly so much. Advice to a young author: Cultivate the good opinion of squirrels."

A 1902 newspaper profile of Bierce noted that the occupants of his apartment in the Olympia included a canary named Mr. Dooley and the squirrel, John Henry Leggs. Apparently this man, who recurringly entertained himself and his readers with diatribes on the failings and hypocrisies of humanity, enjoyed the company of animals – at least small, inoffensive ones. He was not above kicking cats or, on one occasion at least, shooting a vicious dog.

In addition to his journalism, humor, and short fiction, Bierce wrote poetry throughout his career. As a poet, he strikes one as more circumspect, reflecting, and self-conscious than in his other work. Flashes of wit alternate with introspection from one piece to the next, or even within the same, but on the whole the poems lack the vitality of his prose. Bierce seems to view Poetry as having much more to do with Literature than other forms of written expression and the result, except for his excursions into humorous doggerel, feels labored and restrained. Bierce’s “Invocation” – a sort of hymn for the Fourth of July, warning the republic of the evils of anarchy on one hand and rapacious wealth on the other – was said to be the model for Rudyard Kipling’s “Recessional,” which may or may not be praise, depending on how much you like Kipling trying to be serious. Louis Untermeyer praised the “Invocation” in his anthology of modern American poetry, but apparently could not quite find space in which to actually print it.

But even the least of Bierce’s poetry remains competent, dignified, and very readable. I value it not so much for the individual piece, but because within the stylizations of form he seems to allow himself more feeling than in his stories or even his personal correspondence, much less his newspaper work. There’s a bit more of the human being there, and the character that emerges, after all the corpses, cynicism, and lampoons, is not an unattractive one.

And yet it is as easy to sentimentalize a favorite author as it is a pet – and equally self-deceptive, and equally unfair to the object of one’s admiration. Animals have their own sensitivities that, short of reincarnation, we can never share. Similarly, no matter how many biographies are written, or letters or journals uncovered, we are equally unlikely ever to understand just what authors think. In Bierce’s case there is enough evidence to suggest that my own admiration would not have been reciprocated, nor perhaps survived more than a brief acquaintance. The perceptions and personality that produced The Devil’s Dictionary and Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, belonged to a jealous, unfaithful husband and distant father whose two sons met tragic, avoidable ends. Sooner or later Bierce broke with nearly all his friends, often in formal letters with all the charm of a divorce decree. One biographer, Roy Morris, Jr., suggests that Bierce ultimately even broke with himself – not “disappearing” in Mexico, but committing suicide where his body might never be found.

But so what? Whatever ego or idiosyncrasies motivate the writer are well balanced by the selfishness of the reader. I have his works, and can take what I want from them. Having lived my life mostly in Washington, and spent thirty years in government service, that ends up being quite a lot. Bierce, the chastiser of obtuseness, sentiment, greed, and malice, who walked the same streets I walk today, and fed the not-so-distant ancestors of the squirrels I feed today, is a valued companion. Such defects as he has simply make him more credible as a man.

A world in which everyone unstintingly admired the writings of Ambrose Bierce would, I think, be more than a little disturbing, with entirely too many of us expecting the worse from each other. But one without him would be a good deal less attractive – to me, and to any number of squirrels.

My acquaintance with Bierce continues, leaving me with no real end for this little essay, except perhaps one he wrote himself, which resonates with me more each year, and which I now leave with you:


MY DAY OF LIFE

I know not how it is – it seems
..............Fantastic and surprising
That after all these dreams and dreams,
Here in the sun’s first level beams,
..............The sun is still just rising!

When first he showed his sovereign face,
..............And bade the night-folk scuttle
Back to their holes, I took my place
Here on the hill, and God His grace
..............Sent slumber soft and subtle.

Among the poppies red and white,
..............I’ve lain and drowsed, for all it
Appears a sluggardly delight
I must have had a wakeful night,
..............Though, faith, I don’t recall it.

And, O I’ve dreamed so many things!
..............One hardly can unravel
The tangled web of visionings
That slumber-of the-morning brings:
..............Play, study, work and travel;

The love of women (mostly those
..............Were fairest that were newest);
Hard knocks from friends and other foes:
Compacts with men (my memory shows
..............The deadest are the truest);

War – what a hero I became
..............By merely dreaming battle!
Athwart the field of letters, Fame
Blared through the brass my weary name
..............With an ominous death-rattle.

Such an eternity of thought
..............Within a minute’s fraction!
Such phantoms out of nothing wrought,
And fading suddenly to naught
..............As I awake to action!

They scamper each into its hole,
..............These dreams of my begetting.
They’ve had their moment; take, my soul,
Thy day of life. . . . Gods! this is droll –
..............That thieving sun is “setting”!

 

Bibliography
Clifton Fadiman, ed., The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce, The Citadel Press, New York, 1946.
M. E. Grenander, ed., Poems of Ambrose Bierce, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln Nebraska, 1995
Roy Morris, Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, Crown Publishers, New York, 1995
Bertha Clark Pope, ed., The Letters of Ambrose Bierce, Gordian Press, New York, 1967.

Links
“The Devil’s Dictionary”: http://www.alcyone.com/max/lit/devils/
“What I Saw of Shiloh”: http://www.civilwarhome.com/shilohbierce.htm
“Jupiter Doke”: http://www.web-books.com/classics/Stories/Bierce/Jupiter_1.htm
Bibliography: http://www.poetry-archive.com/b/bierce_ambrose_bibliography.html
“The Ambrose Bierce Appreciation Society”: http://www.biercephile.com/

 

M. A. Schaffner has had poetry published in Stand (UK), the Beloit Poetry Journal, Shenandoah, Agni, Prairie Schooner, Poetry Ireland, and The Rialto (UK). He recently won the Birmingham Poetry Review's Dean's Award, judged by Martha Serpa, for the best poem published in 2006. Other works include the poetry collection, The Good Opinion of Squirrels (Word Works, 1997) and the novel, War Boys (Welcome Rain, 2002).

 

Published in Volume 9, Number 3, Summer 2008.

 

To read more by this author:
M.A. Schaffner
M.A. Schaffner: Whitman Issue
M.A. Schaffner: Wartime Issue