Friday, May 2, 2008

Ambrose (Bitter) Bierce

A reader asks:
I was wondering though, do you ever specialize in historical American people like Ambrose Bierce?

He has been characterized as great, bitter, idealistic, cynical, morose, frustrated, cheerful, bad, sadistic, obscure, perverted, famous, brutal, kind, a fiend, a God, a misanthrope, a poet, a realist who wrote romances, a fine satirist, and something of a charlatan."

-- Carey McWilliams, Ambrose Bierce, A Biography

Bierce disappeared in 1914 and mystery still surrounds the details of his death. From Wikipedia:

In October 1913, the septuagenarian Bierce departed Washington, D.C., for a tour of his old Civil War battlefields. By December he had proceeded on through Louisiana and Texas, crossing by way of El Paso into Mexico, which was in the throes of revolution. In Ciudad Juárez he joined Pancho Villa's army as an observer, and in that role participated in the battle of Tierra Blanca.

Bierce is known to have accompanied Villa's army as far as the city of Chihuahua. After a last letter to a close friend, sent from there , he vanished without a trace, becoming one of the most famous disappearances in American literary history.

"As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination."

-- The last line of the last letter from Ambrose Bierce,
December 26, 1913

Several writers have subscribed to the speculation that he actually headed north to the Grand Canyon, found a remote spot there and shot himself, though no shred of actual evidence exists to support this view.

All investigations into his fate have proved fruitless, and despite an abundance of theories his end remains shrouded in mystery. The date of his death is generally cited as "1914?".

In one of his last letters, Bierce wrote the following to his niece, Lora:

"Good-bye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!"

Ambrose Bierce is generally known for his Civil War short stories. The one I - and I suppose most people - am the most familiar with is An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

“...I consider anybody a twerp who hasn’t read the greatest American short story, which is ‘Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,’ by Ambrose Bierce. It isn’t remotely political. It is a flawless example of American genius, like ‘Sophisticated Lady’ by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove.” (Kurt Vonnegut -- 2005)

This one simple short story illustrates why Bierce is considered a major representative of the post Civil War literary school of realism. He would not have been pleased with this assessment of his work since he had little regard for realism in art. In his Devil's Dictionary Bierce defines realism as:

the art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads, the charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring worm.

Ambrose Bierce was born June 24, 1842 in Meigs County, Ohio and spent most of his youth on an Indiana farm, the youngest of 9 children. He had little formal schooling - one year at the Kentucky Military Academy - but like other writers of his time he spent time as a printer's apprentice. He enlisted in the Union Army as a drummer boy and rose to the rank of lieutenant by the time he was discharged after being wounded. Bierce fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the war, and he will later describe the sights, smells, and sounds of battle with a brutal accuracy.

Life experience provided the material for his many works and he honed his writing skills as a journalist in San Francisco and developed his taste and skill for satire in London. He frequently worked alongside Mark Twain, Bret Harte and other up and coming writers of the age.

While best known as a short story writer, Bierce also wrote essays, critical reviews, political pieces, social commentaries, and even some poetry. His aphorisms are frequently found in books of quotations. Probably least known are his grotesque tales or works of horror in the nature of those by Poe or Lovecraft. The one constant throughout his writings is his belief that man exists in a brutal world and is engaged in a futile struggle with an impersonal fate to survive as best he can. His cynicism seems to deepen into nihilism in many of his works. In this he is similar to Twain, whose works became progressively darker toward the end of his life and career.

To quote the editors of Harper's American Literature:

"The bad, mad, bitter man from San Francisco helped show American writers the way to hell."

A complete biography and many of his short stories can be found at Online Literature.

Other Links:

The Ambrose Bierce Appreciation Society
The Ambrose Bierce Site
The Ambrose Bierce Project

1 comment:

Sam said...

Wow Joni that was an excellent piece on Bierce. I really appreciate American writers and some are strange, crazy, or ... I'm not sure how to categorize H.L. Mencken yet. Care to take a shot?

Just so you know, I did some major research at UT on D.H. Lawrence, a Brit of course, but the man fell in love with an area somewhere near Taos, New Mexico I think. So I read many of his early drafts and manuscripts at UT and you could SEE with his own scrawl on paper how things changed over time, went to the typewriter, and got edited yet again. I think the Benson Center at UT-Austin still has many boxes of such rare manuscripts.

And the story about JW ... he's a good man and a Son of the Beach (SOB, a term of endearment here). He supports good people. Way to go, my man! -sam wells