Andrew Ferguson of The Weekly Standard has a good piece about the writer I called “the great Bierce” in this LH post from a few years ago; the occasion is the centennial of Bierce’s departure for a fate that is still unknown, and it’s a useful introduction for those unfamiliar with the writer. What surprises me is how widespread such unfamiliarity appears to be:
“We have produced but one genuine wit,” H. L. Mencken wrote, in a survey of American letters: “Ambrose Bierce. And save to a small circle he is unknown today.” Mencken was writing decades after Bierce had gone off to Mexico, by which time his life was best remembered for the way he had left it. And the circle of those who read him is even smaller now, needless to say. When the Library of America finally got around to issuing a canonical selection of his writing, in 2011, the single volume (Philip Roth got nine!) was relatively slender; it was the 219th in the library’s series of great American writers. …
The problem with “writers’ writers”—as many readers have discovered—is that they are seldom “readers’ writers.” It depends on the readers as much as the writers, of course, and today’s readers might find they have caught up to Bierce’s jaded view of war, politics, romantic love, religion, family life, and nearly everything else. When he is remembered these days it is usually for the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which, until recently, was one of a handful of short stories—along with “The Lottery,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” “To Build a Fire,” and a few others—that no student could escape an American high school without having pretended to read.
“Until recently”? Do students really no longer have to read those classic stories? (Insert laudator temporis acti rant here.) Another passage that gave me a start of — not surprise exactly, but recognition of a previously unassimilated fact:
As the best of his biographers, Roy Morris Jr., has pointed out, he was the only American writer of any consequence to fight in the war. The future men of letters of his generation managed somehow to be elsewhere when the bodies began piling up. William Dean Howells spent the 1860s in Venice. Twain, after a fortnight with the Confederate Army, went as far west as he could get. And the two Henrys, James and Adams, watched the carnage from afar, Adams from London, and James from the killing fields of Harvard Yard.
The whole thing is worth reading. Thanks, Paul!