Ambrose Bierce.

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!


  1. I know that plenty of the students I see as a college professor did indeed read “To Build a Fire” and “The Most Dangerous Game” in high school. I assume that my kids will have to read them as well.

    I’ve never even heard or “The Lottery” though.

  2. Never heard of “The Lottery”? What’s the world coming to! Well, here it is.

  3. Let’s not forget The Devil’s Dictionary:

    W (double U) has, of all the letters in our alphabet, the only cumbrous name, the names of the others being monosyllabic. This advantage of the Roman alphabet over the Grecian is the more valued after audibly spelling out some simple Greek word, like επιχοριαμβικος. Still, it is now thought by the learned that other agencies than the difference of the two alphabets may have been concerned in the decline of “the glory that was Greece” and the rise of “the grandeur that was Rome.” There can be no doubt, however, that by simplifying the name of W (calling it “wow,” for example) our civilization could be, if not promoted, at least better endured.

  4. I’m pretty sure Morris wrote that Bierce was one of only two significant writers, the other being Sidney Lanier. And fought is, of course, key. Morris also wrote The Better Angel about Whitman’s service as a nurse after his brother’s death.

  5. When you read The Weekly Standard, it’s always a useful precaution to watch out for parti pris. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the jurist, fought in the war, was grievously wounded, and saved his bloodied uniform until the end of his long life. And Thomas Wentworth Higginson, without whom we wouldn’t be reading Emily Dickinson, was also the first writer to consider black spirituals worth writing down. He too fought in the war and was wounded.

    Libruls. Prolly woulda voted for Obama.

    (Oh, and Whitman’s brother was wounded but not killed.)

  6. I’m a great fan of the Devil’s Dictionary, but am indifferent to “wow”. I pronounce web addresses as
    wee.wee.wee. ….

    Undergraduates used to find that very funny. Kiwis, I can tell you, pronounce them dub.dub.dub ….

  7. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the jurist, fought in the war, was grievously wounded, and saved his bloodied uniform until the end of his long life. And Thomas Wentworth Higginson, without whom we wouldn’t be reading Emily Dickinson, was also the first writer to consider black spirituals worth writing down. He too fought in the war and was wounded.

    I’ll give you Holmes, though he’s far more important as a jurist than as a writer, but Thomas Wentworth Higginson? Come on. Being useful to Emily Dickinson does not make you a writer of consequence.

  8. A Sidney Lanier sighting is a joy to behold. Where are you Odell Shepard?

  9. Bierce is an excellent stylist with a distinctive point of view, but too many of his stories are marred by twist endings. I guess it took Chekhov to teach us that that sort of thing isn’t necessary.

  10. Brigid Brophy wrote a wonderful essay, “A Literary History”, in which she proved that after reaching Mexico, the 71-year-old Bierce travelled on to the Andes where he was able to use a legendary rejuvenating plant to restore his youth; he then continued on to Argentina, where over several decades he worked up a cover story to reinvent himself as Argentinian and eventually re-emerged as Jorge Luis Borges. I don’t know if Borges ever made any comment on this – Brophy’s essay was published many years before his death – and if he remained silent, that may well reinforce her theory.

  11. Well, of course, to be a jurist on an appellate court is to be a writer. Quoth Wikipedia:

    Holmes is known for his pithy, short, and frequently quoted opinions. In more than twenty-nine years on the Supreme Court bench, he ruled on cases spanning the whole range of federal law. He is remembered for prescient opinions on topics as widely separated as copyright, the law of contempt, the antitrust status of professional baseball, and the oath required for citizenship.

    But even aside from that, The Common Law is a most unusual work; it is the only work of scholarship by a practicing attorney, at least in the common-law countries.

  12. Fun fact: Russian (USSR times) printing of The Devil’s Dictionary has the entry for “Russian” omitted.

  13. Ha! Bierce would have loved that.

  14. J. W. Brewer says

    Ferguson was citing his source Morris, who I don’t know much about. But it seems plausible to me that Morris wouldn’t have thought of Holmes (who had struck me independently as a possible counterexample) because by “writer” he meant something specifically literary – lots of people write for a living (in law firms, in advertising firms, doing technical documentation for software, etc.) but don’t all fit within the narrower sense of being “writers” by profession. Holmes is unusual in having been an unusually good stylist for the non-literary genres in which he wrote, including that very non-literary genre, the public speech by a holder of high public office on a ceremonial occasion (he gave two famous Memorial Day speeches while a Massachusetts state court judge which touch on his combat experiences and what he made of them a few decades down the line). By contrast, Holmes dad (OW Sr.) was more of a proper writer, insofar as he produced poems and witty essays but was required to do something else (practicing medicine, in his case) to keep a roof over his family’s head.

    Holmes (Jr.) is difficult to fit neatly into a modern left/right schema (both sides can find things to admire and things to deplore), but I don’t think of the Weekly Standard as being such a hotbed of anti-Holmesians that they would have suppressed mention of him in this context.

  15. If you’re going to count specialist writers – those who wrote well (and are still read) in a particular field of study – Basil L. Gildersleeve, the greatest American classicist of the 19th and early 20th centuries, not only fought in the Civil War, but was wounded in a cavalry skirmish near Weyer’s Cave (not far from where I’m sitting, as it happens). I’m afraid he fought in the Confederate Army. He was later the first professor hired when Johns Hopkins was founded as a German-style research university.

  16. Mencken on Holmes, specifically reviewing a collection of his dissents.

  17. Thanks for the link, JC. The partial review on the last page is also interesting. I’d never heard of Bernarr Macfadden, but (according to Wikipedia) he was a forerunner of Charles Atlas and the low-carb diet, as well as a publisher of pulp magazines, and author of (among many other books) “Virile Powers of Superb Manhood”.

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