The generous gathering of Bierce’s prose in the Library of America volume, Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs, offers readers a valuable opportunity in our era of torpid humanism to discover the aesthetic value (and cerebral handicaps) of being gloriously hateful. Edited by S. T. Joshi, the collection contains Bierce’s Civil War short stories as well as autobiographical selections that touch on his four years of service with the Ninth Indiana Infantry, the full text of his satirical glossary The Devil’s Dictionary, and helpings of his supernatural yarns and futuristic fiction. (In an interview for the Library of America, Joshi wisely proposes a companion volume that would contain selections of Bierce’s first-rate journalism, speculative political fiction, and poetry.) The volume comes at a particularly salient time, as the author’s reputation is on a distinct upswing. The sesquicentennial of the Civil War has sparked wider interest in the documentary imperatives of his pioneering war stories, which influenced Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, and countless other chroniclers of combat.
The only major American writer to serve in a combat role during the Civil War, Bierce was a cartographer who fought at Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Pickett’s Hill. His powerful you-are-there point of view, conveyed memorably in the sobering remembrance “What I Saw of Shiloh” remains effective, though limited, because of its clinical observation of the chaos of combat. Bierce is cruel about the horrors of battle, graphic (for the time) in his descriptions of mutilation and death, obsessed with refuting his readers’ sentimental illusions about patriotism, heroism, and sacrifice. But Bierce hated realism (“The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads”), and rather than simply reporting the facts of warfare—which by themselves do not convey the truth of the experience—he is driven to allegorize and shock. He hammers home disenchantment because he can’t contain his disgust for those (including the pasteboard gods of religion) who justify the justice of war.
Most of Bierce’s combat stories verge on parody in their efforts to underline the inanity of fighting. In “A Horseman in the Sky,” a son must shoot his beloved father, an officer in the Confederate army, in order to protect Union troops; in “The Mocking-Bird,” a man kills himself after he shoots a soldier and discovers that it is his twin brother. The Civil War pieces offer more than reportorial verisimilitude and honesty; they also are the means to ridicule the utter foolishness of man and the universe. Whether focused on the wages of war or the supernatural, his short stories are extensions of his heated journalistic efforts to expose American delusions of grandeur and idealism.
Bierce’s finest thrust against Gilded Age corporate greed was his 1896 campaign, on behalf of his boss at the San Francisco Examiner, William Randolph Hearst, to stop the gigantic Central Pacific Railroad from willfully defaulting on millions of dollars in government loans. Dennis Drabelle, in his recently published The Great American Railroad War, tells the story with panache. Bierce moved to Washington, DC, and with help from a cadre of reporters, cartoonists, and assistants, wrote dozens of malicious articles accusing the railroad of greed and corruption. Before Bierce arrived, the outcome was thought to have been assured—the Central Pacific Railroad had bought all the congressmen and sycophantic newspaper coverage necessary to avoid any significant payment. But a decade after Bierce’s assaults, a reporter summed up the results: “With six months of incessant firing, Mr. Bierce had the railroad forces frightened and wavering; and before the end of the year he had them whipped.” Drabelle argues that taken together, the pieces are Bierce’s masterpiece—one of the glories of 19th-century American journalism.
Of course, not all targets are going to be as broad and dastardly as the Central Pacific Railroad. Bierce also admitted to harassing “dunces of all grades and descriptions, villains of every size, shape and hue, thieves and imposters, and all unpleasant people generally.” His derision contains multitudes—there is nothing too small or too cosmic that cannot be squashed or slapped. In his work, Bierce attacked the foolishness of Chinese missionaries and the greed of the “rail-rogues,” the “art” of horse-shoeing and the “theatrical” delusions of the afterlife, the hyperbolic “spasms” of Fourth-of-July orations and the self-righteous cant of the press, the wisdom of the public and arguments against suicide, the generosity of charities and the liberties taken by “users of asterisks.”