The Library of America—that ambitious, authoritative, canon-defining publishing project that has since 1979 been issuing its handsome, uniform volumes printed on for-the-ages stock—has at last bestowed its honors on Ambrose Bierce, with a collection of his most significant writings. That this beatification has taken so long is as explicable as it is inexcusable. Bierce, after all, has always been best known for being undeservedly unknown. He himself resignedly acknowledged that his “notoriety as an obscurian may be said to be worldwide and apparently everlasting,” and Arnold Bennett confirmed: “You may wander for years through literary circles and never meet anybody who has heard of Ambrose Bierce, and then you may hear some erudite student whisper in an awed voice: ‘Ambrose Bierce is the greatest living prose writer.’”
Our national intellectual and literary inclination has perennially favored uplift, and craved what Bierce’s contemporary and admirer William Dean Howells called “a tragedy with a happy ending”—so, although Bierce wrote exemplary American prose, his unrelieved pessimism rubs deeply against the American grain. For most readers, he’s at best difficult to warm to—and in fact, once they’re familiar with his outlook and sensibility, they’re likely to find him repellent.
Bierce defined that outlook and his approach to writing in his essay “To Train a Writer”: “He should free himself of all doctrines, theories, etiquettes, politics.” A writer, he averred, must “know and have an ever-present consciousness that this is a world of fools and rogues … tormented with envy, consumed with vanity, selfish, false, cruel, cursed with illusions …” Bierce, whose reactions to the world ran from ironic dismay to Olympian scorn, has always been easy to dismiss as merely cynical—a quality freighted with the implication of a pose. But Bierce’s cynicism could not have been more honestly acquired.
Born into a high-minded if hardscrabble abolitionist family (his favorite uncle had supplied the broadswords that John Brown used to hack pro-slavery families in Kansas), Bierce—tall, fierce-eyed, with a military bearing—enlisted as a private at the very start of the Civil War. He won a battlefield commission (he received an astonishing 15 commendations for bravery under fire, twice risking his life to save wounded companions on the battlefield) and saw ferocious combat through nearly the entire length of the war, including at Shiloh (his regiment sustained the most casualties of any that fought in that battle, one of the war’s bloodiest), Chickamauga, and Kennesaw Mountain—where he was nearly killed when his skull was “broken like a walnut” by a Confederate bullet. The great male writers of the late 19th century—Henry James, Henry Adams, Howells, Mark Twain—all avoided combat (Twain served briefly in the militia, but lit out for the territories before encountering any violence). When not yet a man, Bierce, as his biographer Roy Morris observes, experienced battle at an intensity unknown to any other American writer in the 50 years before the First World War.
Emerging from the charnel house, Bierce shunned any effort to invest the butchery with meaning—including the North’s smug myth of a Battle Cry of Freedom (still cherished by many contemporary historians, as it flatters their sense of their own righteousness). For him the war was nothing more—could be nothing more—than a meaningless and murderous slaughter, devoid of virtue or purpose. The youth who joined the ranks, Bierce would later say, was dead. But his ordeal gave birth to a lonely, stoic, and bitter rectitude, a sensibility that was the impetus of his career as a writer and—most lastingly—of his compressed, astringent prose style.
Imbued with the hard-won understanding that efforts toward improvement range from the jejune to the self-regarding to the shabby to the vicious, at the start of his writing life Bierce resolved that his “future programme” would be to make “war upon every man with a mission.” So fortified with what he called “a judgment undimmed by politics and patriotism,” he made his way as a reporter and editor in San Francisco in the Gilded Age, an era of big profits and abundant graft. He didn’t crusade against venality, but he did expose it mercilessly and with sardonic condescension (in California he probably remains most famous for his prolonged conflict with the corrupting Southern Pacific railroad, a menacing enemy worthy of his dark disdain). He also caustically reported the abuse of despised minorities. (Of the Mormons he wrote: “Excepting the Jews and Chinese, I know no worthier large class of people than they.” While he made clear that he didn’t “care a copper” for them, he despised “the falsehood, stupidity and injustice that this harmless people have suffered.”) For good reason, Bierce went about the city armed with a revolver.