An Ambrose Bierce Companion

An Ambrose Bierce Companion

An Ambrose Bierce Companion

An Ambrose Bierce Companion

Synopsis

Ambrose Bierce was born in 1842 and mysteriously disappeared in 1914. During his lifetime, he was a controversial and prolific writer, and there is a growing interest in his work. His experiences as a Union soldier during the Civil War provided him with material for some of the best American war literature ever written. In addition to his war stories, he wrote tales of the supernatural and a vast body of newspaper columns, which are among the most venomous and daring ever published. This reference is a guide to his life and writings. Along with a chronology, the volume includes several hundred alphabetically arranged entries on Bierce's major works and characters and on historical persons and writers who figured prominently in his life. Many of the entries supply bibliographic information, and the volume closes with a selected, general bibliography.

Excerpt

William Shakespeare occasionally has a character reveal something profoundly relevant to the action of a given play in four terse words. Thus, Cleopatra says, “Not know me yet?”; Hamlet, “The rest is silence”; Macbeth, “Let it come down”; and Othello, “It is the cause.” Wily Ambrose Bierce, however, shortchanged Shakespeare, in whose literary abilities he ventured to detect limitations, when he summed up his own philosophy of life in half of four words, thus: “Nothing matters.” All this, in a letter dated 15 August 1903 to the so-so poet George Sterling, whose friendship Bierce also soon felt had severe shortcomings. “Nothing matters.” What a thing to urge a friend to believe.

But, despite his off-putting disclaimer, Bierce wrote as though much mattered to him. He wrote some of the best war fiction any American ever created, and did so by virtue of horrific combat experience, a sharp eye, an uncanny memory, and a perspective of decades after the Civil War. That does matter. Perhaps the only veterans of that ghastly war whose writings can bear halfway favorable comparison with Bierce’s are John Esten Cooke, John William DeForest, and Ulysses S. Grant. the wound Bierce suffered at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain left more than a sharpshooter’s rifle ball in his head; it left an unbalance there for the remainder of his curious life.

Once the war was behind him, Bierce in 1867 started a career in journalism in San Francisco. His newspaper columns, which have yet to be completely assembled and published, are among the sharpest, most stinging, venomous, and daring that any American has ever composed. They also matter. Some of them have been published, of course, including many that Bierce himself chose for inclusion in his Collected Works (1909–1912). But they all matter. Only two satirical curmudgeons come to mind who are comparably savage. They are Jonathan Swift and H. L. Mencken. When com-

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