Ambrose Bierce is a writer whose cynicism matches well with our current mood, yet I wonder if anyone reads him any more or even knows who he is. If you’ve read his Civil War story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” you haven’t forgotten it. In February 1964 The Twilight Zone broadcast a short French film adapting the story. If you saw it, you haven’t forgotten it. I have posted a five-minute clip below.
I still have my old Signet Classics copy of In the Midst of Life. It includes stories from Bierce’s book of that name (originally published as Tales of Soldiers and Civilians in 1891) as well as a few from Can Such Things Be? (1893) and a smattering from The Devil’s Dictionary (1911).
Bierce drew on his service in the Union Army during the Civil War for much of his work. He enlisted in an Indiana regiment at the age of 19 and reached the brevet rank of major. After the war he gave up on his decision to become a professional soldier.
The New York Review of Books has just unlocked Michael Dirda’s 2012 review of the Library of America compilation of Bierce’s work. Dirda’s review is published under the heading “One of America’s Best,” though Dirda concedes up front that Bierce is arguably not quite first-rate. However, Bierce is inarguably worth getting to know and Dirda’s review provides an excellent and entertaining introduction. For example, Dirda quotes Bierce’s “surprisingly heartless” (I would say surprisingly funny) take on Harriet Beecher Stowe from “The Town Crier” (1869):
Mr. [James] Parton says Mrs. Stowe has lived a life of heroic virtue. With her face, a life of virtue is no very difficult matter. When Nature conferred upon her her peculiar charms, we imagine the operation might have been called, “Chastity made easy.”
Another point in Bierce’s favor is that he probably doesn’t pass muster under the current regime in American arts and letters.