Ambrose Bierce, “Bits of Autobiography” and “Selected Stories”: Tocqueville in the Year 4930

Rounding out the Library of America volume collecting the majors works of Ambrose Bierce is his Bits of Autobiography and eight additional stories not published in Can Such Things Be? or In the Midst of LifeBits of Autobiography was not a focused effort by Bierce to tell his life story.  Instead, it is a collection of fragments written between 1881 and 1906.  The eight additional stories were published over the same period of time.  The most significant of these short stories is Ashes of the Beacon,” which is essnetially a political tract summarizing Bierce’s position on democracy, revolution, anarchism, and class conflict, although it is framed in the structure of a historical monograph from the distant future.  (In this way, it is not unlike Jack London’s The Iron Hell, published at a simliar time, emerging from a simliar context, although with a very differnet interpretation.)


When I was reading Bits of Autobiography last night, I was thinking of my younthful fascination with military history.  I had a small library, now mostly all liquidated, on the American Civil War and the Second World War.  Thinking back, I was reading some quite scholarly works at the time, but the vast majority of what I read came from my local cow country library and local bookstores, neither of which maintained a large selection of academic history.  What I was interested in were the battles and the generals and the brilliant tactics and massive blunders.  In short, I was training to become an armchair general.  This interest quickly died out when I attended local cow country community college.  I suppose I simply found more things of interest in my classes.  Maybe this is something many young males go through.  Bits of Autobiography like In the Midst of Life proves how utterly vapid this type of historical writing is.  What Bierce teaches us is that the violence on the battlefield is not controlled by a god on the battlefield.  Generals did not command troops movements like on a board game.  Perhaps it is the tendency to assume hierarchical structures that give the privledged perspective to the generals in so much popular military history.

This is how I must have really thought battles were fought.  The arrows are so precise and clean.

This is how I must have really thought battles were fought. The arrows are so precise and clean.

On one event in the savage mess that was the battle of Chikamauga: “A good deal of nonsense used to be talked about hte herorism of General Garfield, who, caught in the rout of hte right, nevertheless went back and joined the undefeated left under General Thomas.  There was no great heroism in it; that is what every man should have done, including the commander of the army.  We could hear Thomas’ guns going–those of us who had ears for them–and all that was needful was to make a sufficiently wide detour and then move toward the sound.”  (681)

Maybe the alternative is to horrible to face.  Armies are institutions, contructed by men of course, designed to take away ones autonomy.  Much of Bits of Autobiogaphy considers the dreadful marching, the long miserable days at camp, and the blistered feet.  But as well as people are trained for war, the line between bravery and cowardice is a thin one.  On the defeated men after the first day of the battle of Shiloh: “These men were defeated, beaten, cowed.  They were deaf to duty and dead to shame.  A more demented crew never drifted to th rear of broken battalions.  They would have stood in their tracks and been shot down to a man by the proveost-marshall’s guard, but they could not have been urged up that bank.  An army’s bravest men are its cowards.  The death which they would not meet at hte hands of the enemy they will meet at the hands of their officers, with never a flinching.” (665)

So we replace this reality with valor, great heroes, and a belief that brilliance, effort, courage, the right cause, or “strategy” will win the battle for us.  Unfortunantly, when you combine the complexity of human psychology and the known and unknown unknowns battle, like life, is just a game of chance.  Better to believe in the brilliant god on the battlefield than to believe in fate.

There are a few chapters on Bierce’s post-war occupations and his enterance into the field of journalism as well.

Of the final eight stories, I will only introduce one “Ashes of the Beacon.”  This is actually worth reading as a political essay as it makes a rather good case for the ultimate failure of republicanism.  Two thousand years after the fall of the “Conneted States of America” a historian from a time when government is much more honest about its role (“To us of to-day it is clear that the word “self-government” involves a contradiction, for government means control by something other than the thing to be controlled.”) documents the causes of the decline of that republican civilization, much like how contemporary historinas might look back to the fall of the Roman Republic.  Mostly, however, I was reminded of Tocqueville’s warning that democracy will tend to lead to the promotion of self-interest.  This next bit is from Bierce, not Tocqueville: “When men or nations devote all the powers of their minds and bodies to the heaping up of wealth, wealth is heaped up.  But what avails it? . . . The result might easily have been forrseen and doubtless was predicted by patriots whose admonitations have not come down to us.  Denied protection of the law, neither property nor life was safe.  Greed filled his coffers from teh meafer hoarsds of Thift, private vengeance took the place of legal redress, mad multitudes rioted and slew ith virtual immunity form punishment or blame, and the land was red with crime.” (811, 814)

Bierce wrote this account during one of several visible peaks in the perpetual conflict between American labor and capital.  In the early 20th century, massive strikes challenged the power of capital and new labor organiations such as the Industrial Workers of the World.  As I have been arguing in this blog, there is a basic anarchism in the American political and literarcy traditions and it is not the difficult to see. That said, Bierce is correct that much of the most visible anarchist agitation of the turn of the last century was centered in immigrant communities and rooted in traditions of European anarchism, even as the U.S. was forming its own indigenous overtly anarchist tradition with the writings of Volatirine de Cleyre, Emma Goldman, and Alexander Berkman.  Bierce looked at events like the assassination of President McKinley as evidence that anarchism was the direct result of the self-interest and disrespect for heritage that is characteristic of democracies.  “The field of the anrchist’s greatest activity was always a republic, not only to emphasize his impartial hatred of al government, but beacuse of the inherent feebleness of that form of government, its inability to protect itself against any kind of aggression by any considerable number of its people having a common malevolent purpose.  In a republic the crust that confined hte fires of violence and desition was thinnest.” (808)

I am not going to blame Bierce for failing to see anarchism as a solution to the problems of a democratic republic, because he poses the question in the correct terms.  Self-government does seem to be a contradiction in a republic (actually in all state structures).


Ambrose Bierce, “The Devil’s Dictionary” (1881-1906): Cynicism Amok

I am sure that The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce is much better in its original form of 25 years of humorist and pithy definitions of words published in weekly newspapers.  As a dictionary, read in a handful of sittings, it quickly becomes tedious.  In the form of The Devil’s Dictionary, the collection of all of these sardonic defintions is an extended lexicon, covering many historical, philosophical, legal, and political issues.  You would not likely find the word you searched for.  I looked up all the dirty words without luck.  I suppose it is meant to be skimmed through for a laugh.  In this sense, it might make good toilet reading, or would function as a daily calendar of sardonic wit.


From reading The Devil’s Dictionary, I realize that while I can be cynical myself, meeting someone endlessly cynically would be quickly boring.  Such people are best taken in small doses.  Nevertheless, it is significant that the cynic, by opposing existing reality as much as possible veers close to an anarchist perspective.  Bierce’s criticisms of capitalism, religion, governments of all types, classical traditions, intellectuals, and marriage are all spot on.  Unfortunately, as a cynic, he is unable to offer up any alternative.  Cynics are clever, but profoundly uncreative.  To be truly creative, one needs to set aside the pessimism and the clever observations long enough to dream.  For Lenin, the Russian Revolution was an opportunity to remake the world, and he did exactly that.  How does Bierce define “opportunity”?  “A favorable occasion for grasping a disappointment.” (571) For Bierce war is simply a “by-product of the arts of peace” (642) so why strive for peace?  Resistance to authority if meaningless because “disobedience” is “the silver lining to the cloud of servitude.” (474)  Cynicism may lead on toward a form of anarchism, but that form of anarchism is simply useless for any envisioning of alternatives.  I often imagined Bierce as an Internet troll.    That said, The Devil’s Dictionary is humorous and useful to consider in small bits.  Bierce’s wit and cleverness is impressive.


I jotted down five themes that were heavily represented in The Devil’s Dictionary.  This is not complete, of course.  There does not seem to be any overarching target for the text, but we can group the majority of the defined terms into these seven categories.  I will give you a brief taste of each, which as I suggested is the best way to read him.

1. Marriage.  I wish I knew more about Bierce’s marriage.  The same year he separated from his wife over suspicious of an extramarital affair, his son shot his finance and her lover, before killing himself.  The funeral would be the last time Bierce would see his wife.  I cannot believe that these events did not shape his broader view on marriage.  His inability to trust women, believe in the survival of real relationships, or a happy marriage run throughout all of his work.  “Marriage” is “the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.” (557)  There are real reasons to critique marriage.  Its roots are the real enslavement of women.  Monogamy seems to be unnatural.  It does seem to intrude on human freedom.  Yet, Bierce is an enemy of all relationships.  He is also misogynist defining “woman” as “an animal usually living in the vicinity of Man, and having a rudimentary susceptibility to domestication.” (646)

2. The Modern State.  Many definitions attack historical and existing forms of government, bureaucracies, and all types of government functionaries.  A “Commonwealth” is “an administrative entity operated by an incalculable multitude of political parasites, logically active but fortuitously efficient.” (462)

3. Intellectuals.  Bierce has little patience for the intellectual and the pedant.  “Connoisseur” is “a specialist who knows everything about something and nothing about anything else.”  This sums up his attitude toward the entire class of scholars, theologians, and the like.  In one of the most clever definitions he tackles “foreordination” as follows: “This looks like an easy word to define, but when I consider that pious and learned theologians have spent long lives in explaining it, and written libraries to explain their explanations; when I remember that nations have been divided and bloody battles caused by the difference between foreordination and predestination, and that millions of treasure have been expended in the effort to prove and disprove its compatibility with freedom of the will and the efficacy of prayer, praise, and a religious life, — recalling these awful facts in the history of the word, I stand appalled before the mighty problem of its signification, abase my spiritual eyes, fearing to contemplate its portentous magnitude, reverently uncover and humbly refer it to His Eminence Cardinal Gibbons and His Grace Bishop Potter.” (493-494) So much for the utility of the intellectual.

4. Capital.  I am not sure what meaning being anti-capitalist has for a cynic, who is opposed to everything, but Bierce has no shortage of anti-capitalist definitions to arm the anarchist at cocktail parties.  For example, the “corporation” is “an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.” (465) “Labor” is “one of the processes by which A acquires property for B.” (539)

5. Religion.  Bierce was an agnostic at best.  Religion is for him simply a mess of hierarchical structures and delusional beliefs.  His focus is on the conflicts spurred by religion.  The “Unitarian” is “one who denies the divinity of a Trinitarian.” (640)  If we were to group all of his terms on religion we would find that he largely sees religion as irrational, arbitrary, and the cause of too many rifts.

There are other issues Bierce tackles, of course, including our undeserving respect for the classical tradition and the silliness of American obsession over status.

So, The Devil’s Dictionary is fun enough in small doses and one should feel free to paraphrase his insights to impress dates or make sardonic comments to your boss.  Perhaps that is the purpose of such a lexicon.  What it does not do is encourage us to transform existing reality.

Can I now say that I have read the dictionary?

Ambrose Bierce, “Can Such Things Be?” (1910): Ghosts, Death, and the Unfamiliar in Gilded Age America

Can Such Things Be? is a collection of Ambrose Bierce’s supernatural stories, first collected in 1893, but not in their final form until 1910 as a volume of Bierce’s collected works.  It is divided into roughly two parts.  The first part is 24 short stories and the second part is 18 journalist vignettes (which Bierce presents as objective happenings, not as fiction).  Bierce places the uncanny and the supernatural in the conflict between reason and the unknown of the later 19th century.  On the one hand, there was a strong belief in the victory of reason and progress over the natural and the unknown.    On the other hand, as with all developing capitalist societies the solid and the known (that is those things understood by tradition and community) were torn asunder with a never ending barrage of new ideas, new commodities, and new people (via migrations).  While I suspect most communities have had their local traditions of the uncanny, the mysterious, and the supernatural (much like every town must have a haunted house), in an era of rapid change and growing liquidity those  “known unknowns” (e.g. the haunted house every knows to avoid) become “unknown unknowns,” a much more horrifying prospect.


These stories are alive with wanderers, migrants, and immigrants.  In the opening story, “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” the title character is someone who voluntarily rejected his wealth and privileges and pursued a life as a vagabond.  When confronted with a supernatural experience he learned a weakness of being a vagabond.  The locals understood exactly the meaning of the name he shouted out before encountering a ghost.  A similar, although less deadly, fate met the narrator of “The Secret of Macarger’s Glutch.”  Here again, the local folklore was unknown to him being a liquid wanderer.  In two of the stories, Chinese immigrants bring in their own supernatural traditions that merge with the American folklore.

As in In the Midst of Life, we find Bierce plagued with the failure of marriage.  Numerous ghosts in these stories emerged from fateful domestic quarrels.  We can wonder if this is another byproduct of the capitalist displacement of expected social arrangements.

Another powerful theme, and one that will be revisited by Lovecraft in great detail, is the dilemma of knowledge.  The rapid expansion of scientific knowledge in the late nineteenth century posed a challenge to religious beliefs.  However, the survival of the uncanny requires us to ponder a reasonable explanation to the unexplainable.  In “A Diagnosis of Death” a young man witnesses what he thinks is the ghost of Dr. Mannering.  As it turns out he saw him later on the street.  This story, when told, horrified his audience who know that Mannering had been dead for a few years.  In Moxom’s Master, we see an early transhumanist argument about the mechanical foundation of life.  This sets up a conflict between an artificial intelligence and its creator.  In the most bizarre example of this (“A Tough Tussle”), a Civil War officer sees a Confederate rise from the death.  Most of the story involves the officer thinking about the naturalistic and historical reasons humans fear corpses.  He is unable to believe his own eyes until it is too late and he is killed by this walking dead man.  Characters throughout the stories grasp for naturalistic and scientific explanations for what they see.  The horror comes in the failure of science to rationalize what they see.

One story pokes fun at the late 19th century American work ethic.  In “A Jug of Sirup”, Silas Deemer, a local shop owner, dies.  His ghost returns and begins selling from the same store, unable to break free from his obligations to his business, which is life he rarely left unattended.  It is not revenge that keeps him on Earth, it is the dreadful work ethic.

As a liquid world continues to melt all that is solid into air, millions turn to the comparative stability of religious superstition, New Ageism, or occult beliefs.  These are not throwbacks to ancient Earth-based traditions, they are desperate striving for stability.  I am not sure how much of this Bierce was conscious of.  He was simply telling ghost stories, set in the changing world of industrializing America.  The uncanny is able to exploit our vulnerabilities as we encounter dramatic change.  In this sense, Bierce’s day was not so dissimilar from our own.



Ambrose Bierce, “In the Midst of Life” (1887-1897): “Civilians”

The second half of In the Midst of Life is a bit more difficult to come to terms with because its themes are more opaque.  The first fifteen stories considered the lives of soldiers in the Civil War and suggested Bierce’s quite modern (almost 20th century) view of warfare as indiscriminate and fundamentally at odds with a republic based on the elevation of individuals due to talent.  The second half – “Civilians” – puts people in no less extraordinary situations.  We get the same feeling that there is a thin line between the extraordinary and the banal.  Criminals are hung, marriages are strained, wills are enforced, and people go mad.  This is all the everyday happenings in a society, but Bierce masterfully presents these events are bizarre, almost supernatural happenings.  It almost makes us wonder how extraordinary our own lives are.


We also find men and women capable of transcending existing reality.  A writer in “The Suitable Surroundings” suggests the ability of literature of doing this.  The writer justifies his demand for the reader’s absolute attention as follows.  “To deny him this is immoral.  to make him share your attention with the rattle of a street car, the moving panorama of the crowds on the sidewalks, and the buildings beyond — with any of the thousands of distractions which make our customary environment — is to treat him with gross injustice.” (184)  The eleven stories that make up the second half of In the Midst of Life are full of characters who actively refuse to accept the world as it is.  Yes, their situations are often banal but as we learned in the stories about soldiers, we do not experience grand events.  Even when part of what will be larger remembered grandly (a Civil War battle for instance) our experiences are downright commonplace.  The ability to refuse existing reality is an important skill as we search for alternatives, but we do not need to be imagining alternative systems.  Often shaking our mundane lives by refusing to accept the hand we have been dealt is enough.  For instance, in “The Famous Gilson Bequest” a condemned thief leaves in his will a provision that his fortune (which turned out to be sizable) will go to the man that can provide his guilt, otherwise the wealth will go to his lawyer.  Through this simple act – a poorly-written will – a simple criminal challenged the legal system and in effect controlled the future destiny of his lawyer.  In “A Holy Terror” the protagonist goes West to hunt for gold, which he believes exists in a liquid state.  In the process he abandons his family and eventually resorts to grave robbing.


More troubling is the many characters in these stories who are bound or trapped by their situations.  The most extreme example of this is in “The Man and the Snake,” where a bookish fellow is horrified at the presence of a snake in his room.  He dies of fright, but as it turns out the snake was merely a stuffed specimen, “its eyes were two shoe buttons.” (166)  In more run of the mill examples, people are trapped by the state, marriage, or their own personalities.  In “The Boarded Window” an Ohio frontiersman is unable to save his wife from a fever but is also unable to grieve.  “He had had no experience in grief, his capacity had not been enlarged by use.  his heart could not contain it all, nor his imagination rightly conceive it.” (191)  Another man, incapable of admitting his adultery spends years in prison for burglary.  When he later meets his former lover, she falls out of her window in a mad effort to reach out to him.  The narrator reminds us that although she was capable of breaking the divine law of God against adultery she could not break the natural law of gravity. (“The Man out of the Nose”)  In the same way that the line between the extraordinary and the banal is subtle and depends on your perspective, the line between freedom and confinement is vague at best.

Perhaps due to his 1888 separation from his wife over concerns about her infidelity, Bierce’s stories from this 1890s seems to suggest a profound ambivalence about marriage.  The relationships we see in these stories are often shallow, existing in name only, shattered by adultery, or simply bizarre.  He even used one character’s lack of knowledge about snake species to throw out “a man who ascertains after marriage that his wife does not know Greek, is entitled to a divorce.”  (165)  More brutal is “An Adventure of Brownville” which involves the narrator observing the violence within another family after overhearing a conversation.  In attempts to intervene to the wife after her sister died under suspicious circumstances.  The wife eventually finds escape only in suicide, which had no affect on her husband who treated her death with legalistic abstraction.  He strolled from his wife’s body singing “La donna e mobile.”

Bierce is decidedly misanthropic and often pessimistic, but there are brief windows of optimism in his work.  Not only does he embrace characters who are capable of acts of goodness and conscious in the face of systems or individuals that are clearly psychopathic.  More importantly, he sometimes shows that is possible to transcend the traps fate lays for us.  As with prisoners, escape may be all but impossible but that does not relieve of us the obligation to attempt escape.  Our first step, and the one Bierce embraces, is to step away from the gigantism of the era.  Compared to the soldiers, the civilians had options to escape the indiscriminate violence and enforced indifference.

Ambrose Bierce, “In the Midst of Life (Tales of Soldiers and Civilians) Part 1 (1892): Jeffersonian Democracy at War

The stories in In the Midst of Life were published individually in the 1880s and 1890s, when the United States was undergoing a re-imagining of the Civil War as a conflict between brothers, rather than the libretory revolution.  Of course, this shift in historical memory took place at the same time that racial boundaries hardened through disfranchisement and Jim Crow.  This moral distance from the issues of economic exploitation, racism, and slavery is striking in Ambrose Bierce.  We can perhaps forgive him because he is so strikingly modern in his interpreation of warfare.  The first half of In the Midst of Life is made up of 15 stories of the experiences of soldiers during the American Civil War.  None touch on the profound issues of the war.  Bierce is interested in the mundane, the ironic, and the banal happenings of military life.  That is not to say that these are not tragic events.  From the perspective of the grand military writers, these everyday hanging of spies, shooting at scouts, or the slow death of wounded soldiers are banal.  Bierce makes them the heart of his stories.  In this way, he foreshadows how war will be understood in the 20th century: indifferent and egalitarian. This is the dilemma of warfare in a democratic era.  If we are all equal before the law and before our creator, how do we prove our quality.  Our failures are a measure of something lacking in ourselves, not in an system of structured inequalities.  We want to believe that training, skill, gallantry, honor, or strength translated into martial victory.  In an era of democracy, we have only ourselves to blame for our failings, including our defeat on the battlefield.  The realities of war, however, are also democratizing.  A cannonball or bullet is just as likely to hit my neighbor as me.  His death, or mine own, is just as likely.  Warfare becomes brutish mathematics.  However, one need only watch a late 20th century war film to see examples of honor, valor, or skill winning out.  It is this tension that Bierce powerfully explores in In the Midst of Life.


David Simon talked about Paths of Glory and made the interesting point that even books and films that try to be anti-war often tend to praise warriors and suggest their nobility.  This, he suggests, undermines the anti-war spirit.

There is some of this spirit in Bierce, but as he believes that the indiscriminate nature of the violence in the American Civil War was still running oddly against a people eager to show their valor whenever possible.  In “A Horseman in the Sky” a private for the Union Army meets his father on the opposing side as a Scout.  He kills his father, but not before taking in the beauty, actually the divinity, of the equestrian scene.  In “A Son of the Gods” a brave scout doomed to die, exhibits a suicidal bravado.  “He stands erect, motionless, holding his sabre in his right have straight above his head.  His face is toward us.  Now he lowers his hand to a level with his face and moves it outward, the blade of the sabre describing a downward curve.  It is a sign to us, to the world, to posterity.  It is a hero’s salute to death and history.” (32)  In “Killed at Resaca” we learn that women played no small role in encouraging this reckless valor.  In this story, one of the bravest and most reckless men in the unit dies.  With his death the narrator finds a letter from his girlfriend saying “I could bear to hear of my soldier lover’s death, but not of his cowardice.” (51)

Bierce puts us in the realm of total war and machine war, where killing is indiscriminate, executions are everyday events (In the famous “Occurance at the Owl Creek Bridge” the murdered Confederate sympathizer was entrapped.), and women and children experience war first hand.  The story “Chickamauga” gives us a deaf-mute child walking through the battlefield, finding his idealistic, boyhood concept of war shattered by finding a dead woman near the battle.  “There, conspicuous in the light of the conflagration, lay the dead body of a woman–the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood.  The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles–the work of a shell.” (25)  In the similarly themed “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch”, a young officer is horrified to find he is expected to shell guns located near his home.  After the “affair” he finds his wife and child dead in the basement.

Notice with me that none of the stories describe battles.  They only describe “occurrences,” “affairs, and “events.”  They are objectively extraordinary.  Men put in a position where they need to shoot their father or risk the lives of their children, men sent on one-way trips to “scout” the enemy lines and wounded men desperate for the means to kill themselves populate these stories.  In the context of mechanized and indifferent warfare, these occurrences are horrifyingly commonplace.

Bierce reminds us that war has no business being romanticized.  I might add that the barricade or the revolution is no less brutal and indiscriminate.  Where I want to part ways with Bierce is in his moral indifference.  Although war has become brutally egalitarian (at least before the age drones, when a technologically superior foe can murder his enemies without any risk of recompense – and still get medals for valor), struggle is not without purpose.  I wonder how former slaves who served in the war read accounts like Bierce’s.  I suspect they would have felt familiar with the natural equality modern war creates, but wondered why Bierce extended that equality to the divergent purposes of the two armies.

In our memory of the war, valor was possible.  In a democracy where the myth is that we succeed or fail based on our skills we cannot remember war properly, without rejecting a basic principle of our identity.

In our memory of the war, valor was possible. In a democracy where the myth is that we succeed or fail based on our skills we cannot remember war properly, without rejecting a basic principle of our identity.

What has been our response to modern war?  No longer can our heroes be drawn at the human level.  In medieval romance, a knight could be presented heroically.  The longbow and musket put an end to that.  The general, hitherto, seen as running the battle like a god, has become a bureaucrat measuring death and destruction with mathematical precision.  Without these heroes we have created superheroes.  They are difficult to kill, reviving the possibility of valor.  Often they are deinstitutionalized as well.  Unfortunately, these models are perfectly useless for our really existing struggles.