Thursday, August 25, 2005

Ambrose Bierce's Civil War: One Man's Morbid Vision

For Ambrose Bierce, the enemy was not really the gray-clad host at the other end of the field, but death, and the terror of death and wounds.
By Allen Guelzo
Ambrose Bierce would probably have been happier if he had never been born. Failing that, he would certainly have been more happy if he had not survived the Civil War; or, if he had, he would have been far happier if he had never left the Army at the war's end. Instead, almost against his will, he went on to become one of the sharpest American humorists who ever put pen to page. Today Bierce ranks second only to Samuel Clemens as a sarcastic chronicler of the quaint, the ridiculous and the downright idiotic in American life. In fact, Bierce's short stories about his Civil War service were like literary cousins to the books Clemens wrote about his youth on the Mississippi. But the cousins were extremely distant ones; whereas Clemens remembered his time as a riverboat man with rich fondness, Bierce remembered the Civil War with bleakness, and the humor of his stories, unlike Clemens', was twisted and grotesque rather than simply funny. The Civil War blasted Bierce's youth, and his recollections of the war turned up full of routine stupidities, wasted braveries and empty illusions. And perhaps for just that reason, Bierce's memories of the Civil War rang truer than the memoirs of corps commanders and supply clerks.
His angular name, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce, was part of a family tradition. His father was named Marcus Aurelius Bierce, his uncle was Lucius Verus Bierce, and all of the Bierce brothers and sisters were equipped with names beginning with "A" (Ambrose himself had been named for the obscure hero of an obscure 18th-century play). That, unfortunately, was where their father's ingenuity exhausted itself, for Marcus Aurelius Bierce was otherwise a poor dreamer-farmer. The only thing he excelled at producing was children, Ambrose being the 10th, born on June 24, 1842, in the Western Reserve of Ohio. The Bierces' family life was no country idyll, and apparently young Ambrose did everything he could to make it harder. He rebelled frequently and was frequently whipped. He rejected the old-time religion of his family and grew up "suspicious, introverted, and resistant to authority." Much of this he later blamed on his parents' inattentiveness. There were, it seemed, too many competing egos in the form of brothers and sisters for Marcus Aurelius to shine any paternal warmth down to Ambrose, and Ambrose never forgave him for it.


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