By Roy Morris Jr.
Crown. 306 pp. $30

Go to the first chapter of "Ambrose Bierce"

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The Devil's Lexicographer

By Dennis Drabelle

Sunday, January 28, 1996; Page X04

AMBROSE BIERCE may be America's most interesting minor writer. A master of the short story, the aphorism, the polemic and the insult, he is remembered as much for his one-liners, his misanthropy and his enigmatic death as for the dozen well-padded volumes of his Collected Works. His wit and chiseled style and the flashes of genius glimpsed in those tales and snippets are almost enough to support a verdict of greatness. But to achieve real stature as a writer, you had better parlay your gifts into at least one substantial and original book, and this Bierce failed to do.

Yet what pleasure he can still give. Tired of pussyfooting reviewers who shirk the hard calls? Try Bierce, who once dispensed with a book in record time by judging its covers "too far apart." Fed up with platitudes mouthed by smarmy statesmen and -women? See Bierce's definition of peace in his Devil's Dictionary: "In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting." Disgusted with politicians jerking like puppets on strings pulled by their contributors? Listen to one of Bierce's drolleries: "The personal property of the late Anthony Chabot, of Oakland, has been ordered sold. This is a noble opportunity to obtain Senator Vrooman." Interested in reading some of literature's earliest unsweetened portraits of war as it is actually waged? Start with the stories "Chickamauga" and "Parker Adderson, Philosopher" and the sketch "What I Saw of Shiloh."

Although there is no dearth of good Bierce biographies, this new one by Roy Morris Jr. has much to recommend it. Morris writes well, occasionally getting off a witticism that might have pleased the master himself. I particularly liked this slant on the demise of "Bull" Nelson, a Union general who was shot after insulting a political enemy: " Tom, I am murdered,' Nelson gasped to fellow general Thomas Crittenden and, despite reassurances to the contrary, quickly proceeded to prove his point."

Morris cannily assesses Bierce's work, providing, for example, a trenchant analysis of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," his best-known story. Though "Occurrence" is often pigeonholed as a tour de force of the trick ending, Morris makes a good case for its being shot through with artistry. Altogether, he differs from other biographers in his heavy emphasis on Bierce's Civil War days and the writings they spawned.

Morris observes that America's reputedly great male writers in the post-Civil War era -- Henry Adams, William Dean Howells, Henry James and Mark Twain -- avoided service (with the exception of a very short stint by Twain) and thus missed out on their generation's richest raw material. The honor of evoking the war, Morris concludes, "ultimately would fall to the less gifted, less learned, but physically braver Ambrose Bierce, who, of all the Boys of '61, would be the only one to make anything approaching great art of the looming national calamity."

Bierce placed himself in what turned out to be that art-making position partly as a way of ditching his family. He was born in 1842 in rural Indiana to a pair of religious fanatics with the tiresome habits of having children (13 in all) and giving them names beginning with the letter A. One of the mature Bierce's short stories opens with a slap at the American family: "Early one morning in 1872 I murdered my father -- an act which made a deep impression on me at the time." But as a boy he liked his mother even less: At least the old man kept a decent library, which Ambrose made good use of while attending various schools.

He joined the Union Army and rose to become first lieutenant and a valued aide to Brig. Gen. William Hazen. Bierce saw action at Shiloh and Chickamauga and took a bullet in the head at Kennesaw Mountain. The wound was grave but not fatal; later he wrote of having his head "broken like a walnut." After recovering he went back into service but left the army at war's end after failing to receive the peacetime rank he thought he deserved.

He fetched up in San Francisco, where he lived and practiced attack journalism for the next three decades. Even in an era noted for its savage public discourse, his columns were famous for scathe -- it's a wonder none of his victims gave him a Bull Nelson special. For years he hounded the four "railrogues" -- Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford (whom Bierce dubbed "Stealand Landford," with a pound sign in place of that capital L) -- who jointly owned the California legislature, not to mention a sizable share of the Gilded Age U.S. Congress.

On the other hand, Bierce got along well with another plutocrat, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, for whom he worked as a columnist and reporter. Bierce's apotheosis came after Hearst sent him to Washington, D.C., in the mid-1890s on special assignment: to defeat Huntington's attempt to obtain congressional forgiveness of his railroad's $75-million indebtedness to the United States. One day Huntington stopped Bierce on the Capitol steps, told him everybody had a price, and asked what Bierce's was. "My price," he replied, "is seventy-five million dollars. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States." This became a celebrated sally, and Congress had little choice but to thwart Huntington's will.

In private life, Bierce cut a sorry figure. He was an imperious husband who came and went as he pleased. (His Devil's definition of marriage is "the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.") He walked out on his wife after she allowed herself to receive and keep a letter from an admirer. His older son committed suicide as a teenager while embroiled in a sordid love triangle; his younger son drank himself to death. The third child, a daughter, was the only family member who stood by Bierce to the end. Which was more than could be said of most of his friends. He alienated some of them by taking direct action -- "disintroducing" himself, a lightly ritualized way of saying "bugger off."

With what seems typical gallows humor, Bierce died so as to leave the world scratching its head. In 1913, age 71, he went on a last tour of Civil War battlefields, told his remaining friends he was heading for Mexico to observe the revolution-in-progress and disappeared. This was a fitting denouement, inasmuch as Bierce's signal contribution to literature had been stories portraying human behavior on the cusp of death (see, for example, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," "Parker Addison, Philosopher" and the short, shocking "One Summer Night"). Morris theorizes that Bierce never made it across the border -- he was too well-known to have been overlooked, and no credible witness has ever placed him there -- but took his own life somewhere in the American Southwest.

The truth, it's safe to say, will never be known. What is clear is that Roy Morris Jr. has written a rousingly good life of a lesser but still captivating American figure.

Dennis Drabelle is a Washington writer and editor.

© 1997 The Washington Post Co.

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