What’s the one quality—and I use that term very loosely—in everyday life that, unfortunately, seems to be rampant today?
I’m talking about cynicism, or its 2011 equivalent—snarkiness. You see and hear it all the time in newspapers and on radio, television and blogs. It’s as though this is the Age of the Cynic or the Century of the Snark. Well, there’s a new book out that will put to rest the assumption that there’s a monopoly on the “art” of snideness here in the 21st Century.
“Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs from the Library of America” is a compilation of writings from Ambrose Bierce, once called by some 19th century newspaper columnists “the worst man in San Francisco,” or “Bitter Bierce,” by other writers. In his day (1842-1913), Ambrose Bierce was known as a man with dark insight and a savage wit. Bierce’s writings compare quite favorably with the best of today’s political commentary and, quite paradoxically, with Stephen King’s work and even Poe’s psychological tales of terror.
As a Civil War veteran, Bierce was expert in recreating the horrors of that conflict in such short pieces as “Chickamauga” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The latter story was turned into a teleplay by Rod Serling and broadcast as an effectively creepy half-hour segment on “The Twilight Zone.” It recounts the capture of a southern civilian by invading federal troops in Alabama. Peyton Fahrquhar, a well-to-do farmer, is accused of spying for rebel forces and is to be hanged from a bridge near his home.
Bierce describes how Fahrquhar escaped (or did he?) and made his way back home, “his wife, looking fresh and cool and sweet, steps down from the veranda to meet him. Ah, how beautiful she is! He springs forward with extended arms. As he is about to clasp her he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!”
Did Fahrquhar make it back home or …? Readers who favor the works of Poe, Hawthorne and Stephen King will enjoy the compilation of short stories from Bierce’s volume called “Can Such things Be?”, which is included in its entirety here.
The Devil’s Dictionary can be summed up as the ultimate in 19th century cynicism and snarkiness. For example, Bierce defines Beggar as: one who has relied on the assistance of his friends, and Bigot as: one who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain.
I especially enjoyed Bierce’s take on what could be a modern day definition of Dawn: the time when men of reason go to bed. His cynical definition of Diagnosis is: A physician’s forecast of disease by the patient’s pulse and purse.
You can easily imagine this definition for Hand used in a blog: a singular instrument worn at the end of the human arm and commonly thrust into somebody’s pocket.
The excellent chronology section of the book, created by the book’s editor J.T. Joshi, highlights Bierce’s life, and has an ironic final entry for 1913: “Writes letter from Texas, then crosses the border again. Writes letter from Chihuahua on December 26, concluding, ‘I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination’; he is not heard from again, and his fate remains unknown.”
Library of America books are a bit pricey ($35 or $40) and are still not yet available as e-books. However, if you want to start or build up your library of great American literature from Melville to Roth to Bierce, these books are the way to go. They are put together to last with expert commentary and are a joy to read. The Library of America’s “Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales & Memoirs” deserves five sand castles out of five in the Constructive Critic’s rating system.