The Devil's Dictionary, Tales and Memoirs by Ambrose Bierce edited by S.T. Joshi; Library of America, 880 pages, $35. Start with the As. Always a good place to start in a dictionary. Ability is "the natural equipment to accomplish some small part of the meaner ambitions distinguishing able men from dead ones. In the last analysis ability is commonly found to consist mainly in a high degree of solemnity. Perhaps however this impressive quality is rightly appraised. It is no easy task to be solemn." "Achievement" then? Ambrose Bierce is even more terse. It's "the death of endeavor and the birth of disgust." More than 200 pages later, we end Bierce's "Devil's Dictionary" with "Zoology," which is "the science and history of the animal kingdom, including its king, the housefly."
There's little doubt that we have the 150th anniversary of the Civil War to thank for this, a fat, 880-page, thoroughly serviceable, one-volume edition of one of the greatest of all American writers and certainly one of the darkest of all. If we have one writer, in fact, who is the greatest prose writer of the Civil War after Stephen Crane (Whitman, of course, would be the poet), a good case could be made for Bierce, whose tales from it are cornerstones of our literature.
But there is so much more to Bierce, a proto-surrealism that assumed the most pitilessly dark view of humanity to be endlessly entertaining in a country that just willingly tore itself apart. Bierce is Twain's junior partner in our literature, one whose asperities might have extended to Becky and Aunt Polly, too.
Some of the great horror tales in our language are by Bierce as well as the war classics. "The Devil's Dictionary" is easily quotable but only until you realize that the misanthropy of its totality is unique. In 1913, at the age of 71, he told a New Orleans reporter, "I like the game. I like the fights; I want to see it" before going to Mexico to experience another civil war. He wrote a letter from Chihuahua on Dec. 26 and was never seen or heard from again.
For the first time ever, I was disappointed in a Library of America volume, as invaluable as this is. It isn't nearly as varied as the standard classic one-volume collection from 1946, unfortunately introduced by Clifton Fadiman. That, though, is long out of print.
-- Jeff Simon