AMBROSE BIERCE: Alone in Bad Company by

AMBROSE BIERCE: Alone in Bad Company

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The man who has been called ""the Devil's Lexicographer"" must be a tough nut to crack, for this biography gives us little more than his shell to chew on. Quickly disposing of Bierce's youth (unfortunate, since murdered parents do crop up in his stories), the text moves on to the formative years spent fighting on the Union side during the Civil War. Here Morris, a historian of that war (Sheridan: The Life and Wars of General Phil Sheridan, 1992, etc.), seems at least as interested in discussing war campaigns for their own sake as for their impact on Bierce. After brief stints as a US Treasury agent and as a night watchman at the US Mint, Bierce turned to journalism. Marriage to Mary Ellen Day, who barely emerges as more than a name in this account, did little to sweeten the character of this equal-opportunity insulter, with targets ranging from the money-grabbing""railrogues"" who dominated California to politicians, ministers, fellow writers, and dim-witted voters. Morris adequately provides the context for the journalistic writing he discusses; however, in exploring Bierce's stories, including his most famous, ""An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,"" he gives the sense that he has not moved beyond the critics he cites to develop his own sense of the works. Likewise, he seems to have missed something crucial about the man himself. This is a person who, getting red in the face, insisted that he ""was not great . . . was a failure, a mere hack""; who said, just before he vanished into Mexico in 1913, that he had ""never amounted to much"" since the Civil War; and who, as this book's own subtitle acknowledges, defined the word alone as meaning ""in bad company."" Nevertheless, Morris maintains that Bierce ""did not lack for self-esteem."" Morris should rejoice in the thought that Bierce himself is unavailable for comment.

Pub Date: Feb. 1st, 1996
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Crown