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Posted November 23, 2003
A Pocketful of Poison
By Bill Marsano. The Tiny Giants of American literature were The New Yorker magazine writers E.B. White, James Thurber and Wolcott Gibbs. Tiny for the sin of not writing Great American Novels; Giants for superb prose and wit. There were Tiny Giants in the 19th Century, too--Lafcadio Hearn and Ambrose Bierce come to mind; Bierce especially because of this complete edition, which contains much that abridged editions omit. (One worthy abridgment, published by Bloomsbury, has the cartoonist Ralph Steadman's peerless art of darkness and a good thumbnail introduction by the writer Angus Calder.) After serving with the Union in the Civil War Bierce turned to newspapering in San Francisco, where his columns were the beginnings of his Dictionary. Many people make up humorous definitions occasionally and some are actually funny, but Bierce is I think unique in quantity and quality. Admittedly, some entries are dated and others weak or self-indulgent, but Bierce sometimes beats Oscar Wilde to what Dickens said Americans called 'sky-blue fits.' Bierce once reviewed a book by saying its covers were 'too far apart,' and there are freshness and insightful in such entries as 'Bride, n. A woman with a great future behind her,' and 'Ultimatum, n. In diplomacy, a last demand before resorting to concessions.' And 'Corporation, n. An ingenious device for securing individual profit without individual responsibility.' (Enron, anyone? Tyco?) My favorite: 'Alone, adj. In bad company.' Keep this book on your nightstand; dip into it now and then and soon you'll want more by Bierce. His tales of the supernatural are as perfect as Poe's for lonely, late-night terrors, but the first to buy would be 'Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period' (University of Massachusetts Press), in which editors Russell Duncan and David J. Klooster collect Bierce's war stories, memoirs, letters and even battlefield maps (and offer a superb introduction, too). The only important American writer to serve in the Civil War, Bierce fought in such slaughterous battles as Shiloh and Chickamauga. He spent almost four years at bayonet level, was repeatedly cited for bravery and was nearly killed at Kennesaw Mountain. Years later, goaded by the national taste for romanticizing and sentimentalizing the war, he began writing what he knew from red experience: that war was unspeakable, a nightmare of stupidity, brutality and murder. His is the first fiction to treat war realistically; his descriptive powers are frightening and horrific. He defied the public mood, which favored the kind of prose anthems to glory that would culminate in the gaudy claptrap of 'Gone With the Wind.' The war scarred him ('Ambrose Bierce the youth,' he once said, 'is dead') and later his life held tragedy and ended in mystery. In 1913 he headed across the border to Revolutionary Mexico (the episode is recounted in the 1989 movie 'The Old Gringo'). He was seeking 'the good, kind darkness'--read combat-induced suicide--and was never heard from again.--Bill Marsano is a professional writer and editor.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 6, 2012
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