Times Literary Supplement
The Unabridged Devil's Dictionaryby Ambrose Bierce
"The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary" is a virtual onslaught of acerbic, confrontational wordplay, offering some 1,600 wickedly clever definitions to the vocabulary of everyday life. Little is sacred and few are safe, for Ambrose Bierce targets just about any pursuit, from matrimony to immortality, that allows our willful failings and excesses to shine forth. The "Unabridged Devil's Dictionary,"a satirical book first published in 1911, offers reinterpretations of terms in the English language which lampoon cant and political doublespeak. The Devil's Dictionary has inspired many imitations both in its day and more recently. Recent examples include The Computer Contradictionary. Ambrose Bierce was an iconoclastic literary genius and "The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary," a compilation of his satirical definitions, is a true American classic. Some may find Bierce sexist, nationalist and racist, but most readers will enjoy his malevolent skepticism and underlying rage against hypocrisy. Only two years after "The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary" was published in 1911, Ambrose Bierce disappeared after setting off for Mexico to join Pancho Villa's rebels against the corrupt dictatorial regime of Porfirio Diaz. His legacy is memorable.
Times Literary Supplement
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Meet the Author
Ambrose Bierce (1842 -1914) was an American editorialist, journalist, short story writer, fabulist and satirist. Today, he is best known for his short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and his satirical dictionary, The Devil's Dictionary. The sardonic view of human nature that informed his work - along with his vehemence as a critic - earned him the nickname "Bitter Bierce". Despite his reputation as a searing critic, however, Bierce was known to encourage younger writers, including poet George Sterling and fiction writer W. C. Morrow. Bierce employed a distinctive style of writing, especially in his stories. This style often includes a cold open, dark imagery, vague references to time, limited descriptions, the theme of war, and impossible events. In 1913, Bierce traveled to Mexico to gain a firsthand perspective on that country's ongoing revolution. While traveling with rebel troops, the elderly writer disappeared without a trace.
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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.