Saturday, January 24, 2009

Ambrose Bierce- so bitter he's funny

While reading Harold Schechter's engrossing volume True Crime: an American Anthology, I was introduced to Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?), an Ohio-born writer whose acidic stories and pessimistic commentary earned him the nickname 'Bitter Bierce'. It's debatable whether he was bitter or just shell-shocked by his Civil War experiences, but in any event, I found his articles for the 1860s publication News Letter to be corrosive yet brilliant satire. Below is an example:

The other day, the dead body of a Chinaman was found in an alley of this city, and taken to the morgue for identification. Deceased was addicted to doing odd jobs about town for what he could get, but otherwise bore a good character. The body was found partially concealed under a paving-stone which was embedded in the head like a precious jewel in the pate of a toad. A crowbar was driven through the abdomen and one arm was riven from its socket by some great convulsions of nature. As deceased was seen by two eight-hour men enjoying his opium-pipe and his usual health just previously to the discovery of his melancholy remains, it is supposed he came to his death by heart disease.
News Letter August 6, 1870

Bierce's closing comment was preposterous, but considering that the Chinese Exclusion Act was only twelve years in the future, the authorities probably voiced the same conclusion. He was a tireless critic of the criminal justice system and other institutions that were fundamentally flawed. What makes his articles so enjoyable are the pearl of truth embedded in all the sand and slime that he forced upon his readers.

Any true crime author whose subject matter involves late nineteenth century America should acquaint themselves with Bierce's works. 'Bitter Bierce' told it like few dared to, and the researcher will see the time and place as they really were as opposed to how they wish to be remembered.

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