AF: The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has generated new interest in Bierce’s war stories, which are hailed as the first depiction of the effects of modern warfare. Do you feel that Bierce’s writing was essentially shaped by his witnessing combat—a case of literary PTSD?
Joshi: There is no question that the Civil War—in which Bierce served for the better part of three years (1861–64) before he was granted an honorable discharge because of a serious head injury—colored the whole of the rest of his life. The first of his Civil War stories (“George Thurston,” 1878) was not written until 13 years after the war was over, and the majority of them were written during his first five years on the Examiner (1887–92). Bierce claimed to have enjoyed his years as a soldier, and to the end of his days, he was certain that there was an unbridgeable gulf between the soldier and the civilian—that the latter could have no idea what the former had been through. This is why the first edition of his story collection is called Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891).
Whether Bierce could be clinically diagnosed with PTSD is of course impossible to answer, but he clearly required years, even decades, to process his war experiences before he could set them down on paper. He maintained that most of the incidents in his tales, however improbable or outlandish they were, were based on first-hand witnessing of real events.
AF: Bierce seems to be one of the first writers to tumble into the popular/literary divide. Some critics dismiss his dark, comic tales of horror as potboilers, others see them as crucial links between Poe and Lovecraft. Could he be a little of both—a purveyor of what one critic calls “pulpy morbidity”?
Joshi: It is not clear whether Bierce ever regarded himself as a “horror writer” in anything like the modern sense of the term. While he greatly admired Poe (perhaps more for his literary theories and his pungent reviews than for his horror fiction), he resented being considered merely a Poe imitator. Occasionally he would refer to his horror tales as “tragic” tales.
Horror fiction (or weird fiction, as I choose to call it) was not a concrete or recognized genre at the time, and many writers—from Frank R. Stockton to Henry James—could dip into the mode as the spirit moved them. Bierce’s tales appeared in magazines or newspapers right alongside more orthodox, mainstream stories, and there does not seem to have been much prejudice against their subject-matter among critics of the day.
Today Bierce is rightly seen as the most significant American horror writer between Poe and Lovecraft, and I don’t doubt that he would be proud of that distinction; but there is no clear divide, either in subject-matter or overall effect, between those of his tales that we call “Civil War tales” and those that we call “tales of supernatural or psychological horror.”Read Bill Marx’s full interview with S. T. Joshi on The Arts Fuse
Read the LOA interview with S. T. Joshi on Ambrose Bierce
Also of interest:
- Stories by Ambrose Bierce on Story of the Week: “The Eyes of the Panther,” “A Horseman in the Sky,” “The Moonlit Road,”
- Silence as a weapon: the two most embarrassing speeches Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce ever gave, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
- The poet-soldiers of the Civil War: Ambrose Bierce, John W. De Forest, Fitz-James O’Brien, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, a previous Reader’s Almanac post