::Literate Blather::
Wednesday, September 20, 2006
5 Questions About: Ambrose Bierce

(Who better to discuss the life of Bitter Bierce than Don Swaim? Don has had a life-long career as a broadcast journalist and writer, most of it at CBS in New York and Baltimore. His broadcast about books and writers, “Book Beat,” was syndicated nationally by the CBS Radio Stations News Service - and can still be heard on the Internet. St. Martin's Press published his novel about H.L. Mencken in 1988. Don currently lives in Pennsylvania where he heads the Bucks County Writers Workshop. He also operates the Ambrose Bierce Site , which is considered one of the best Bierce resources on the Web.)

DaRK PaRTY: During your career you have interviewed hundreds of writers - from John Irving to Clive Barker. Yet you seem drawn to the works and myth of Ambrose Bierce. Can you share with DaRK PaRTY readers why you find Bierce so compelling?

Don Swaim: An introverted teenager and inveterate reader, I was drawn to such freethinkers as H.L. Mencken, Ambrose Bierce, and Mark Twain, as well as to the great trial lawyer Clarence Darrow. I flirted with Ayn Rand in college, but today blame that on my immaturity. I rediscovered Bierce in the mid-1990s, and the more I read books by and about him the more intrigued I became. Eureka! I got an idea for a novel that would "solve" the mystery of his disappearance in Mexico. All the writing and research I did led to my founding the Ambrose Bierce Site, not the first such Internet site but the only one with original fiction, art, essays, and articles.

DP: Most readers are familiar with Bierce only from his short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (which seems to be a staple in high school literature text books). Kurt Vonnegut called the short story one of the best in American literature. What is your impression of the story and its place among Bierce's works?

Don: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is generally considered to be Bierce's masterpiece, a short tale endlessly retold, filmed, anthologized, and analyzed. Transformed, even, into an opera! It begins as a well-crafted Civil War story, but, by its hallucinogenic twist ending, has developed into a fully realized psychological tour de force. Stephen Crane said of it, "Nothing better exists." Kurt Vonnegut called it America's greatest short story. It's remained in print since 1892.

DP: Bierce was a savage, sardonic critic for his day - enough so that he earned the nickname Bitter Bierce. Is the nickname a fair assessment of Bierce?

Don: Sardonicism is not the same as being bitter. Bierce had a long and successful career, first as a war hero, then as a writer in which he was surrounded by admirers and acolytes. It's true that Bierce's marriage failed and his two sons died prematurely, but the pejorative “Bitter Bierce” was ascribed to him by his critics long before those unfortunate events. In Prejudices: Six Series, H.L. Mencken says of Bierce, “What delighted him most in this life was the spectacle of human cowardice and folly…”

DP: Bierce is a favorite of quote pages because of his wit. Can you share with us a few of your favorite Bierce quotations?

Don: Camels and Christians accept their burdens kneeling.

Cogito ergo cogito sum - I think; therefore, I think I am.

The covers of this book are too far apart.

My Country 'tis of thee / Sweet land of felony...

If you'll excuse my pun, kindly allow me to throw in this piece of doggerel by Bierce, who hated canines:

Snap-dogs, lap-dogs, always-on-tap-dogs, / Smilers, defilers, / Reekers and Leakers.

By the way, I'd like to get this off my chest. Virtually every day some pundit quotes Bierce as saying, "War is God's way of teaching Americans geography." (Google shows 830,000 entries for this phrase.) I've never found the origin for it, nor has David E. Schultz, who along with S.T. Joshi, has created a voluminous database of Bierce's works. I believe it's one of those quotes that sounds like Bierce but isn't. I could be wrong about it, but I'd love to know the source.

DP: Bierce vanished in December of 1913 while touring Mexico during that country's civil war. His disappearance is one of the most mysterious in literary history. What do you think happened to Bierce and could there been a more fitting way for him to pass?

Don: There are a jillion theories about his death, everything from Pancho Villa's firing squad to suicide in the Grand Canyon. What's my theory about Bierce's disappearance? It's most probable he died in Mexico. While seventy-one may not seem like that much of an advanced age today, it was in 1913 when death from disease was common and death at an early age was expected. Bierce outlived the odds.

When you think of how exhausting today it would be to fly to Mexico from the United States -- with the hassles of getting to the airport, going through security, and all the rest -- think of what it must have been like for Bierce to travel across the border during a civil war -- apparently on horseback, and at the age of seventy-one. There was a lot of death and destruction during the Mexican Revolution. No prisoners were taken. Still, I suspect that Bierce, as a neutral observer, didn't die violently, but of natural causes. He struggled with asthma all his life.

I don't know, of course. No one does. Latching on to all the whacko theories is great fun, but plain silly nevertheless.

Read our 5 Questions About Ernest Hemingway here

Read our 5 Questions About Shakespeare here

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Anonymous Anonymous said...
Thorough and sober commmentary. Admiring, rational perspective. Attitude a good example for new Bierce fans like me.

Blogger Doug The Una said...
I'm a long-time fan of both Bierce and Swaim. The Ambrose Bierce Site is a great blend of originality and admiration. Thanks for this interview.

Blogger GFS3 said...
Thanks, Brian.

And, Doug, I agree. Don Swaim is an amazing guy.

There are free Ambrose Bierce educational resources and a free streaming video of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge at:

Anonymous Anonymous said...
Not plain silly Donald; it's not silly at all. As you already know, many wonderful and worthwhile accomplishments have taken their rightful place in the world because of the deep research that sometimes occurs when one becomes sufficiently fascinated with a personality that is beyond reach ... and sets about putting some of the unearthed pieces together for posterity. I refuse to apologise for the, at least, twenty five years I prent researching another well-known character, All of that research and the million words or so that describe it, now rests within a two square-foot carton on a shelf; and the satisfaction alone was worth every second of the time invested. I commend you for building this site where the public can reach it and share your pondering about Ambrose. Computers and websites did not exist when I did my own ... and I'm almost certain that creating a website such as yours here, is still beyond my skill. Tom

Anonymous Anonymous said...
I'm doing a research paper on "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and Naturalism. I'm hoping that there are scholarly criticisms of Bierce's work that I can find to cite in my paper. Can you point me to where I could find them? I also need a hard copy from the library. It would help to know of any authors.

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