In an excellent essay on Ambrose Bierce in Patriotic Gore, Edmund Wilson wrote of how his experiences as a soldier left him with an “obsession with death” that found its way into everything he wrote. The new Library of America collection of Bierce’s writings—including his stories, reminiscences, war writings, and the Devil’s Dictionary—captures that obsession in all its monomania, though whether it will change what Mencken called the “occult, artificial drug-store flavor” that hovers over Bierce’s reputation is another matter.

Any fair assessment of Bierce’s work must revisit his war experiences. He enlisted in the Union Army six days after the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter. On the second day of the Battle of Shiloh, his regiment came under unrelenting fire between Owl Creek and the Tennessee River. From this harrowing barrage he came away with his best-known...

 

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