For the third consecutive year, I am happy to announce the release of a new issue of the ABP Journal. This year’s theme is “Bierce’s Civil War: Historians Respond.” While our past issues have offered articles by literary scholars, this edition features essays written by historians exclusively.
Ambrose Bierce has long fascinated students of the Civil War period. As many commentators have pointed out, he emerged as the most important American writer to have fought in the war. Serving in the Union army in the Western theater, Bierce took part in some of the most significant and brutal campaigns of the conflict. He witnessed scenes both pitiful and horrific, and saw more blood and death than did those who would become his literary peers. Certainly Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott confronted the aftermath of battle while nursing wounded soldiers, but Bierce brought his literary talents to bear on the fighting he experienced personally. The resulting collection of memoirs and fiction stands as one of the world’s most powerful and disturbing accounts of modern warfare.
Not only did Bierce endure the physical scars of war (a bullet clipped his skull at Kennesaw Mountain in 1864), but he suffered its psychic wounds as well. Indeed, historians have often gravitated to his writing because it challenges the prevailing, romanticized portrait of America after Reconstruction. Countless veterans and politicians of the late nineteenth century wrote about a reconciled nation whose wounds had healed and whose scars had faded. By contrast, Bierce reminded readers of the betrayals and atrocities of the battlefield, and he refused to forget the roles that race, greed, and politics played in shaping the struggle.
Moreover, Bierce rarely embraced the sentimental and sanitized literary style of the Victorian era; his unflinchingly realistic writing further distanced his work from conventional war fictions and memoirs. Yet if the iconoclast often deviated from the standard ways of remembering the war, he could at times fall in step with his contemporaries. He sometimes grew nostalgic when remembering the days of his youth, and his poetry and prose were not immune to the prejudices, selective recall, and special pleading found in the reflections of other veterans. The personality and writing of Bierce can therefore offer insight into the nation’s dominant modes of Civil War memory as well. No wonder, then, that this complicated man might attract the attention of scholars interested in the complexities of the war and its legacy.
In this issue, we are delighted to present the scholarship of five practicing historians. The contributors, which include two Pulitzer Prize nominees, have examined Bierce’s writing within a range of contexts. In doing so, they have enhanced our understanding of Bierce as a soldier, as a writer, and as an American. The contents include two reprints and three original articles. The issue also features an interview with historian Carol Reardon on the subject of Civil War literature and popular memory. Other noteworthy items include three book reviews and Bjorn Skaptason’s downloadable, themed trail guide to the Shiloh battlefield: “What I Saw of Shiloh: In the Footsteps of Ambrose Bierce.” It is my hope that this issue will contribute to the growing interdisciplinary study of Bierce, and of Civil War literature more generally.
I wish to thank those who assisted me in the preparation of the new issue. Special thanks must go to Harvard University Press and the University Press of Kansas, both of which graciously granted permission for us to reprint excerpts from their book lists. As a nonprofit endeavor, the Ambrose Bierce Project relies on, and appreciates, the help of such institutions. Thanks, too, to the ABP Advisory Board and especially to William (B. J.) Shields, who performed excellent work as the Managing Editor of this issue. Brad Kovalcik copyedited many pages of proofs, and I am grateful to him for his help. Finally, I want to thank my colleagues at Penn State Erie who continue to support the ABP Journal and the larger humanities computing project to which it belongs.