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A Satiric Masterpiece

Although Ambrose Bierce is little known today, there was a time when he was among the most widely read authors in America. His main claims to fame are his short stories, such as “The Damned Thing” or “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” that have been adapted for television, but he got his start with the Devil’s Dictionary. In the Newspaper Columns compiled into his book, he would provide a widely known word and then give a humorous definition (e.g. “Marriage (n.) A household consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two.”). Frequently, he would also append a piece of humorous verse to the definition as well. While some have not aged well, one of Bierce’s wisest decisions was to avoid making them too closely connected to the events of his day. Someone in 1890 could read one with a knowing laugh in the same sense as a man in the 2010s could.

One of the problems with editions prior to this one, however, was the frequent inclusion of definitions erroneously attributed to him. While there is nothing wrong with a reader coming up with their own, occasionally these would have Bierce’s name attached and people would assume they were his. Unsurprisingly, most of the attributed ones were of lesser quality. The editor of this volume, S.T. Joshi, probed through prior editions published during Bierce’s lifetime and reviewed all of the extant newspaper columns to determine which were actually his. In some cases, this resulted in forgotten ones being rediscovered. It helps that S.T. Joshi is one of the preeminent horror fiction scholars in the United States and has already worked on some of Bierce’s other material.

On the whole, this is a great book that displays an amused, cynical worldview. Bierce often manages to take a sacrosanct idea and make it appear ludicrous in a single sentence. Although over a hundred years have passed since its initial publication, the Devil’s Dictionary is still a great read.

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A Satiric Masterpiece


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