Ambrose Bierce, American Iconoclast

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The history of American letters overflows with stories of eccentric characters, from inside the pages and out. One particular author whose unique view of the world shaped his writings and his lifestyle was Ambrose Bierce. Like Mark Twain, Bierce is usually associated with the San Francisco writing scene of the late nineteenth century. However, he spent many of his formative years in Indiana, learning about the newspaper business and ultimately enlisting in the Civil War. These early experiences not only shaped his incomparable writing style, but they influenced his distinctive views on life and religion.

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born June 24, 1842 in Horse Cave Creek, Meigs County, Ohio. His parents, Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood Bierce, were descendents of English immigrants, and his father had a love of literature.[1] Bierce’s early life in Indiana is largely shrouded in mystery. Some sources indicate that the Bierce family moved to Kosciusko County in 1846, but it is hard to verify. The 1850 Census shows them in Akron, Ohio and the earliest deed document dates their entry into Kosciusko County as 1858.[2] Bierce reportedly lived on the family’s settlement in Walnut Creek until he was 15, when he moved to Warsaw to work as a “printer’s devil” (an apprentice tasked with multiple duties) for the abolitionist newspaper, the Northern Indianan.[3] Reportedly, Bierce also traveled to Kentucky in 1859-60, learning typography at the Kentucky Military Institute.[4]

After returning from Kentucky, Bierce supposedly lived in Elkhart from 1860-1861.[5] Two newspaper articles published after his death, one from the Elkhart Truth (1922) and another from the Indianapolis Sunday Star (1923), discuss his time as a restaurant clerk for A. E. Faber. An 1860 City Directory does list an A. E. Faber, along with his eating establishment.[6]  Also, an 1881 history of Elkhart County credits Faber as one of Elkhart’s founding citizens who petitioned for its formal creation.[7] In the Star article, Bierce’s brother Andrew indicates that Bierce worked there and was liked by the staff and the clientle. However, these newspaper articles are far removed from the 1860-61 timeframe, so his time in Elkhart appears vague.[8]

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Bierce enlisted in C Company of the Ninth Indiana Regiment in April 1861 and served as a private for three months.[9] He was promoted to Sergeant in July 1861, when he reenlisted for a three year term. His upgrade in rank came as a result of his valor during the Battle of Laurel Hill on July 10, 1861.[10] He was wounded at Kennesaw Mountain in 1864 and eventually opted not to reenlist, mustering out in January 1865 with the rank of First Lieutenant.[11] Bierce’s intense and often painful experiences during his service in the Civil War provided much fodder for his literary work, particularly his short fiction and journalism.

After the Civil War, Bierce did not immediately go to California. He reenlisted in the Army, but served as a “Topographical Engineer at Brigade and Division Head Quarters, 21st Army Corps.”[12] In his essay, “Across the Plains,” Bierce refers to his role as an “engineer attaché to an expedition through Dakota and Montana, to inspect some new military posts.”[13] He worked under the leadership of General William B. Hazen, who named Bierce as an Acting Topographical Officer during the Civil War.[14] After declining a second lieutenant commission in San Francisco in 1867, Bierce formally ended his career in the military and spent the rest of his career as a professional writer.[15]

Bierce began his journalism career in 1867, writing poems and essays for the Californian and Golden Era, under newspaper editor James T. Watkins. From 1868-1872, Bierce wrote a local column for the San Francisco News Letter called the “Town Crier.”[16] One critic referred to his writing as “…humor [that] borders as nearly upon the blasphemous and sacrilegious as that of Swift or Sterne…” Another review considered his early works “The Haunted Valley” and “Broke” as offbeat pieces that showed his “capacity, acute observation, and descriptive powers of very unusual simplicity, grace, and effectiveness.”[17]

For the next three years, Bierce lived and worked in England, under the pseudonym “Dod Grile.” The origins of such an unorthodox penname came from an 1872 letter, written by a friend and early employer of Bierce in England named Tom Hood, who addressed Bierce as “Dear God Rile.” Bierce used an anagram of it, “Dod Grile,” as a penname while in England. As Biographer Roy Morris speculates, Bierce may have chosen this simple name as a way to attract readers, same as Samuel Clemens did with “Mark Twain.”[18] His columns were published in English and American newspapers. Bierce also published three collected humor works while in Great Britain; his most successful was Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, published in 1873. Prominent advertisements and reviews in This Week’s News and Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper solidified their modest success.[19]

After his time in England, Bierce returned to California and began work at the Argonaut and the Wasp and established his successful column, “Prattle.” In 1887, he was employed by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst at the San Francisco Examiner. Like in Britain, Bierce’s columns were nationally syndicated, in outlets like the Wichita Eagle, The Louisiana Democrat, and the Washington Herald.[20] Even though Hearst gave Bierce nearly complete editorial freedom in his years at his newspapers, there always existed a growing antagonism between the two. This may have been due to Bierce’s disgust with some of Hearst’s other journalists, specifically after 1906.[21] Bierce formally left the employ of Hearst in March of 1909 to focus on compiling his collected works and memoirs.[22]

His best-known work related to the civil war is Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, fist published in 1891. Literature scholar Donald T. Blume notes that Tales of Soldiers and Civilians went through multiple editions, with Bierce adding and editing stories in multiple printings through 1909. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut called the “greatest American Short Story,” is a great example of Bierce’s style and grasp of the complexities of war. [23] Many publications also praised the work during its original printing. As a review from the New York Tribune noted, Bierce’s stories are “elaborated pictures of what the American soldier actually experienced in the great war [Civil War].”[24] The New Orleans’ Daily Picayune  called Bierce a “genius” and considered Tales of Soldiers and Civilians the “most noteworthy book of stories by an American writer published in ten years.”[25]

While Bierce’s journalism and short stories garnered serious acclaim, his outspoken views on religion often made him notorious to the prevailing attitudes of his time. Bierce’s own agnosticism (the position of neutrality concerning knowledge of God and religious claims) also squares nicely with another iconoclast of the period: Robert Green Ingersoll. Known as the “Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll was a politician and lawyer who had a lucrative career in oratory.  He gave sold-out speeches all across the country, including Indiana, critical of religion, Christianity, and superstition. While there is no evidence to suggest that he and Bierce met, their paths crossed numerous times in literary endeavors, and their “against-the-grain” natures continue to influence and inspire scholars of the nineteenth century.

In volume ten of his collected works, his essay, “A Dead Lion,” defends the agnostic orator and fights back against unjustified criticism. When Ingersoll died, religious and intellectual leaders all over the country both paid respect as well as continued their criticisms. One such scholar was Harry Thurston Peck, who argued that Ingersoll’s limitations as an intellect overshadowed his prowess as a public orator.[26] Undercutting Peck’s opprobrium, Bierce defends Ingersoll with some clever barbs at religion. “If men can be good without religion, and scorning religion,” Bierce writes, “then it is not religion that makes men good; and if religion does not do this it is of no practical value and one may well be without it as with it, so far as concern’s one’s relations with one’s fellow men.” Of Ingersoll’s own wit, Bierce argues that it was, “…keen, bright, and clean as an Arab’s scimitar…”[27] While Bierce’s own pessimism may have rankled Ingersoll’s more utopian proclivities, this essay shows a deep intellectual kinship between the two.

Another interesting connection between the two agnostics was their position on suicide. Both of them favored the practice, but based on what they described as ethical and reasonable conditions. In his 1894 essay, “Is Suicide a Sin?,” Ingersoll says unequivocally that “there are many cases of perfectly justifiable suicide—cases in which not to end life would be a mistake, sometimes almost a crime.” Suicide, in Ingersoll’s estimation, is a perfectly rational response to a malignant illness, disaster, or lack of utility in one’s life. He believed that laws against the practice were “born of superstition, passed by thoughtlessness, and enforced by ignorance and cruelty.” Instead of the traditionally prohibitive view, Ingersoll offered this alternative:  “Those who attempt suicide should not be punished. If they are insane they should if possible be restored to reason; if sane, they should be reasoned, calmed and assured.”[28]

Bierce’s essay, “The Right to Take Oneself Off,” echoes many of Ingersoll’s sentiments. Bierce also believed it could an appropriate act, based on reasonable and ethical considerations. In one passage, Bierce even notes and defends Ingersoll’s position:

It was Robert G. Ingersoll’s opinion that there is rather too little than too much suicidein the world—that people are so cowardly as to live on after endurance has ceased to a virtue. This view is but a return to the wisdom of the ancients, in whose splendid civilization suicide had as honorable place as any other courageous, reasonable, and unselfish act.[29]

Bierce, like Ingersoll, saw the modern interpretation of the practice as backward and religiously dogmatic and defended its courageous nature. “…suicide does more than face death;” Bierce notes, “he incurs it, and with a certainty, not of glory, but of reproach. If that is not courage we must reform our vocabulary.”[30] In both Ingersoll and Bierce’s essays is a secular, humanistic view of ethics, one that divorces human actions and contexts from the religious beliefs of the past. In some respects, this put both men quite ahead of their time.

He also held irreverent views on life after death. In an essay entitled “Not All Men Desire Immortality,” Bierce decries the spiritualism of his time, albeit with clever quips such as this: “If we have among us one who can put over a blaze by looking at it, the matter may not have any visible bearing on the question of life after death, but it is of the liveliest interest to the Fire Department.”[31] Bierce contemplated questions of the afterlife and spirituality as a skeptic, noting that they are “still as much a matter of faith as ever it was.”[32] In other words, he had to see it to believe it.

Above all else, the lasting legacy of Ambrose Bierce’s freethought and connection to Ingersoll is arguably The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911. Originally released as The Cynic’s Word Book in 1906, The Devil’s Dictionary displays Bierce’s heretical nature in economical, but clever definitions. Some entries in his lexicon include, “Apostate: A leech who, having penetrated the shell of a turtle only to find that the creature has long been dead, deems it expedient to form a new attachment to a fresh turtle,” and, “Clergyman: A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering our temporal ones.”[33] He would often include poems or short story fragments with his definitions, with funny pseudonyms like “Father Gassalasca Jape” and “Booley Fito.”[34] Selected entries also appeared in newspapers throughout the country, and its controversial definitions even inspired lectures by clergymen.[35] This work would have a bug influence on journalist and fellow iconoclast H. L. Mencken, who would write clever “definitions” in his own columns and newspapers.

Bierce’s own mysterious disappearance in 1914 adds to his firebrand persona. After his last letters to family and friends in 1913, there is only one primary source that suggests that he went to Mexico. The only indication that he was headed that way is in other letters from the fall and winter of 1913, where he repeatedly describes his future trip to Mexico. His final letter to a family member, dated November 6, 1913, he notes that “I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much.”[36] However, a letter from December 26, 1913 to friend Blanche Partington does place him in Chihuahua, Mexico but the last sentence of the letter leaves it more ambiguous: “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”[37]

Based on the evidence of this last letter, Bierce possibly went to Mexico, but as investigator Joe Nickell notes, this supposed last letter attributed to Bierce, and preserved by his daughter, is probable at best.[38] Therefore, it is more likely that he did disappeared after 1914 (no credible primary sources appear from Bierce after that) and that the claim that he went to Mexico is plausible but not confirmed, based on his letters from late 1913.

After his disappearance, numerous newspaper articles were written that tried to explain what happened to Bierce, but most of them describe only rumors. For example, in the September 12, 1916 Fort Wayne Sentinel, some people described him as having been short by Don Poncho Villa’s forces in Mexico or laying in a hospital ward in France.[39] Since there are no primary sources to authenticate these rumors, they are at best hearsay. As in life, Bierce’s “death” was as elusive as the man himself.

Ambrose Bierce’s life and literary work speaks to an era of “lost souls,” men whose lives were shaped, or shattered, by the Civil War. Some came out of the war with a renewed interest in the spiritual, like Ben-Hur author and fellow Hoosier Lew Wallace. Others, like Bierce and Ingersoll, saw it as their life’s mission to destroy myths and comfortable illusions that crept through their society like a plague. Gifted with the power of prose, Bierce’s incisive and often tragically-hilarious writings showcase a man deeply in-synch with his own convictions. Bierce never believed in a personal immortality, but his writing’s enduring appeal has given an immortality he may have never imagined.

[1] His parents, Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood Bierce, were descendents of English immigrants, and his father had a love of literature. 1850 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.com; “Ambrose Bierce Passport Application, April 29, 1872,” Passport Applications, 1795-1905, NARA, National Archives, Fold3; Richard O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967), 10-11; “Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce,” Encyclopedia of Contemporary Authors (Volume 139), 42; Roy Morris, Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company (New York: Oxford Press, 1995), 9, Google Books; Robert L. Gale, Ambrose Bierce Companion (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), xv, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Online Library; Robert A. Wiggins, Ambrose Bierce (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964), 6, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Online Library.

[2] 1850 United States Federal Census; Deed Book 18, Kosciusko County Recorder, Warsaw, Indiana, quoted in Paul Fatout, Ambrose Bierce: the Devil’s Lexicographer (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951), 31. A local Kosciusko County newspaper, entitled the Northern Indianan, has a business listing for an “A. Bierce” in its November 20, 1857 issue. This may push the date a little earlier, but why they moved or exactly when is still not clear (“Business Directory,” Northern Indianan (Warsaw, Indiana), November 20, 1857, 1, Indiana State Library Newspaper Microfilm Collection).

[3] O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, 17; Wiggins, Ambrose Bierce, 7; Gale, Ambrose Bierce Companion, 1857.

[4] Fatout, The Devil’s Lexicographer, 392; O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, 18; “Ambrose Bierce,” Contemporary Authors, Vol. 139, 44.

[5] O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, 18; Gale, Ambrose Bierce Companion, xv; Wiggins, Ambrose Bierce, 7.

[6] “New Volume of Bierce Letters Issued,” Elkhart Truth, October 7, 1922, Indiana State Library Newspaper Microfilm Collection; Maurice M. Frink, “Little Recalled of Ambrose Bierce, Hoosier Author, in Home Town, Elkhart,” Indianapolis Sunday Star, February 16, 1923, 22, Newspaperarchive.com.

[7] History of Elkhart County, Indiana (Chicago: Chas. C. Chapman & Company, 1881), 743, Google Books.

[8] The 1860 Census still places Bierce in Kosciusko County, but his enlistment records indicate that he enlisted for the Union Army in Elkhart County in April of 1861. He may have moved in between the Census data and his enlistment date, but there are no primary sources to prove that. The earliest Elkhart City Directory available is 1874. The 1870 Census places his father in Elkhart, but again, there are few sources that document exactly when they moved. (1860 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.com; 1870 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.com).

[9] W.H.H. Terrell, Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Indiana, Volume 4- 1861-1865 (Indianapolis: Samuel L. Douglass, 1866), 41; Letters Received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant Generals Office, 1863-1870, NARA, National Archives, Fold3.

[10] “Good Boy,” Indianapolis Daily Journal, July 27, 1861, Indiana State Library Newspaper Microfilm Collection.

[11] Letters Received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant Generals Office, 1863-1870, NARA, National Archives, accessed August 28, 2015, Fold3.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ambrose Bierce, “Across the Plains,” in Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume One (New York and Washington: The Neale Publishing Company, 1909), 363, Archive.org.

[14] Owens, The Devil’s Typographer, 10.

[15] “Letter to Adjutant General’s Office, April 1867,” Letters Received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant Generals Office, 1863-1870, NARA, National Archives, Fold3.

[16] “Ambrose Bierce,” Encyclopedia of Contemporary Authors, 44-45; Gale, Ambrose Bierce Companion, xvi-xvii; Wiggins, Ambrose Bierce, 11.

[17]“The Overland Monthly,” Arizona Citizen, March 11, 1871, Chronicling America; “July Magazines,” New York Times, July 5, 1871, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[18] Morris, Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, 139.

[19] “List of New Books,” This Week’s News [London], October 25, 1873, 1356; “Dod Grile,” Elkhart Observer, June 10, 1874, 1; “Holiday Literature,” Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, November 29, 1874, 5.

[20] “Ambrose Bierce,” Encyclopedia of Contemporary Authors, 44-45; Gale, Ambrose Bierce Companion, xvi-xvii; Wiggins, Ambrose Bierce, 11; Ambrose Bierce, “At Coulter’s Notch,” Wichita Eagle, January 7, 1890, 7, Chronicling America; Ambrose Bierce, “A Comfortable Creed for Some,” Louisiana Democrat, July 1, 1891, 4, Chronicling America; Ambrose Bierce, “Wrong Rejections,” St. Paul Daily Globe, July 30, 1893, 13, Chronicling America; Ambrose Bierce, “His Human Side,” Washington Herald, November 4, 1906, 1, Chronicling America.

[21] In an March 30, 1908 letter, Bierce wrote to Hearst about his growing dissatisfaction with journalists Samuel Chamberlain, Perriton Maxwell, and Rudolph Block, whom he regarded as low-rate journalists who cheated their employer (Ambrose Bierce, A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003), 174).

[22] “Ambrose Bierce,” Encyclopedia of Contemporary Authors, 44-45. In a letter from March 23, 1909, Bierce writes that he is “no longer in Mr. Hearst’s service” (Ibid., 193).

[23] Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (San Francisco: E.L.G. Steele, 1891), 21-40, Archive.org; Donald T. Blume, Ambrose Bierce’s Civilians and Soldiers in Context (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2004), xxi; Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), 7-8.

[24] “New Publications,” New York Tribune, March 21, 1892, 8, Chronicling America.

[25] “Ambrose Bierce,” Daily Picayune, April 24, 1892, 16.

[26] Harry Thurston Peck, “Robert G. Ingersoll,” in What is Good English and Other Essays (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1899), 227-249, Google Books.

[27]Ambrose Bierce, “A Dead Lion,” in Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume Ten (New York and Washington: The Neale Publishing Company, 1909), 221-228, Archive.org.

[28] Robert Green Ingersoll, “Is Suicide a Sin?: First Letter,” in The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Dresden Edition, Volume Seven (Dresden, NY: The Dresden Publishing Company, C. P. Farrell, 1902), accessed September 23, 2015, 378, 382, 387, Archive.org.

[29] Ambrose Bierce, “The Right to Take Oneself Off,” in The Shadow on the Dial and other Essays (San Francisco: A. M. Robertson, 1909), accessed August 19, 2015, 246, Archive.org.

[30] Ibid., 247.

[31] Ambrose Bierce, Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism from 1898-1901, edited by Lawrence I. Berkove (Ann Arbor, MI: Delmas Books, 1980), 285.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1911), 24, 50, Archive.org.

[34] Ibid., 22.

[35] Ambrose Bierce, “Some Modern Definitions,” Edgefield Advertiser, December 13, 1911, 2, Chronicling America; Ambrose Bierce, “From the Devil’s Dictionary,” Washington Herald, January 20, 1907, 7, Chronicling America; Ambrose Bierce, “Queer Definitions from Devil’s Dictionary,” Hartford Republican, March 15, 1912, 2, Chronicling America; “Church Services- Continued,” San Francisco Call, June 12, 1910, 58, Chronicling America.

[36] Ambrose Bierce, The Letters of Ambrose Bierce, edited by Bertha Clark Pope (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1922), 198, Archive.org.

[37] Ambrose Bierce, A Much Misunderstood Man, 246.

[38] Joe Nickell, Ambrose Bierce is Missing and Other Historical Mysteries (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 28.

[39] “Man of Mystery,’ Thrice Reported Dead, Promises That He’ll Soon Return Once More,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, September 12, 1916, 12, Fold3.

Lord Acton and the Role of History

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One of the most famous quotes is “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This now-cliché axiom of political and historical lore was written by Lord Acton, the 19th Century English scholar and historian whose classical liberalism persuaded him to lean on the side of freedom over despotism. However, the quote above appears in a much longer letter to a Bishop Creighton and Acton’s words speak to a larger truth about the role of history. Acton wrote:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position, like Ravaillac; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greater names coupled with the greater crimes. You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them, higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science.

In other words, no man (or woman, pardon Acton’s historical sexism) is sacred. Everything is up for scrutiny, especially if it harms the liberty and conscience of others. History’s goal is to extirpate the hero worship of leaders from its narrative and replace it with a balanced, if sometimes brutal, evaluation of the evidence.

The other revolutionary concept Acton argued for is the naturalistic judgment of supposed supernatural agents.  ‘Popes and Kings’ are men, with their own biases, appeals to emotionalism, and bouts of ignorance. These leaders, supposedly chosen by a divine authority, must use said authority within the natural rights of individuals or be subject to intellectual and moral scrutiny. Despotism only grows when these leaders are held unaccountable, either in the public square or by the verdict of history. While Acton was a Catholic, he believed that religious liberty and individual rights stood for far more than the hagiography of a temporary “agent” of divine purpose.

As an historian, I try my best to do the exact same thing that Acton did, which is put everyone on a level playing field. Human beings are imperfect and their mistakes must be discussed in the light of evidence and broad ethical standards. No leader, godly or otherwise, should be universally praised simply by virtue of their standing. This is what makes Acton a freethought hero, even though he was religious. He believed that the actions of those in power should stand on their own moral ground and not celebrated simply by invoking spiritual assistance.  It is said that light is the best disinfectant; so too is skepticism.

 

My Top Ten Movies of 2015

Blog- Top Ten Movies of the Year

As a fun tradition, I do a top ten of my favorite movies of the year. I posted these on my social media last year, but this year I decided to write about them for my blog.  I look forward to sharing my favorites and creating a spirited discussion in the comments on my choices.

2015 was a phenomenally fun year to go to the movies. While I enjoyed almost every movie that I saw in the theater, here’s the ten I enjoyed the most.

  1. Ant-Man

A real return to form for Marvel after the slightly disappointing Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man brought the universe back down to size, both literally and figuratively. Paul Rudd is charming as Scott Lang, master thief and lovable protagonist and Evangeline Lilly was also fun to see as Hank Pym’s daughter. However, my favorite part of the film was Michael Douglas as Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man. His performance brought pathos and depth to what could’ve easily been a phone-in performance. His time on screen really elevated the film and made it more than just the beginning of Marvel’s “Phase Three.” The villain, played by House of Cards alum Corey Stoll, was a tad too mustache-twirly for me and it distracted me from the overall flow of the film. Nonetheless, Ant-Man offered a welcome surprise during the late summer lull in movies.

  1. Bridge of Spies

One of Spielberg’s best movies over the last decade, Bridge of Spies was exactly what I wanted from the film. Historically interested, beautifully written, and with acting that was second to none. Tom Hanks was brilliant in his role as insurance lawyer turned hostage negotiator James Donovan, showing once again why he’s one of America’s most-beloved actors. However, far and away the most riveting performance of the film was Mark Rylance, as the Soviet Spy Rudolf Abel. His powerful, wrenching performance beautifully complemented Hank’s casual grace, especially in their scenes together. A quiet, intense film, Bridge of Spies is a work that I want to revisit to catch what I missed the first time.

  1. Spectre

Picking up where Skyfall left off, Spectre is the second Bond film for director Sam Mendes and the fourth for actor Daniel Craig and it is a really good installment for the series. While Skyfall went for intensity and grit, Spectre went for flash and scope. This is the first Bond film where Craig actually looks like he enjoys the role, with more playful lines and a looser performance. The opening action sequence in Mexico City, with a masterful helicopter fight, is easily the best part of the film. That is, until you get to Christoph Waltz, who plays the elusive Oberhauser. His leering, pensive performance made for one of the best Bond villains in the series’ history. It is not as good as Skyfall, but it is pretty damn close, cementing that Craig’s era is the best since Sean Connery.

  1. The Martian

Based on one of my favorite books I read in 2015, The Martian is easily Ridley Scott’s best film in years. It is a testament to what good writing can do for a director like Scott, whose more recent work has been less than inspiring (I should do a separate blog on why Prometheus is my pick for worst movie I’ve seen in the last five years, if ever). Matt Damon is funny and warm as astronaut Mark Whatney, whose months long estrangement on Mars unites the United States and China to bring him back. Drew Goddard, who wrote the screenplay, adapted the novel beautifully, catching its essence and staying true to its vision. Gorgeous cinematography and set design lifted this wonderful ensemble piece from beginning to end. I just hope that Scott’s next Alien film is as good as this was. As long as Damon Lindelof has nothing to do with the screenplay, that just might happen. Ok, rant over. Regardless, The Martian was a triumph.

  1. Creed

While I technically saw this movie this week, it came out in 2015, so I’m including it in this list.

Creed, a loose continuation of the long-celebrated Rocky franchise, was a gritty, poignant return to form for the series. Sylvester Stallone gives his best performance in years and Michael B. Jordan was magnificent as Donny Johnson, aka Adonis Creed. Ryan Coogler (of Fruitville Station acclaim) co-wrote and directed this film, and the realness he brought to Station comes through here. It is easily the best Rocky sequel since Rocky II (where Balboa actually beats Apollo Creed, the father of Adonis) and I hope they make another one.

  1. Love & Mercy

Chronicling the life and legacy of Beach Boy songwriting genius Brian Wilson, Love & Mercy was one of the most emotionally satisfying films I saw this year. Full disclosure: I am a massive Beach Boys fan and Brian Wilson is one of my favorite musicians. This may have jaded my perception of the film, but I don’t care. Paul Dano and John Cusack play Wilson from two crucial eras of his life; the former during the mid 1960s peak and fall of the pop songwriter and the latter during the late 1980s and 90s when he needed to get away from the ominous influence of Dr. Eugene Landy. While Cusack plays the older Wilson is a serviceable manner, Dano is sheer brilliance. Dano wasn’t playing Brian Wilson, he simply was him. The music throughout the film also played to the strengths of the narrative and Paul Giamatti’s performance as Dr. Landy was chillingly accurate. Love & Mercy is one of the best musical biopics I’ve ever seen and I hope Dano receives some awards for his performance.

  1. Kingsman: The Secret Service

Matthew Vaughn, the action visionary behind X-Men: First Class and Kickass, really kicks it into overdrive with Kingsman. This movie is non-stop, badass action fun from the moment go. Colin Firth, in a bit of a casting coup, plays superspy Harry Hart and doesn’t disappoint in that role. Newcomer Taron Egerton plays Firth’s protégé and also dazzles with his charm and action suave. If this isn’t a soft audition for Vaughn to direct a new era of Bond after Craig’s departure, I honestly don’t know what is. Nothing would please me more than Vaughn doing a Bond film with a young, adrenaline-fueled Bond that brings back some of the humor and fun of the older films. Alright, this section isn’t about Bond, but this film reminded me of the best that spy movies can bring to audiences. In that sense, Kingsman reinvigorates the action-spy genre and I loved every minute of it.

  1. Spotlight

With excellent writing and a fantastic ensemble cast, Spotlight was my favorite drama piece in 2015. Inspired by the true story of the Boston Globe’s 2002 expose of child rape and the cover up of priests within the city’s Catholic Church and beyond, the film is more relevant than ever. The entire cast blew me away, especially Mark Ruffalo, who should get an Oscar nod for his performance as eccentric journalist Michael Rezendes. Michael Keaton, fresh off his brilliant performance in last year’s Birdman, does it again, proving that he is truly one of the best actors of his generation. This film is required viewing for anyone in the freethought movement, because it shows the dangers and evils inherent within a religious institution and the methods they use to cover up their crimes.

  1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens

For someone who has been a lifelong Star Wars fan, this had to be included in my list. It is just so wonderful to finally see a Star Wars movie that was actually Star Wars! JJ Abrams and company absolutely nailed it; this film definitely returns the sci-fi series to its former glory. My favorite character in the film was the enigmatic and tortured Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver, reaffirming with my belief that a Star Wars film is only as good as its villain. Newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega breathe new life into the saga, and will easily carry future installments. The returning cast of Ford, Fisher, and Hamill really gave the film its credibility but didn’t overshadow the new characters. Disney has really figured out how the future of Star Wars should be, and for audiences, it means the sci-fi legacy of Star Wars is in safe hands.

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Without question or reservation, this was my favorite film of 2015. I remember leaving the film visually and physically exhausted, not wanting to talk much. I knew that I had seen something very special, a movie so good that it only happens once in a while. Visionary director George Miller, who created the Mad Max universe, did for the 80s franchise what JJ Abrams did for Star Wars, only more so. Fury Road is one of the greatest action films ever made; its cinematography and storytelling will be taught in film school. Practical effects, beautiful camera work, and a loose, compelling narrative does exactly what you want as a viewer. Tom Hardy is excellent as Mad Max, but the runaway role was Charlize Theron as Furiosa. Alongside some of the most badass action I’ve ever seen on screen, this film is a feminist parable and warning about the dangers of environmental disaster and our continued reliance on fossil fuels. It gives the regular action film buff more than just dazzling visuals; it tells a story that is simple, yet poetic. I hope they do a sequel, but if they don’t, it is a fitting tribute to the legacy of George Miller and the insane world that he invented.

 

That’s it! That’s my top ten for 2015. Let me know what you think of my list. Did I leave any off you would have put there? Say so in the comments.

 

Why I’m For Bernie Sanders

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The year was 1932. The United States was at the peak of the Great Depression. Nearly a quarter of the workforce was unemployed. The efforts of the Herbert Hoover administration left the country demoralized, fractured, and in desperate need of a leader. In this vacuum of weakness and despair, a dictator or a demagogue could have easily taken the reigns of power, and democracy could have failed. But that didn’t happen. In November of that year, the nation elected Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the first time, and changed the trajectory of the twentieth century. His near four terms in office saved capitalism at home with the New Deal and protected democracy abroad from fascism. Born into privilege yet understanding of the needs of the common person, Roosevelt came to embody progressivism for a generation. In some respects, he still embodies it today.

Many presidents have since tried to maintain the political house that Roosevelt built. Lyndon Johnson continued Roosevelt’s legacy of Social Security with Medicare and Medicaid. Reagan, with the help of Tip O’Neill and the Democrats, saved Social Security from a near collapse. Barack Obama oversaw the passage of the Affordable Care Act, expanding healthcare coverage to millions of Americans. In their own way, these men defended Roosevelt’s legacy for decades, yet still haven’t taken his mantle.

Just like 1932, the nation currently faces problems that are poised to undermine the very fabric of democracy itself. Income inequality threatens to cripple the economic vigor of the United States and an increasing level of polarization and corporate cronyism make the nation nearly ungovernable. Greater still, the threat of Islamist and radical Christian terrorism shakes the foundation of our security and freedom. Yet, in the face of all these challenges, the current crop of presidential candidates does not offer much promise. Donald Trump is a bigoted fascist, arguing that “all Muslims” should be banned from coming to the US. Marco Rubio argues that the unconstitutional NSA phone record collection program should be reinstated, even when it threatened the personal liberty of citizens. Hillary Clinton, the supposed Democratic front-runner, is a corporatist centrist parading around as a progressive, proving once again that she and her husband are more than happy to be all things to all people while simultaneously believing in nothing. (If you doubt me, read the late Christopher Hitchens’s essay, “The Case Against Hillary Clinton.”)

But there is one person who rises above the fray, a man who has dedicated his life to progressive change and could easily upkeep the house the Roosevelt built. That man is Bernie Sanders. The longest-serving Independent in the United States Congress, Sanders has consistently defended the rights of the poor and working class. He supported marriage equality years before anyone did. When Hillary Clinton supported the arch-conservative Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, Sanders attended the 1963 March on Washington and held sit-ins for civil rights during his years at the University of Chicago. Principled to the point of stodgy, Sanders represents a New-Deal style progressivism that I deeply connect with.

He defends a serious return to form for progressives. The Democratic party’s years-long flirtation with Neo-Liberalism has had less than diminishing returns. The party, as a whole, is in worse shape than the Republicans nationally. Now, as you read that, you may be skeptical, but let me reassure your concerns. Republicans have control of both houses of Congress, a majority of Governor’s mansions and state legislatures (including my own in Indiana), and have used their power to restrict worker’s rights, abortion rights, and LGBTQ rights. It is not completely inconceivable, as it may seem with the current flock of GOP candidates, that they win back the White House. This is why it is crucial that the Democrats pick the right person; I think Bernie is that person.

One of the most interesting concepts I’ve read about recently is the the “Overton Window.” The Overton Window is a sociological term that describes what a broad populous is comfortable with ideologically. Politically speaking, it shifts either left or right depending on the leadership and the zeitgeist of the time. In some respects, the Overton Window is like a “bell curve” for political discourse, with radicals on each pole and centrists at the top of the curve. Conservatives, for nearly two generations, have shifted the nation’s political Overton Window farther to the right, so much so that what passes for “liberal” these days is closer to Nelson Rockefeller-style Republicanism of the 1960s. Because of this, the Republicans have lost their mind while the Democrats have lost their guts.

A lot of this changed with the election of Barack Obama in 2008. He shifted the Overton Window closer to the left, with the victories of Marriage Equality, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the Affordable Care Act, and his historic nuclear agreement with Iran. As such, Obama reclaimed some of what liberalism meant before the wilderness years of Clinton and Company. However, he did capitulate to the Neo-Liberalists of his party, with the market-driven reforms in the ACA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multi-lateral trade deal whose details are still largely unknown to the public.

Bernie shifts the Overton Window even more to the left, with policy ideas that seem “radical” on the surface, but are actually well-supported by national polling. He wants to raise the minimum wage to $15, make all public universities tuition-free, create Medicare for all, and pass sweeping reforms to Wall Street. During his years as a President, he may not achieve all of these policies, but making them a priority during his campaign has shifted the national discourse, with Hillary and even some Republicans echoing some of Sanders’s ideas.

Above all else, Sanders is the most secular presidential candidate this election cycle, which is refreshing for a secular voter like myself.  He even went so far as not answering whether he believed in a god on Jimmy Kimmel’s show last fall. Instead of parading around some useless piety or quoting religious scripture, Sanders (who is a secular Jew) said:

What I believe in and what my spirituality is about is that we’re all in this together. It is not a good thing to believe that as human beings we can turn our backs on the suffering of other people…We cannot worship billionaires and the making of more and more money. Life is more than that.

This eloquent, yet direct statement sums up Sanders in a nutshell: a dedication to economic fairness, solidarity with the underclass, and compassion for all people. These qualities bring out the best in someone, especially someone running for the highest office in the land.

I voted for the first time in 2008, and my first vote for a president went to Barack Obama. I knew how important that vote, and his election, was for the country. It was nice to vote for someone who I actually believed in, rather than the dreaded “lesser of two evils.” Sanders’s candidacy gives me, as a voter and a liberal, the same inspiration and hope that Obama’s did in 2008, sometimes more so. His candidacy and hopeful election only underscores the success of the Obama era and a commitment to build on his legacy. Clinton does not inspire that in me, and the Republicans certainly don’t either. As such, it’s time that the United States elect Sanders for the Democratic Nomination and the Presidency, and if you think that a socialist can’t be President, just remember 1932 and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.