The eagle-eyed reader of my Ambrose Bierce pieces may have noted the recurring appearance of death, or Death.
In any case, it is certainly true, not only that, as has been said by Clifton Fadiman, Death itself is Bierce’s favorite character, but that… Death may perhaps be said to be Ambrose Bierce’s only real character. (622)
This is from Edmund Wilson’s chapter on Bierce in Patriotic Gore (1962). Bierce is not Henry James, it is easy to grant that point. Wilson would like Bierce’s obsession with death to have been caused by Bierce’s wartime experiences, but he acknowledges that “he seems to have been haunted by the idea of death before he had even enlisted” (621). The temperament led to the subject, I would guess, and for that matter led to the kind of coolness under fire that Bierce often gives to his soldier characters.
The title character of “Parker Adderson, Philosopher” is a captured spy who, under interrogation, is, to drop into the vernacular, a total smart aleck. The general has just read some notes about the spy’s morning execution:
“I hope, General, the spectacle will be intelligently arranged, for I shall attend it myself.”
“Have you any arrangements of your own that you wish to make? Do you wish to see a chaplain, for example?”
“I could hardly secure a longer rest for myself by depriving him of some of his.”
“Good God, man! do you mean to go to your death with nothing but jokes upon your lips? Do you know that this is a serious matter?”
In the few pages left in the story, the irritated general tests the limits of Adderson’s philosophy such as it is, with surprising results. Bierce’s answer to the general’s question is that death is the only serious matter, and thus the necessity of the jokes, and the sicko humor of “My Favorite Murder” (“Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity, I was arrested and put upon my trial, which lasted seven years” and “Oil of Dog” (“I was born of honest parents in one of the humbler walks of life, my father being a manufacturer of dog-oil and my mother having a small studio in the shadow of the village church, where she disposed of unwanted babes”).* But the courage that comes from indifference is not false; Adderson’s Stoicism gets him a long way.
Ambrose Bierce lacks the tragic dimension; he was unable to surmount his frustration, his contempt for himself and mankind, through work of the stature of Swift’s. (632)
I did not identify in Bierce a moment as sublime – as tragic, per Wilson – as Gulliver’s abandonment of humanity for horses at the end of Gulliver’s Travels. I think that is what Wilson has in mind, the point where Gulliver’s misanthropy destroys him, perhaps necessarily. I am not so sure that the absence of tragedy is so important, though. David Mason, in The Hudson Review, identifies the depiction of “the horror and poetry of death” as Bierce’s central achievement. The horror, that is the easy part. The poetry, that is something rare.
* I thought about writing something showing the path from Poe’s under-read comic stories and Bierce’s. Poe can be awfully funny, but Bierce is funnier, or more often funny; there’s my conclusion. “Oil of Dog,” if you can stand it, is hilarious.