REVIEW, v. t.
To set your wisdom (holding not a doubt of it,
Although in truth there’s neither bone nor skin to it)
At work upon a book, and so read out of it
The qualities that you have first read into it.
What great luck – just as I plan to spend a week or some fraction of it writing about Ambrose Bierce, the Spring 2012 issue of The Hudson Review arrives at my home, containing, among other delights, “The Dark Delight of Ambrose Bierce” by David Mason. Now I can set his wisdom to work, and just nod along:
But this book certainly demonstrates Bierce’s literary stature. He was magnificent.
Actually, I would not have kept that last line. It has all the signs of struggling in search of a strong close. I am intimately familiar with the symptoms. But I do share Mason’s pleased surprise – hey, Bierce is really good!
The book Mason mentions, the occasion for his piece, is the same one I am reading, the 2011 Library of America collection The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs, ed. St. T. Joshi – I strongly recommend that you ask your library to buy a copy (that is what I did). The contents are:
In the Midst of Life aka Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1892+). The latter title is accurate, the former pointlessly vague. The book contains fifteen Civil War stories, including the famous “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “Chickamauga,” and eleven miscellaneous ghost stories and weird tales.
Can Such Things Be? (1893), more ghost stories, weirdness, and proto-science fiction. Bierce’s status as the link joining Poe and Lovecraft is most evident here. Bierce was a better prose writer than either.
The Devil’s Dictionary (1906/1911), aphorisms, satirical poems, jokes of the one-liner and multi-liner varieties. The definition of “Review” can be found therein. Bierce is the American La Rochefoucauld. What he lacks in elegance he makes up in laughs.
Bits of Autobiography (1909). “Yet I, for one, had no idea that some of Bierce’s best writing would be in memoirs,” writes Mason. Me neither. It is easy enough to find copies of The Devil’s Dictionary and Bierce’s stories, so the Library of America collection’s greatest contribution to the welfare of readers is the resurrection of these ninety pages of memoir. The memoir is mostly about Bierce’s war experiences, although in the last few pieces he wanders west. “Joshi thinks ‘What I Saw of Shiloh’ contains Bierce’s best writing” – how invigorating to find both Mason and the editor agreeing with me.
Curious side note: Bierce was a rare creature for his time, an American literary writer who was also a genuine soldier. He enlisted in 1861 and served through the entire Civil War, seeing action at a number of famous battles and a larger number of obscure ones. Samuel Clemens skedaddled from the Confederate army as fast as his legs could carry him. Henry James volunteered but was sidelined by a vague, but apparently real, medical complaint, perhaps a back problem. William Dean Howells spent the war in diplomatic service Europe. Walt Whitman served as a nurse. Who have I forgotten? I should read Patriotic Gore, maybe.
Some miscellaneous stories fill out the collection, mostly humorous pieces, mostly pretty weird. I also read the University of Nebraska Press Poems of Ambrose Bierce, so I may find occasion to mention that book, too.
All of the above - every book Bierce published - are collections of Bierce's newspaper writing. Even the memoir is composed of heavily revised articles dating from 1881 to 1906.
I am writing this as if readers will refer back to it as I write more. Well, I’ll refer to it. Reason enough to write it.