Monday, April 16, 2012

I set my wisdom at work upon a book - preparatory work for the Ambrose Bierce Library of America volume

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.


  1. It's a long time since I owned a copy of The Devil's Dictionary, but I do remember after a while that it seemed like a man just repeating the same joke.

    Didn't Ambrose Bierce disappear into the Mexican Civil War, never to be seen again? Carlos Fuentes' novel The Old Gringo is about the incident, I seem to remember.

  2. Repeating the same joke, yes. Much like La Rochefoucauld.

    The current consensus is that Bierce died at the Battle of Ojinaga, 1914, and was buried in a mass grave.

    Mason on the Fuentes novel (& movie adaptation): "None of the horror and poetry of death comes through - none of the stuff Bierce himself depicted so brilliantly in the best of his uncanny pages."

  3. No, I didn't think much of the Fuentes novel. In fact, it's the only thing I've read by him; it was years ago, and I was so unimpressed, I've never picked up anything else.

  4. I wish you hadn't mocked the technique of "struggling in search of a strong close." That's practically my M.O., my S.O.P, my...S.O.S.? Ah, well. Interesting to hear about Bierce's memoir. I haven't read or even really thought about reading anything by the guy in years, but the Argentine writer Rodolfo Walsh almost persuaded me to reread Bierce's "Parker Adderson, Philosopher" a couple of years ago on the basis of a wonderful little article he wrote about it before being disappeared by the Junta. I guess I should revisit a couple of the tales in the LOA collection and then check out that memoir.

  5. Mocking! Self-mockery, if anything, except that Mason has time, and an editor - a good, good editor. I have been reading The Hudson Review for 15 years, so I know. They shoulda chopped that line.

    "Parker Adderson" is pretty great. It is about a soldier who is a smart aleck in the face of death, an original subject. But at that point, I guess almost anything Bierce wrote about soldiers was original.

  6. Ah, Bierce's precise prose must have been a treat after James... For me, one of the hidden treasures of Bierce is his body of fables: he wrote hundreds of them, and the form is ideally suited to his talents. Well worth looking up, especially the Ohio State collection, which digs up lots of forgotten ones.

    And I need to reread "The Parenticide Club" (especially "Oil of Dog") regularly, just to keep going.

  7. The LoA book has two of the four "Parenticide" stories, including "Oil of Dog," which is completely bonkers. This is what was published in newspapers in Victorian America? You opened your Oakland Daily Evening Tribune on October 11, 1890, and this lunatic nightmare crwals out.

    The editor, S. T. Joshi, is hopeful that the fables (which I have not read) will show up in a second volume some day. Ah, he is also the editor of the Ohio State book you mentioned!

  8. Bonkers, yes; but only because because the business and religious values he's mocking are so lunatic.

    Bierce was responsible for a couple of books not based in journalism: "The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter" and "The Dance of Death." Both are complicated collaborations, which may make them even tastier. Both benefit from Bierce's skill as a prose stylist.

    Now you're getting comments from Bierce buffs. That will teach you.

  9. It might teach me the wrong lesson. The buffs know things.

    This whole spate of Bierce reading was unexpected. I was curious about - I do not remember what - and was caught by surprise by how good Bierce's fiction was, and almost shocked by the autobiographical pieces.

    I was definitely not planning to read all 860 pages! But now I am convinced I could read 860 more.