Ambrose Bierce. A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography.

Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz. 

Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998. 

xxvi, 356 pp. $38.00 hc.

 

Reviewed by Alan Gullette

 

Bierce left little in the way of actual autobiography.  Biography was "distasteful" to him, particularly literary biography: "'[I]t is distinctly mischievous to letters," where "It throws no light on one's work, but on the contrary 'darkens counsel.'" (Bierce to Blanche Partington, Nov. 29, 1892, The Letters of Ambrose Bierce, ed. Bertha Clark Pope [San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1922; Gordian Press, 1967, p. 17).  Better for the reader to know nothing of the author -- a surprisingly modern, formalist approach. 

Despite these misgivings, Bierce did write a series of "memoirs" (the "Bits" of the subtitle) and even included them in the very first volume of his Collected Works.  As these covered only the period of 1861-1875, it was necessary for someone to sift through the millions of words of Bierce's journalism and private letters to glean further "bits" and arrange these chronologically.

 

Enter: S.T. Joshi and David Schultz, who first conceived of this clever approach and who need no introduction here.  While it is no surprise that the result is a work of peerless scholarship (which we have come to take for granted from Messrs. Schultz and Joshi), I do not believe the importance of this volume has been adequately realized.  For it provides an opportunity for new insights into Bierce the master cynic, Bierce the writer of weird fiction -- and, yes, Bierce the man.

 

For me, there has always been more than one mystery to Bierce -- more than the question of his disappearance in late 1913 into "war-torn" Mexico.  Reading Bierce again forces me to seek, again, his secret -- what made him tick -- as well as the secret of my own fascination with him, which began in my early teens.  As with Poe, I was captivated with Bierce's mastery of the subject of death.  He is expert in every grim detail and relates it unflinchingly -- even appears to take sardonic pleasure in the telling, and in our horror.  If Poe raised the obsession with death to an aesthetic level, with Bierce the state of mind is perhaps more scientific, more removed, more cerebral, as if the aesthetic of horror has been sublimated and refined beyond even art.  In either case, there appeared to be a maturity of mind -- a soberness not without humor -- in the face of mortality.

 

With Bierce, humor was implicit in horror and explicit in satire.  Notwithstanding the distinction he drew between wit and humor (see 249-50), satire was for Bierce a double-edged sword:  being essentially irreverent, the satirist cannot spare himself from his own ridicule.  Indeed, Bierce often turns the scalpel on himself so as to remove all blemish of bias; or else he adopts the prejudices and mindset of his contemporaries in order to expose their absurdity.  This self-reflexivity knocks the feet out from under the satirist, leaving him no place to stand -- a grand reductio ad absurdum like Godel's incompleteness theorem that reduces all human thought and intention to tautological absurdity.  In the resulting confusion, it is often hard to determine what position the author takes, though we may be dazzled by his (s)wordplay!

 

So skillful was Bierce at his method that even such skillful readers as Joshi and Schultz must ask, for example, "How much of Bierce's misogyny was real and how much feigned?" (97).  What did Bierce really think about anything?  Given the general acceptance of Bierce as misogynist and misanthropist, a larger question looms -- one that is almost unthinkable:  Did the famous bitter exterior actually hide a warm human being?

 

The volume under consideration does not directly address these questions, nor should it.  Apart from the introduction, the notes, and to some extent the headings, the editors cannot and should not attempt to shape the meaning of the texts they present.  It is the texts themselves, and rightly so, that give us the opportunity to glimpse the man behind the millions of words -- however nimbly he may jump.

 

Nor is this review the proper place to set forth a controversial thesis on Bierce's possible "humanism."  True, as the editors point out, Bierce engaged himself in an "unrelenting campaign to reform his contemporaries by means of satire" (171), attacking hypocrisy and deceit among his contemporaries with an almost religious zeal.  True, he publicly expressed concern for the suffering working classes of England, for the plight of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, and for the prejudicial treatment of Jews and Mormons.  True, we find the surprising confession that he used to pray in youth; and in maturity he appears to seriously promote Jesus as a model of ethical behavior (206-7).  No, he said clearly "I have no religious convictions…. But I care a good deal for truth, reason, and fair play" (181).  And again, without a trace of satire, he declares "Happiness … the end and purpose of life, and love … the only means to happiness" (248).  He even refutes the term "misanthropist" being applied to him (215), since, as Joshi likes to quote, "I like many things in this world and a few persons" (xiv).  But I will desist with my new pet theory…

 

Perhaps with Bierce, as with the Bible, one can find something for everyone, some statement or phrase, whether taken in context or not, to support any side of any argument. Schultz and Joshi may have their own opinion on a given matter, even as to Bierce's true opinion, but as editors they have taken care to present the material impartially, for the reader to decide upon.

 

And this brings us to the "purpose" or intent of the volume.  Beyond presenting autobiographical data, the editors hope to "expand the general understanding of Bierce beyond that of a skilled writer of short stories" by offering a sampling of the great range of his journalistic work (xix).  Present readers well know that Bierce was author of more than the likes of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and The Devil's Dictionary.  But some among the weird fiction audience might question Joshi and Schultz for spending inordinate attention to Bierce's non-weird writing, or criticize their "brute force" approach to the textual work, and surely some even view it as a waste of time.  Sole Survivor is the first fruit of their labor to see the light of publication and serves as convincing evidence of the value inherent in Bierce's non-weird work.

 

Little is left wanting, apart from material that apparently does not exist.  It is too bad no more information is available on Bierce's upbringing and youth prior to the Civil War, but none is to be had.  It would have been nice to see more portraits of Bierce's contemporaries (Joaquin Miller, George Sterling, and Jack London come to mind) and perhaps more selections from letters, if only there were any that contained anything substantial about his life.  (Perhaps we may find some yet, when Schultz and Joshi find a publisher for the projected five volumes of Bierce's complete letters.)

 

In appearance, the volume, perfect bound on archival paper, is very handsome, with attractive interior layout and jacket design; the only possible objection here is the rather small typeface used throughout.  The Introduction provides a succinct overview of Bierce's life and a Chronology maps out the most important points on his timeline -- valuable for unfamiliar readers and a useful refresher for the rest of us.  The Notes help illuminate many references to contemporaries that would have been familiar to Bierce's readers but are forgotten today, as well as detailing principal battles and figures in the Civil War.  They also reveal the sources of many of Bierce's unaccredited quotations:  the Bible, Shakespeare (whom Bierce called "my idol" [116]), and Romantic poets for the most part (Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, and the latter-day Poe).  These identifications are valuable to those of us who are lesser-read, and proof both of Bierce's level of self-education (even when he misquotes, it is evidence that he worked from memory) and of the editors' tenacity.  Rigorous detailing of textual Sources and a choice list for Further Reading round out the book from a scholarly perspective.

 

One small improvement might be made.  If the idea was, truly, to offer "an index to Bierce's literary and philosophical development", as stated in the introduction (xix), then why not include a topical index?  Admittedly, this is no "Bierce Reader" -- nor should it be -- however useful such a volume might be, arranged thematically with the great master weighing in on any and all topics as well as on the personages of his day and on literary and other figures of his past.

 

As for errors, I found but one and that a trifling one (page xx references "the letter to Bernice Wright" when the letter was to Bernice's sister Clara.)

 

All told, we have an excellent volume, both in substance and form, whose value to scholarship and readership will depend on what we do with it.  Once again the bar has been raised, and again I perceive Messrs. Joshi and Schultz making motions as to prepare for another jump…

 

Published in Studies in Weird Fiction 24 (Winter 1999): 35-6.

 

© 1999 by Necronomicon Press

© 2004 by Alan Gullette

 

 

Alan Gullette > Essays