Book Interview: S.T. Joshi on Ambrose Bierce — The Underappreciated Genius of Being Grim
Bierce proffers a satiric temperament gone wild and woolly, partly propelled by a revulsion at the criminal vulgarity of the Gilded Age. Given the current triumph of the 1%, his fury at power mad corporations is well worth an admiring look.
By Bill Marx.
The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs by Ambrose Bierce. Edited by S. T. Joshi. The Library of America, 880 pages, $35.
Reading through the Library of America volume dedicated to Ambrose Bierce (1842–1913?) for an upcoming essay on his work for the Columbia Journalism Review, I was struck by how he used prose, fiction, and non-fiction, as a means of aggression, a strategy of confrontation that fiercely attacks cultural complacency and political corruption. As a whipper-up of enmity, Bierce stands as an important journalistic link between the ink-stained incendiaries Edgar Allan Poe and H. L. Mencken, who also wised up the public by roughing up phonies large and small. This once proud literary tradition of thundering dissent has petered down to a spark of complaint today—but for Bierce “writin’ is fightin,'” as author Ishmael Reed memorably puts it.
Bierce’s envenomed skepticism—expressed through ridicule and satire—shapes his problematic strengths and weaknesses as a writer of fiction as well as non-fiction. All of his best writing draws on a dark (at times brutal), comic disenchantment as the means to break readers of their innocent trust in the comfortable status quo, metaphysical as well as social. His Swift-like dedication to disabusing mankind of its cuddly illusions of importance and order runs through his acclaimed Civil War stories, memoirs, and otherworldly tales, many of which first appeared in his newspaper columns.
Bierce the Bully believes that he is manhandling the bamboozled reader for his or her own good—his is a brilliant satiric temperament gone wild and woolly, rude and crude in a distinctly American way that partly reflects a wholesale revulsion at the criminal vulgarity of the Gilded Age. Given the current triumph of the 1%, Bierce’s barb-throwing at greedy corporations is well worth an admiring look.
Bierce comes by his disgust with mankind honestly. He was the only major American author to serve in the Civil War, and his writing on combat, including yarns about the horrific battles he participated in, such as Chickamauga, catch the chaos of conflagration. His short tales of horror, with their tart, comic, and shocking visions of terror, place him as a major player in the evolution of the genre, looking back to Poe and forward to H. P Lovecraft and the absurdists of the 1960s. In futuristic satires such as “Ashes of the Beacon,” he proffers a savagely Darwinian vision of American decline.
Sharp parody has never been an approach that engenders enthusiasm in America, especially now, given our preference for satire whose sting has been diluted by an adolescent goofiness (The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, etc). Unlike his competitor Mark Twain, Bierce didn’t have a lovable side to mitigate his image as a scold. But it is a good time to be reminded of the exhilaration offered by sardonic tirades and sour wit, cutting japes aimed at religion, politics, and the vagaries of human nature.
Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the publication of Bierce’s notorious The Devil’s Dictionary, but the Library of America volume also includes a selection of Bierce’s contributions as a short story writer, social critic, and memoirist. Taking all of this material together lends Bierce’s infamous acerbity a complex resonance—his fury reflects the frustrations of a man with a fragile (at best) belief in reason bedeviled by a country’s no-holds-barred dedication to irrationality.
I sent some questions about how Bierce’s journalism shaped his art, his roller-coaster literary fortunes, and perennial charges of misanthropy to the volume’s editor, S. T. Joshi.
Arts Fuse: Ambrose Bierce is one of those writers who is always being rediscovered. Why is that? And where does his reputation stand now?
S.T. Joshi: I think Bierce will remain an equivocal figure in American and world literature chiefly because his dark view of humanity is, by its very nature, unpopular. Most people like writing that is cheerful and uplifting, even though a substantial proportion of the world’s great literature is quite otherwise. But the relentlessly cheerless character of much of Bierce’s work makes it difficult to read in large doses.
The fact that Bierce did not, out of choice, write novels may also have limited his appeal. Bierce was a master of the literary miniature—the short story, the fable, the epigram, the dictionary definition. These forms do produce a certain monotony if read too much at once. As to his current reputation, it would seem that he is now best known for The Devil’s Dictionary, given how many editions there have been in recent years and how many times it is cited. While this book is certainly a triumph of pungent satire, I remain convinced that his best work is in the short story—and that his journalism, however dated it may be in terms of subject matter, is a great achievement that needs to be recognized.
AF: How did the demands of journalism—and his notoriety as a columnist—shape his art?
Joshi: I think all of Bierce’s work, journalism included, was a product of his satirical impulse. I’ll have more to say about this in the next answer, but I can say here that the great majority of Bierce’s journalism was of the sort that would now be called “op-ed writing.” Even on those few occasions when Bierce was actually a “reporter” in the conventional sense of the term—e.g., when he went to Washington, D.C., to report on Collis P. Huntington’s funding bill in 1896—he was hardly the impartial recounter of facts that we expect reporters to be.
All of Bierce’s other writing—stories, poems, fables, epigrams, even The Devil’s Dictionary (which was serialized in discrete columns over many years)—was an outgrowth of his journalism in the sense that, as an employee (and occasionally the editor) of the magazines and newspapers he worked on, he was under pressure to fill space and set the tone of the papers in question. On occasion Bierce would have a half-dozen or more contributions—signed, unsigned, or pseudonymous—in a single issue.
When Bierce worked on a given paper, very little of his work appeared outside its pages. He pointedly turned down requests by various editors to submit his work to major magazines while he worked on the San Francisco Examiner (1887–1906), feeling that the generous salary William Randolph Hearst paid him (beginning at $25 a week and moving up to $100 a week, whether Bierce wrote anything in that week or not) meant that Hearst was entitled to have “first refusal” on all of Bierce’s work, of whatever sort it may have been. So even when Bierce was writing work that was other than journalism, he was fundamentally a journalist at heart.
AF: Could some of the discomfort with Bierce stem from his unforgiving approach as a satirist? Unlike Twain or Mencken, he seems driven by disgust rather than amusement at the spectacle of American corruption.
Joshi: Yes, satirists have a difficult time finding a wide audience—especially a satirist as tart and biting as Bierce. There is, indeed, very little “good humor” in Bierce’s skewering of the individuals and institutions he attacked. I won’t say that Bierce was a misanthrope (see below), but it is difficult to deny that he was, in general, a pessimist in regard to the idea of human progress—intellectual, moral, or cultural. And Bierce often chose to express this dark view of humanity not in white-hot condemnations of human folly or hypocrisy but in ice-cold exhibitions of human failings. It is an unflinchingly bleak vision reminiscent of the darkest of satirists—chiefly Juvenal and Swift—and it accordingly makes for grim reading.
AF: The 150th anniversary of the Civil War has generated new interest in Bierce’s war stories, which are hailed as the first depiction of the effects of modern warfare. Do you feel that Bierce’s writing was essentially shaped by his witnessing combat—a case of literary PTSD?
Joshi: There is no question that the Civil War—in which Bierce served for the better part of three years (1861–64) before he was granted an honorable discharge because of a serious head injury—colored the whole of the rest of his life. The first of his Civil War stories (“George Thurston,” 1878) was not written until 13 years after the war was over, and the majority of them were written during his first five years on the Examiner (1887–92). Bierce claimed to have enjoyed his years as a soldier, and to the end of his days, he was certain that there was an unbridgeable gulf between the soldier and the civilian—that the latter could have no idea what the former had been through. This is why the first edition of his story collection is called Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891).
Whether Bierce could be clinically diagnosed with PTSD is of course impossible to answer, but he clearly required years, even decades, to process his war experiences before he could set them down on paper. He maintained that most of the incidents in his tales, however improbable or outlandish they were, were based on first-hand witnessing of real events.
AF: Many critics question Bierce’s self-generated reputation as an unmitigated misanthrope, finding him to be a humane and moral writer. Do you agree? Wouldn’t Bierce be the first to object to that kind of mollycoddling?
Joshi: Some Bierce scholars, notably Lawrence I. Berkove, are eager to deny that Bierce was not a misanthrope—that he did not hate human beings in the mass but was merely disappointed with them. I generally agree with that view but think it’s difficult to deny that Bierce did gain a certain enjoyment out of skewering those particular individuals whose stupidity, duplicity, hypocrisy, and other moral failings he wished to expose to the world.
Bierce did defend himself by declaring that his harsh criticism of human failings did imply an approbation of human virtues and of those individuals who embodied them; but since, in his writings, he paid so little attention to the latter and so much to the former, it is easy to gain the impression that Bierce relished lampooning for its own sake. It is difficult to be a satirist of the dark, Juvenalian sort, as Bierce was, without taking a certain malicious glee in launching as vicious an attack as possible. And toward the end of his life, Bierce did seem to become embittered, casting off longtime friends because of perceived slights or deficiencies that offended his increasingly rigid code of morals.
AF: Bierce seems to be one of the first writers to tumble into the popular/literary divide. Some critics dismiss his dark, comic tales of horror as potboilers, others see them as crucial links between Poe and Lovecraft. Could he be a little of both—a purveyor of what one critic calls “pulpy morbidity”?
Joshi: It is not clear whether Bierce ever regarded himself as a “horror writer” in anything like the modern sense of the term. While he greatly admired Poe (perhaps more for his literary theories and his pungent reviews than for his horror fiction), he resented being considered merely a Poe imitator. Occasionally he would refer to his horror tales as “tragic” tales.
Horror fiction (or weird fiction, as I choose to call it) was not a concrete or recognized genre at the time, and many writers—from Frank R. Stockton to Henry James—could dip into the mode as the spirit moved them. Bierce’s tales appeared in magazines or newspapers right alongside more orthodox, mainstream stories, and there does not seem to have been much prejudice against their subject-matter among critics of the day.
Today Bierce is rightly seen as the most significant American horror writer between Poe and Lovecraft, and I don’t doubt that he would be proud of that distinction; but there is no clear divide, either in subject-matter or overall effect, between those of his tales that we call “Civil War tales” and those that we call “tales of supernatural or psychological horror.”
AF: Bierce’s best known writing remains in print, in some cases in graphic comic form. What do you think is the importance of having a Library of America volume dedicated to the writer? Does the memoir material significantly change our image of Bierce? And should there be plans for a second volume that collects his best journalism?
Joshi: A Library of America edition of Bierce was long overdue. I was in touch with the publisher’s editorial staff for years, trying to figure out the best way to present Bierce’s variegated and multifaceted work. It was finally decided that Bierce’s best-known “creative” work (the short stories and The Devil’s Dictionary) would have to be the centerpiece of the volume, given that these bodies of work are what Bierce is best known for today; and I was glad that the editors allowed me to include his remarkable autobiographical reflections (“Bits of Autobiography”), which speak unflinchingly of his Civil War experiences and other incidents in his early life.
Bierce’s canonization in the Library of America does grant a certain imprimatur to his work that may have been lacking before. And I am certainly hoping that a second volume might appear later. This would be chiefly devoted to his journalism but would also have to include some of his more than 800 fables and at least a small selection of his poetry (he devoted two whole volumes of his Collected Works [1909–12] to poetry, although he knew that his verse was merely an outgrowth of his satirical impulse). It may be years before such a volume is issued, but when it is, we will finally have a comprehensive, well-rounded view of Bierce the man and writer.