cover art by Jared Boggess
to The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story
by S. T. Joshi
Hippocampus Press, New York, 2016
Few literary figures led a more interesting and event-filled life than Ambrose Bierce. Born in 1842 into a large family (all of whose siblings’ names began with the letter A) in rural Ohio, Bierce enlisted in the Union army at the outset of the Civil War and served with distinction for nearly the entire conflict. He participated in some of the grisliest battles of that hideous war—Shiloh, Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain (where he suffered a serious injury when he was shot in the head)—and was also briefly captured by Confederates before escaping. After the war Bierce went out west with his former commander, Gen. William B. Hazen, on an inspection of western forts, then worked briefly for the San Francisco mint. Taking up writing, he wrote prolifically for a succession of San Francisco papers—the San Francisco News Letter, the Argonaut, the Wasp, and, most significantly, William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. Along the way he worked briefly as a general agent for the Black Hills Placer Mining Company, spent months in Washington, D.C., lobbying against the railroad baron Collis P. Huntington, and became the focus of a thriving literary community in the Bay Area, with such luminaries as W. C. Morrow, George Sterling, Gertrude Atherton, and Jack London. He wrote some of the most chilling Civil War tales of anyone who had served in the war, and some of the most harrowing tales of supernatural and psychological horror. As a fitting capstone to his multifaceted life, in late 1913 he made a nostalgic tour of Civil War battlefields before disappearing in a cloud of smoke in Mexico.
It is remarkable that Bierce’s life has not served as the basis for all manner of fictional treatments. Carlos Fuentes’s The Old Gringo (1985) is a notable and poignant novel, but it is really more of a fanciful prose poem than an accurate recounting of Bierce’s life and thought. Don Swaim, who operates the leading Ambrose Bierce website—is much better prepared to chronicle Bierce’s life and accomplishments in fiction, and he has done so with deftness and panache in The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce.
But why has Swaim affixed the subtitle “A Love Story” to this novel? Bierce in his day developed a notorious reputation as a vicious satirist, lashing out against all manner of persons and causes he despised—politicians, feminists, poetasters, and perhaps the human race in general. It may be something of an exaggeration to call Bierce a misanthrope, even though some of the nicknames that were fastened upon him in his time (“Bitter Bierce,” “The Wickedest Man in San Francisco”) suggest it. It would be fairer to say that Bierce was disappointed in a human race that was constantly falling below the lofty standards it professed. A species that believed itself the product of a deity of love, mercy, strength, and benevolence was all too often addicted to the vices of fear, cowardice, hypocrisy, duplicity, and outright evil—and Bierce was not slow in pointing them out.
And yet, Bierce was a lover. He had a boyhood love affair in Indiana with a young woman named Fatima—an affair that ended abruptly after he went off to war. He married young, and even if that marriage (to Mollie Day, a wealthy socialite in San Francisco) was more than a little rocky, it led to the birth of three children, two sons and a daughter. (Bierce experienced the pain and horror of seeing both his sons predecease him.) And, as Swaim so eloquently portrays, he was constantly subject to the lure of the eternal feminine: Swaim’s winsome heroine, Elizabeth Dumont, evokes in Bierce a memory of the feisty Gertrude Atherton, the prolific novelist who laughed in Bierce’s face when he made a pass at her.
But Bierce was an extraordinarily complex man, and love—whether it be love of a woman, love of the greatest jewels of literature and culture, or love of the bravery and heroism of soldiers in battle—was only one element in his makeup. Death was another. The critic Edmund Wilson thought that death was the sole focus of Bierce’s writing, but this is both an imprecise and a myopic view. What Bierce really emphasized in his writing was not death but the fear of death. In story after story, he relentlessly dissects the psychology of fear as it applies to death—whether it be the mere proximity of a corpse (“A Watcher by the Dead,” “A Tough Tussle”), a foolhardy bravery in war that laughs at death (“Killed at Resaca”), or a fear that paralyzes one into inaction (“The Man and the Snake”). Bierce’s most famous story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” testifies to the extent to which a disturbed psyche will go in repudiating the inevitability of death. Did Bierce himself feel such a fear? Don Swaim plausibly thinks so, and he underscores it with his depiction of the nebulous entity Bierce can only call “the Damned Thing.”
The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce is a work as complex as Bierce himself. It is a love story; it is an elegantly constructed historical novel; it is a tale of terror. But most of all, it is a tale of a human life—a tale of a man who belonged to the “damned human race,” however much he may have wished he didn’t. Readers of this book may come away moved, amused, or terrified—but chiefly they will come away with a profound understanding of what it means to be human.
—S. T. Joshi
S.T. Joshi, with David E. Schultz, compiled Ambrose Bierce: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary Sources. Joshi was editor or co-editor of the three-volume Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce; A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce; The Collected Fables of Ambrose Bierce; Ambrose Bierce’s The Fall of the Republic and Other Political Satires; The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce; and A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography by Ambrose Bierce.
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