Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 286 (11/16) -- A Cynic Looks At Life by Ambrose Bierce

There was a time when I modeled much of my own attitude toward life on Ambrose Bierce's; he was one of my favorite writers in college (and the linchpin of my senior thesis), I read all of his stories several times plus chunks of his essays -- and, of course, the marvelously cynical The Devil's Dictionary, the book that proved conclusively to me that there was nothing distinctively "modern" about today's world that the previous century (or, indeed, any century) couldn't match. But I haven't read much Bierce for a while; I should, I know, but he hasn't come up in the rotation. [1]

However, one of the good things about modern electronic devices and e-books is that they allow you to carry a shelf-full of old out-of-copyright books along with you wherever you go, and so I've got a whole lot of Bierce (and many other things) with me at all times. And between a conference in Las Vegas and a family vacation in Orlando -- both deeply American places, utterly devoted to enjoyment in their very different ways, which Bierce would have enjoyed in his nasty, disapproving, cruel way -- I found time to read some essays here and there and so work my way through A Cynic Looks at Life. (As far as I can tell, which isn't far, this is probably one of the later works in his twelve-volume Collected Works from 1909-12, since I can't find this title by itself in any standard Bierce bibliographies online, and the scanned copy was published by The Neale Publishing Company in 1912.)

A Cynic Looks at Life might have been collected, or adapted from, his newspaper column "Prattle" -- and, even if it wasn't, it's formed by having been written by a man who had a daily newspaper column for most of the previous four decades. The essays here are a look at what was then the modern scene -- mores and habits of everyday people, as Bierce saw them -- and, as usual, Bierce was not impressed. He opens with a piece entitled "Civilization," which Bierce, at length, is not entirely in favor of. (Not that he admires the natural state of man, either -- but he does admit that a savage is more honest in his rapacity than the civilized man.)

Later essays cover eloquence (which Bierce believes often covers up flaws in reasoning), natural disasters (which never manage to make people stay away from the places they continually happen), the death penalty (he's for it, mostly because he hadn't managed to think up anything nastier to do to criminals), the immortal soul (don't get him started), the modern "emancipated woman" (he's primarily worried that working women would take jobs from men, and has his usual blindness that things might not be that simple), and insanity (he finds it incredibly common). And then Bierce ends with a long section of cynical epigrams -- here, as in the rest of the book, "cynical" means primarily that the then-current ideas of sex roles and righteous behavior were only rarely upheld. Bierce's topical nonfiction is so relentlessly disapproving that reading these pieces straight through would induce either a headache or thoughts of mass murder; I don't recommend that. (His fiction reads much better lumped together, especially his tall tales, which are rollicking, slippery-slope-to-hell fun that gain a lot from the repetition of his favorite themes and ideas.)

This is an angry book, coldly angry at a world that never was what it claimed to be and at the fakes and liars that populate it. Bierce was one of the world's all-time great haters, with an anger so expansive that it could only rarely shrink enough to be aimed at a particular person; his anger needed to blast forth at humanity as a whole, or, when he could throttle it down slightly, to just women, or Americans, or adults. His anger here will seem almost entirely misplaced to anyone not an utter reactionary -- but, still, Bierce is magnificent in his anger, one of the all-time masters of bile and derision. It's lovely to see him at work, even when the target doesn't seem worth the powder to blow it up.

There's no reason for anyone who's read less Bierce than I have to seek out this book; there's at least a million words of his writings (including plenty of "Prattle" about events of more historical interest) that are more interesting to 21st century readers. But Bierce is one of the great American originals, and should never be forgotten -- so I'll once again complain that this quintessential American writer (angry, splenetic, unbending, demanding, militaristic, humanist, Stoic, passionate) has still not been entombed in the standard Library of America series, which has instead spent much of the last decade farting around with miscellaneous reportage and Henry James yardgoods. LoA, get off the stick, and give us the Complete Stories and Tall Tales that we deserve!

[1] If you've never read Bierce, steer either for The Devil's Dictionary (for precision of language and skewering of everyone's idols) or for his short stories, which come in three flavors: Civil War (dark and modernistically gloomy), ghost (equally gloomy, with an excellent supernatural air), and tall tales (horrifically witty and creepily wonderful; usually about murder and mayhem). All of his short stories are available online at The Ambrose Bierce Project.

The quick way of describing Bierce is that he's the nasty, cynical, misanthropic San Francisco writer some people think Mark Twain was.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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