Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company by Roy Morris, Jr.

Ambrose Bierce was an opinionated man: he spent his life mostly as a journalist in a time and place (San Francisco, mostly, in the latter third of the 19th century) where that job meant "having very strong opinions, in public, and occasionally backing them up with a pistol when people came to the newspaper office to complain." He was also one of the best American short-story writers of the 19th century and the first important writer to have both directly participated in a major war (the American Civil War, for him) and then write about it in a modern way.

But what most people know about him, if they know anything, is either the way he died - he disappeared at the age of seventy-one in 1913, after loudly and repeatedly proclaiming that he was going to witness and/or join the revolution in Mexico, and that no one should be surprised if he got shot dead while there [1] - or for his book of definitions, The Devil's Dictionary.

I thought I'd read Devil's Dictionary sometime this century, but I guess not: I haven't posted about it here. I did read a posthumous collection of Bierce's essays (probably adapted from his journalism) over a decade ago, and I can also point you to some things I said about Bierce while covering Carlos Fuentes's The Old Gringo. The biggest thing I wrote about Bierce was my college thesis, equally about him, Poe and Lovecraft, but that's not available online and I doubt I would want to link to it even if I could. But I am a Biercian, at least in a minor way, and I'd wanted to read this book, the current standard biography, for quite some time.

And so I did: only twenty-five years late, I got to Roy Morris Jr.'s Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, a compact but complete life of the writer published by Oxford in 1995. It was published a few years too late to influence my thesis - I think I read the Carey McWilliams bio from the '20s back then, but I was mostly focusing on primary sources - but I've had this copy on my shelves for a while (maybe even before the 2011 flood?) and I feel like I was looking for it for a while before I found it.

But now I come to google myself - which always makes me feel slightly dirty - and I see that I've noted this book once here already, in passing, and that was because I actually read it in 1996, soon after publication. So much for memory.

In any case, Bierce is not a major writer. But he's interesting and specific and led a life with things worth writing about, and then wrote things still worth reading more than a century later. Only a few people can be major; a lot of minor things can still be important and useful. Morris keeps his book under three hundred pages, before the critical apparatus, but he hits all the high points and generally make it all flow well. (In nearly every biography, there are points, usually late in the book, where the reader is dozing along and suddenly realizes a decade has passed since the top of a page - lives are often like that.)

Bierce's childhood was on an Ohio farm in the 1840s and '50s; we know almost nothing about it, as we know almost nothing about anyone's childhood that far back. So Morris covers youth pretty quickly and then dives into the Civil War, where is where Bierce's story properly starts. And I gather Morris is largely a historian of the War, which gives him a facility for writing about the battles and movements and putting Bierce's activities into proper context.

After the war, Bierce had a few oddball jobs, military and government and not, and then found himself in San Francisco in need of something new to do. He started editing a paper, and it stuck: that was the work of the rest of his adult life, with occasional breaks as he tried (and generally failed) to do other things.

Along the way, he had a private life that he seems to have screwed up by being exactly who he was and never being willing to change or bend a hair: two sons died young, and his wife was estranged long before they actually parted. (Though anyone who ever read anything Bierce wrote on the subject of marriage would not be surprised by that.)

Morris has a fine sense of the period and milieu: he's telling Bierce's story, but telling it in context, so he can talk about other battles in the war and other journalists in San Francisco to set the scene for the particular things Bierce did. I don't know if this is the best biography of Bierce, but it's a very good one, still pretty modern, and it's particularly good at describing clearly what he did, without mythologizing, particularly when it comes to that famous end. I'm happy to have read it again, even if I had forgotten that I read it before.

[1] Morris devotes extensive page-space to those very, very obvious statements, and I tend to agree with his conclusions. Bierce was obviously protesting too much. Whether it was pure myth-making or laying a deliberate false trail, I can't say a century later, but Morris lays out the facts, and they don't line up at all with any of the more famous assumptions. However Bierce died, I'm 99% sure it wasn't "shot as a gringo in Mexico." It most likely wasn't in Mexico at all.

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