Essential Bierce: A Selection of the Writings of Ambrose Bierce, edited and with an introduction by John R. Dunlap (Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 2007).
This new and fairly brief anthology of works by Ambrose Bierce (170 pages) is part of the California Legacy series produced by Santa Clara University and Heyday Books. Specifically, it is part of the “Essentials Collection,” defined as “accessible volumes showcasing California authors whose works have gained and deserve international recognition.”
Dunlap introduces the collection with a concise, interesting, and balanced biography of Bierce. He begins by positing a reason for Bierce’s “permanent allure” – that it has “derived partly from his contradictions and anomalies” (ix). Providing examples of these “contradictions,” Dunlap explains that Bierce “despised organized religion…[but] confessed a warm respect for Mormons, Catholics, and Jews”; he viewed the women’s movement with “scorn yet…encouraged the talent of hopeful women poets”; he “condemned mediocrity in literature [but] extolled the eccentric work of such middling literary figures as George Sterling and Herman Scheffauer” (ix). Dunlap also notes that as a muckraking journalist, Bierce seemed to favor “state control of the railroads yet despised socialism,” considered himself an “inattentive husband and parent” yet grieved deeply over his son’s suicide, and “exhibited a short fuse” yet proved to be “fastidious and in his correspondence faithful” (ix-x).
The introduction efficiently summarizes Bierce’s birth in Ohio and his upbringing in Indiana, as well as his schooling at the Kentucky Military Institute and his advancement through the ranks of the Union Army during the volatile years of the Civil War. I did find it curious that, despite the focus of the series, Dunlap’s introduction does not focus particularly on Bierce’s experiences – or emerging identity – as a Californian. But the essay admittedly accounts for Bierce’s westward move (a tour of military forts with his commanding officer from the Civil War), as well as his tenure with the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. And of course Dunlap also addresses Bierce’s contributions to publications such as the San Francisco News Letter, the Californian, Golden Era, the Overland Monthly, the Argonaut, the Wasp, and ultimately the San Francisco Examiner. Of Bierce’s work on the Examiner, the editor points out that it was “the most productive period of his life”:
The Sunday edition of the Examiner became the venue for the publication of his occasional stories, including most of his masterpieces. His best essays first appeared (or reappeared in substantially revised form from previously published drafts) in the Examiner. He continued his installments of The Devil’s Dictionary, and produced the most significant of his journalistic broadsides – although he also continued to misjudge literary talent with, for example, a dismissal of Stephen Crane as a “freak.” (xv)
Perhaps it is this single paragraph that best explains this portrait of Bierce as a California writer – it is there, after all, that Bierce was the most productive. And of all the works that Dunlap includes in the collection, most were initially released in the periodicals for which Bierce wrote during his time in the Golden State.
The introduction avoids any romanticized picture of Bierce, which should please most academic-minded readers. But those same readers may find it frustrating that Dunlap does not here provide any footnotes or citations – tools essential for the scholarly enterprise.
The task of choosing a representative selection of Bierce’s work is quite an undertaking, especially given that his own Collected Works consists of twelve volumes. (And those volumes themselves neglect millions of words of Bierce’s journalism.) Dunlap divides his selections into two categories: “Stories” and “Essays and Journalism.” He includes within the “Stories” section a number of excerpts from The Devil’s Dictionary, as well as “The Haunted Valley,” “A Watcher by the Dead,” “The Man and the Snake,” “Chickamauga,” “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “A Son of the Gods,” “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” and “Jupiter Doke, Brigadier-General.” In the “Essays and Journalism” section, Dunlap includes “What I Saw of Shiloh,” “Wit and Humor,” “Thought and Feeling,” “To Train a Writer,” “Aims and the Plan” (preface to Write it Right), “Bierce on the Funding Bill,” “A Freak War,” and “A Thumb-Nail Sketch.”
Just as Dunlap fails to provide citations in his introduction, in the body of the anthology he never makes it clear where and when the reprinted works were first published. Helpfully, the book does include a short “Sources” page in the back, but readers will have no sense of which works were culled from which sources. Additionally, the collection fails to recognize any of the revisions Bierce made from one publication of a particular piece to the next. Lay readers may not require such information, but Bierce students and scholars will likely object.
Of Bierce’s stories, Dunlap writes that they “divide easily into three categories: tales of horror, tales of war, and tall tales” (2). (These categories seem to have been borrowed from an earlier anthology, edited by Ernest J. Hopkins.) Yet it seems peculiar that Dunlap would categorize Bierce’s short stories in such a way, but not divide the fictions according to those distinctions. Of course, many of the stories would be difficult to categorize as belonging to any single one of these “sub-genres.” Tales of war can be horrific, and some readers might refer to a tall tale, such as “The Man and the Snake,” as a horror story. Even more problematic is the inclusion of entries from The Devil’s Dictionary – a full-length satirical lexicon – in the “Stories” section. These barbed dictionary entries may not belong with Bierce’s journalism, but nor do they belong in a section devoted to fiction.
Ultimately – and as is the case with many collections – this book will succeed or fail depending on the interests of its reader. In the hands of a lay reader, it will fulfill its duty of portraying Bierce as talented and complex writer of diverse forms. But if readers of the “Essentials Collection” come to the text expecting to find a great deal about California society, they will be disappointed. In the “Essays and Journalism” section, Dunlap chooses not to include many examples of Bierce’s muckraking newspaper columns about California politics and cultural and political figures. Instead he has selected Bierce’s commentary on the writing process, which would seem to appeal to a more scholarly audience. And yet while the collection will do a fine job of introducing an unfamiliar undergraduate to Bierce’s work, it lacks the necessary critical and bibliographical tools that a graduate student or scholar would find helpful.
I can therefore recommend Essential Bierce to general audiences and to students new to Bierce. Its selections will show readers some of Bierce’s very best work, and will encourage more than a few persons to investigate his other writings as well.
Penn State Erie, The Behrend College
Managing Editor, The Ambrose Bierce Project [journal
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