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A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography.

By Ambrose Bierce. Edited by S.T. Joshi and David E. Schulz. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1998, xxvi, 356 pp., $38.00 cloth.)

This volume of autobiographical selections from Ambrose Bierce's published and private writings should forever discredit the "bitter Bierce" caricature, the mistaken critical assumption that Ambrose Bierce was a sardonic misanthrope. It traces in detail the parabola of his life, from his experiences during the Civil War, his arrival in San Francisco in 1867, his sojourn in England in the early 1870s, his work on behalf of the Hearst newspapers and magazines in the prime of his career, to his mysterious disappearance in Mexico in 1914. In fact, in these life-writings Bierce is a remarkably sympathetic figure, a military hero and an uncompromising enemy of sham and avarice who did not suffer sycophants gladly. He was a cynic, too, as he defined the term in The Devil's Dictionary: "A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be."

To his credit, Bierce commended the fighting spirit of the Confederate Army ("as a rule the Confederates fought better than our men" [p. 62]), defended "the fighting qualities of our colored regiments" (p. 63), and sympathized with the Chinese underclass in California. He did not shrink from excoriating presidents and generals, as when he referred to James Garfield's assassination in 1881 as "a colossal practical joke" (p. 185) or when he described General O.O. Howard as "skilled in the tactics of confusion and the strategy of retreat." Had Howard been born a few years later, Bierce declared, "it would have been greatly to the advantage of his military reputation outside church circles, and would have saved us two years of war" (p. 44). Bierce thought Oscar Wilde a "sovereign of insufferables," an "intellectual jellyfish," his lecture in San Francisco in 1882 "mere verbal ditch-water" (p. 192).

Though he disclaimed any pretense to literary greatness, Bierce was an uncommon craftsman who coined such neologisms as "mobgabble" (p. 147) and such apothegms as "Who writes well writes what he will; who writes ill writes what he must" (p. 154). In all, as this new edition of his autobiographical writing demonstrates, he merits modern attention as a type of Jeremiah howling into the wind.

Not that it illuminates all biographical blindspots. Mollie Day Bierce, the wife Bierce spurned when he learned she received letters from an admirer, remains an obscure figure; Bierce never mentioned her publicly and rarely privately. A reader of this volume may fairly yearn for more information about Bierce's relations with prominent California writers of the late nineteenth century, including Bret Harte, Ina Coolbrith, Mark Twain, Charles Warren Stoddard, Charlotte Perkins Stetson (a.k.a. Gilman), and Joaquin Miller; or for more complete accounts of his misogyny, as when he announced that "with rare exceptions" women who write "are destitute, not only of common sense, but of the sense of right and wrong--they are moral idiots" (p. 229).

While the book opens with such exquisite Civil War reminiscences as "What I Saw of Shiloh," A Sole Survivor ends not with a bang but a whimper, with an essay in which Bierce whines about dogs and with letters in which he complains about the proofreaders of his Collected Works. After a final chapter entitled "The End," the editors insert an anticlimactic epilogue, and then add an appendix. Still, Bierce's reputation is well-served by the volume, which ought to find a place on the shelves of scholars of California history and literature.
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Author:Scharnhorst, Gary
Publication:California History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2001
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