It started innocently enough.
I read a few stories in September, so I could get more out of a one hour convention panel celebrating Bierce the (probable) 100th anniversary of this death.
I couldn’t just read the stories, though. Those Civil War stories and memoirs in between the covers of Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs looked interesting. And I had plenty of time left before returning to the library.
And then it was interesting enough to buy my own copy. And then I find out that Mr. Joshi co-edited a whole bunch of Bierce satires in the vein of his “Ashes of the Beacon” and “For the Ahkoond”.
So I bought that. And read it cover to cover.
Review: The Fall of the Republic and Other Political Satires, eds. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, 2001.
As I said when last speaking of Bierce, death is Bierce’s usual punch line.
And the joke was starting to wear thin for me with this book.
(By the way, the actual quick, rough, and manual count of death in these satires is 16 out of 39.)
Still, I can now claim to have read everything Bierce wrote that even approaches science fiction.
To joyfully and authoritatively denounce a work is worth the pain and time of reading it — usually. Bierce’s satires, though, aren’t that bad. And it wasn’t that painful to read them. But, if you don’t care about the minutiae of how Bierce expressed his opinion on a subject at different times, this book is tedious at times, especially reading it cover to cover.
Bierce fans will want this book. It includes non-fiction journalistic pieces and fictional satires published anonymously but probably by Bierce. Many pieces here were blended and reworked to become “Ashes of the Beacon”. Along with “For the Ahkoond”, it’s Bierce’s most accomplished satire.
Most of Bierce’s satires just aren’t that funny, and his points are often more concisely and effectively made in his non-fiction pieces. Not so funny journeys to imaginary lands are the feature of his “The Land Beyond the Blow”, an 11-part series which owes a strong debt to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Its narrator wanders from one strange island society to another, the people having Swiftian names: Lalugwump, Tamtonians, Batrugians.
The highpoint for me in that series was “The Dog in Ganegwag”, a funny rant showing Bierce’s idiosyncratic dog-hatred. “Cynolatry” is so entrenched that poor families who barely have enough for themselves support dogs. The worship of dogs is combined with other faiths “so long as the dog is not denied an equal divinity with the dogs of other faiths”.
About half the book is essays and in the notes to one, “The Struggle Between Man and Dog”, there’s a note stating Bierce once told a friend, “Pretty nearly all the anti-dog literature gets to me, as I seem to be recognized as the captain of the cult.”
“The Annals of the Future Historian” series is not as successful as “Ashes of the Beacon” because it skimps on the imaginative futuristic framing of the stories and has little drama in its plots.
Many of the fictional satires echo Bierce’s essays on similar topics. I suspect he wrote the former for two reasons: money and because they provided the opportunities to make jokes with his favorite punchline – death.
The usual Bierce preoccupations are here: labor unions, capital punishment, anarchists, railroad safety, protectionism, insurance companies, and, of course, dogs. There are some genuine delights like two pieces that rake Theodore Roosevelt over the coals. When he drops the pretense of a fictional frame, his concise prose can make his attacks witty and memorable even if you don’t agree with him.
Bierce was not a deep or consistent thinker on social and political issues, and Joshi and Schultz’s introduction is useful in pointing that out yet putting him in context.
The man who possessed “republican independence” (as he put it in his memoir “Working for an Empress”) wanted to restrict the press and didn’t like trial by juries, so he certainly wasn’t a republican in any usual American sense. His general complaints against the morality of lawyers and wisdoms of juries are fairly standard and ongoing to this day.
The man who didn’t like unions because he correctly thought them a trust of labor sometimes proposed government held trusts. He critique of the wasteful of capitalism in competing products and advertising sounds good in theory, but the experiment has been run, and it didn’t work out.
The man who once said he was in favor of abolishing private property seriously argues America allowed the accumulation of great personal wealth and approved of that.
His solution for labor-management disputes was the unrealistic admonishment that each should be solicitous of the others need. That’s a solution that never really worked out — at least in America.
His attacks against insurance companies and unions, the editors point out, owe something to their newness in Bierce’s lifetime. His belief that women were being allowed to commit murder with impunity is explained by some celebrated criminal cases touched on in his essays “Sex in Punishment” and “Some Thoughts on the Hanging”.
Other pieces are just interesting historical snapshots including two from the “Annals of a Future Historian” series: “The Republic of Panama”, written shortly after Panama got its independence from Columbia after an American backed revolution, and “The Second Invasion of China”, about American plans, after the Boxer Rebellion, to invade China to protect American nationals.
Some of the most witty and interesting, from a science fictional viewpoint, essays touch on evolution, Darwinian and technological. “Will the Coming Man Sleep?” seems a relatively serious speculation about man sleeping less and less. There is a concluding bit of Bierce cynicism though:
On the whole, we think it not unreasonable to look forward with pleasant anticipation to a time, some millions of years hence, when the literature of sleep will be no longer intelligible and the people of even this country be sufficiently wide awake to prevent the ten per cent of their number devoted to patriotic pursuits from plundering the other ninety per cent and to make the Judges obey the laws.
“The Decay of the Nose” and “A Scientific Dream” (a look at the speciation of future Californians of the human variety) are whimsical bits of not too serious speculation.
Bierce long had an interest in war and military technology. “A Chronicle of the Time to Be”, from the post-Russo-Japanese War world of 1904, postulates a future superpower built on a Chinese-Russian alliance. Two pieces, the fictional “The Fall of Christian Civilization” and the essay “Infumiferous Tacitite”, are built on the idea of a smokeless and noiseless gunpowder. I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly research where Bierce got this idea. A quick search of the Web of a Million Lies hints that it’s probably as old as gunpowder itself. Bierce imagines it enabling private and unpunished assassinations.
For a man who was an enthusiastic supporter of early science fiction writer Robert Duncan Milne, Bierce, even after the flight of the Wrights, was skeptical about powered flight being commercially practical.
As with their effort for Lovecraft, Lord of a Visible World: Autobiography in Letters, and Clark Ashton Smith’s poetry, the editors’ notes and introduction are informative. Without their notes and introduction, this book would lose half its value.
The Last of Bierce — for Now
And so I leave the house of the Bitter Mr. Bierce. And I don’t plan on returning soon.
I am reading a collection of weird poetry with at least one of his poems in it. And I find my mind still circling around Bierce enough that I will probably read some biographies of him. (Though Joshi says no satisfactory ones exist.) I don’t feel I know Bitter Bierce despite hearing tales from his life and all his opinions.
Other Bierce related material is indexed on the Bierce page.