Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, by Roy Morris, Jr., Crown Publishers, New York, 1995, $30.
It is a painful fact that Ambrose Bierce’s chief claim to fame today is that he disappeared into revolutionary Mexico in 1913 and was never heard from again. That fact makes new biographies of him all the more welcome, and Roy Morris, in his new study, does a good service in resurrecting Bierces’s true, and considerable, literary worth.
He was among the few great literary figures produced by the Civil War (among soldiers, he and the poet Sidney Lanier, who fought as a Confederate, are the only two to make a mark). he was a brave soldier, the writer of the he best stores of the war (Tales of Soldiers and Civilians) and some of the best American supernatural tales (Can Such Things Be?). As a newspaper columnist in San Francisco, he wielded the most acidic pen before the era of H.L. Mencken, often attacking “rail-rogues” like Leland Stanford and Collis P. Huntington. Bierce had a well-earned reputation as a caustic critic and a very funny man. (The subtitle of this book is based on Bierce’s definition of “alone” in his classic The Devil’s Dictionary.)
But the sad fact remains that while Bierce’s Civil War stories (such as the well-known “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”) remain a lasting legacy, most of his written work was transitory, and it and his troubled life are overshadowed by the big question mark after the year 1913.
Morris does exemplary work in retracing the various tragedies and discontents of Bierce’s later life but, while recounting some theories (omitting some important others) on Bierce’s death at age 71, does not give a theory of his own on this greatest in American letters. He favors the not-new notion that Bierce – instead of going to Mexico or going and then soon returning – wandered into the Grand Canyon and committed suicide there. Morris has not solved the great mystery-and probably nobody ever will – but he has provided plenty of insight into a complex individual who spoke out against California railroad magnate Huntington (‘the swine of the century’) and the murder of a Chinese woman (‘galloping Christianity of the malignant California type”), yet was called “the Wickedest Man in San Francisco”.
Dale L. Walker