THE LITERARY CAREER of Ambrose Bierce is usually spoken of in somewhat apologetic, qualified tones. There is a consensus that The Devil's Dictionary is his masterpiece, worthy of being compared favorably to other classics of misanthropic wit such as La Rochefoucauld's Maxims and Flaubert's Dictionary of Platitudes . Next on a scale of literary quality are a few short stories dealing brilliantly with the trauma of battle in the Civil War. His journalism -- in the form of newspaper columns and other commentary -- which he ground out for a number of newspapers in San Francisco during the last part of the 19th century, has to date been the least noetworthy of the available Bierce material.
Many of these journalistic pieces have not been accessible to the general public. Thus, Lawrence Berkove, a specialist in American studies at the University of Michigan, has performed a worthwhile service in pulling together in one volume 70 columns which Bierce wrote for William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner , as well as for the New York Journal , from 1898 to 1901. It is apparent that Professor Berkove's thesis adviser performed his duties well, for Ambrose Bierce: Skepticism and Dissent, contains all the obligatory scholarly apparatus: a solid introduction which fills in the backdrop of the Spanish-American war; a lengthy analysis of the strange "symbiotic" relationship between Bierce and his boss, Hearst; explanatory footnotes that help clear up allusions in the columns that might otherwise be meaningless to the modern reader; an appendix; a "Table of Emendations"; and an index of the many people and places referred to in the columns.
As a columinist Bierce was the ancestor of Westbrook Pegler, H. L. Mencken, and, in our own time, Nicholas von Hoffman. That is, he was obviously hired to be the "house iconoclast -- to question conventional wisdom on important issues, to puncture popular myths and shibboleths, and, in general, to infuriate readers withoutrageous pronouncements on people and events. Of course, Bierce was well qualified to play such a role since by the time he went to work for the Examiner he had established himself, through the force of his personality and withering wit, as a kind of literary arbiter on the West Coast. But the question of how sincerely he approached his task will have to be left to the literary historians and explicators to answer.
The timing of Bierce's employment with the Examiner was propitious, for it concided with a period of political self-indulgence in america. It was a time of muscle-flexing and sabre-rattling. "Yellow journalism" prevailed. Jingoism ran wild. The most characteristic statement of the time, of course, was Hearst's reply to an Examiner illustrator who wired to his boss from Cuba that there was no war there. Hearst's reply: "You furnish the pictures. I'll furnish the war." The two national obessions were the Spanish-American War and expansionism (sometimes referred to as "imperialism," depending on which side of the political fence one was on).
This irrational atmosphere provided a perfect catalyst for Bierce, the skeptic and naysayer. His attempts to inject some rationality and perspective into the conduct of the Spanish-American War are instructive, and most of the columns in this volume are taken up with this subject and its fallout. But there is a judgmental problem here because Bierce's attitude toward war and warfare was ambivalent. He was fascinated by tactics and strategy, what is commonly referred to as "military science"; and at times his analysis of victories and defeats is surprisingly astute. At the same time his cynicism at this twilight phase of his career was complete. When he refused to accept a large sum of money in army back pay, he defined war as "a by-product of the arts of peace" and peace as "a period of cheating between two periods of fighting."
In these columns Bierce's skepticism and dissent are directed mainly at our military conduct of the war with Spain and our bungling expansionism in the Philippins, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and other far-flung places. Here his grasp of military tactics serves to counteract the inflated rhetoric and distortions emanating from officers in the field and from politicians in Washington. The tone of the writing is almost coldly analytical. Example: "When you see a head hit it' may be an excellent rule in a barroom fight open to all, or a neighborly ruction at a wake, but it is not a sound principle in war." But when Bierce gets off the subject of tactics and into the idea of war his feelings are mixed. On the one hand he is capable of railing against the blood-and-guts brutality of battle; on the other hand, he could wax eloquent about combat as a "test" of valor. Ultimately, the possibility of men being killed in a meaningless war did not bother him as much as how well and how bravely they fought.
By and large, I would have to say that these 70 columns do not constitute an overwhelming reading experience. The book especially could not be recommended to the general reader for several reasons. Foremost is the topicality of the material which acts as a formidable barrier. Without a day-by-day knowledge of the people and events involved in our military and political adventurism during the mcKinley administration one is likely to be bewildered by Bierce's commentary. Then there is the matter of Bierce's Kiplingesque stance on such ideas as The White Man's Burden, Manifest Destiny and Social Darwinish (a philosophical euphemism for survival of the fittest in the social and economic jungle).
One could, I suppose, get him off the hook by assuming that he was merely reflecting what was ideologically fashionable at the turn of the century. Still, one finds oneself squirming uncomfortably at Bierce's frequent baldly stated allusions to "lesser breeds," meaning dark-skinned "primitive" people whose countries we were interested in annexing and whom we were bent on "civilizing." Finally, the prose style of these columns does not represent vintage Bierce. There is scant evidence of his blistering wit and those crisp epigrams through which he vented his rage. Bierce's forte was invective and gallows humor. There is not much of it on display in these pages.
Ambrose Bierce had admitted on several occasions that he felt no strong commitment to journalism. As he said to his friend, poet George Sterling, "There is so much in it [the column] to deplore, so much that is not wise -- so much was the expression of a mood or a whim -- so much that was not altogether sincere -- so many half truths, and so forth."
That is about as accurate an assessment of Ambrose Bierce, the pundit, as one could wish for.