- The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable
This bold and innovative study is that rarity among books on Bierce: one which eschews both biographical speculation and an outmoded literary historiography. Drawing on the semiological theories of Charles Sanders Peirce, the putative father of pragmatism, for her hermeneutic framework, Davidson examines Bierce's fictive explorations of language and its relation to perception, as well as his dubieties about the very legitimacy of prose itself. Her exegeses of individual stories are for the most part logical and persuasive. One is compelling: her brilliant reading of "Chickamauga." And not surprisingly, she tries her hand at "The Death of Halpin Frayser," which, more than any other work in the Bierce canon, is currently the focus of interpretive attempts, both in this country and in Europe, although it has not yet displaced "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" in the anthologies. Davidson regards this extraordinary tale as "a subversive act" simultaneously inviting and precluding elucidation, Bierce's chart of "the void that he sees at the heart of human existence."
Recognizing that his world reputation has far outstripped his limited recognition in the United States, she details the debt owed him by three famous postmodern writers (building on Brigid Brophy's fantasy that after his disappearance in Mexico, he made his way to South America, where he surfaced in Argentina in the avatar of Jorge Luis Borges). She demonstrates both that Borges' "The Secret Miracle" and Julio Cortázar's "The Night Face Up" derive from "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and that the Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa based his story "In a Grove" (known to Westerners in its cinematic version as Rashomon) on Bierce's "The Moonlit Road."
I am aware of no evidence that Bierce knew Peirce's work directly. He may, however, have been exposed to it through the mediation of Josiah Royce, who reinterpreted Peirce's logic of signs. Royce taught English at the University of California, and his only novel, the embarrassingly inept The Feud at Oakfield Creek (1887), dedicated to his "colleague and friend, William James," and set in Oakland and San Francisco, has a character modeled after Bierce. [End Page 399]
My reservations about Davidson's powerful contribution are few. She identifies the Hali of the epigraph to "The Death of Halpin Frayser" as a "bogus mystic," whereas in fact he was an Urdu writer contemporary with Bierce who had some knowledge of English. And it must be confessed that hers is a trendy book, repeatedly "calling into question" an "open-ended indeterminate text" that both "distances" and "privileges" the reader in the "diegetic process." Yet she occasionally plumps these withered raisins into freshness by a startling turn of phrase, as when she says of "One of the Missing" that its "text is as open as a noose." Among her analyses of the stories are a couple of misreadings, and other critics may quarrel, in a few cases, with her interpretations.
On balance, however, this book is a superb contribution to a subject of growing importance. Because Bierce does not fit into their conventional categories, literary historians have all but ignored him. By undercutting this phenomenon and establishing new criteria for a reassessment of his value, Davidson points toward a radical restructuring of American literary history. Her study is of value not only to admirers of Bierce and Charles Sanders Peirce, but also to linguists, semioticians, psychologists, and students of narrative technique and postmodernist fiction.