- Ambrose Bierce: The Making of a Misanthrope, and: The Shape of Art in the Short Stories of Donald Barthelme
Richard Saunders' Ambrose Bierce: The Making of a Misanthrope is more a monologue than a fully developed study. Characterizing Bierce as an idealist, romantic, and rogue, Saunders describes Bierce's San Francisco years from the time he arrived in 1866 at the age of 24 until the time he left for Washington in 1912, two years before his disappearance somewhere in Mexico. For Saunders, Bierce was a "flawed genius," with little faith in humankind, a man who put his satiric wit to work in a "demonic" way to call attention to the hypocrisy, racial prejudice, and political corruption he found all around him in the rapidly developing state of California. Because Bierce's first book of fiction, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, was not published until 1891, his reputation for some twenty-five years was mainly based on his vituperative columns in various San Francisco newspapers, where he earned a local reputation several years before he came to national attention with the publication in 1872 of a collection of his newspaper articles called The Fiend's Delight.
A ladies' man, Bierce was fiercely chauvinistic, women being the target of many of his caustic comments and slogans. Saunders says Bierce should never have married, but he did, in 1871, and shortly thereafter he set up what could be called a long distance marriage, mostly living apart from his wife and three children. For Bierce this was an ideal situation; for his wife a one-sided arrangement that ultimately led to divorce.
Though Saunders' factual narrative steadfastly traces Bierce's adventures in boomtime San Francisco, the book suffers from two of the same faults as Bierce's own works of fiction: an inconsistency in writing style characterized by an injudicious mix of the overblown and the cliched and an occasional bias, such as Saunders' attitude toward Bierce's mother-in-law and the effect she had on the marriage. But in spite of the occasional problems, Saunders captures with precision [End Page 260] the major ambiguity manifest in Bierce's life and works: the similarity between Bierce's penchant for ironic endings and his own disappearance and enigmatic death. What more perfect twist of fate is there than that "Bitter Bierce," as he was sometimes known, should have disappeared into silence.
Perhaps the most successful technique that Saunders uses in his biography is his frequent quotation from Bierce's newspaper columns. For most readers today, Bierce is known mainly for his authorship of the frequently anthologized "An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge." Thus Saunders' not-writing-about-but-often-quoting-from seems the most effective way to present the man himself. In fact, Bierce comes alive for the reader more through the quotations than through the narrative, and especially through a lengthy quotation from Gertrude Atherton's autobiography, Adventures of a Novelist. Atherton was one of the many female admirers who came to call upon Bierce. A difference is that she dramatized their meeting, including his attempt to seduce her, and her conviction that women had spoiled the handsome Bierce who, no doubt, thought himself irresistible.
Perhaps no contemporary short story writer has occasioned more argument as to ultimate worth of output as has Donald Barthelme. Thus a book-length study of his work on a scale attempted by Wayne B. Stengel is most welcome, particularly in the effort to present a typology by means of which stories can be classified and interpreted.
Barthelme has published over the past twenty years more than a hundred short stories in eight collections. Because many of his stories first appeared in the New Yorker, Barthelme's audience is probably broader than the usual audience for short stories. In addition, most anthologies of short stories that have been published over the last ten to fifteen years have included at least one...