Introduction to "In the Midst of Life"
By George Sterling
I regret that I may not use the forbidden metaphor, "a star rising in the West." None other would so well express the gathering light and slow inevitability of ascension of Ambrose Bierce's fame. The Wise Men of the East first saw it as a feeble spark, scarcely to be detected through the haze and murk of the western horizon. "A little," they might have said, "and it will have set." But a little, and it had crept a degree farther up the literary heavens, and was finally visible even from Europe.
It had a strange quality, that star, a "cold Inclemency of light" such as we find in Vega in a clear midnight of spring, an austerity in its blue crystal, the bleak brilliance that lances from the larger diamonds. There was a ray that touched man only in his hour of pain, of terror, of death—a ray that revealed what we hesitate to behold and which leaves the weaker beholders, ungrateful for the vision accorded. The clairvoyance of the Greek drama- tist was here, revealing man as an august yet helpless figure in the clutch of the main tide of destiny. These tales were not cheerful ones; rather they held the reader as the serpent's eyes are fabled to fascinate the bird. Here was no comfort, no flattering exposition of man's vaunted triumph over his fates. He sat among Shadows, some of them akin to the shadows in his own soul. There was no care for him in the universe, no justice as he dreamed justice should be rendered to his race. But while he indignantly rejected the testimony, he could not forget it, nor put the witness from his mind. He began to ask: "Who is Ambrose Bierce?" And the fame of "the Shadow-Maker" began at the inevitable question.
More than one biography of Bierce is contemplated. Till one appear, the best account of his life may be found in Bertha Clark Pope's preface to his "Letters," published by the Book Club of California in 1922. In that volume is also contained a brief memoir by myself, and other such reminiscences may be found in my article in the October, 1925, number of the American Mercury. A summary of the records would relate that Ambrose Gwinett Bierce was born in Meiggs County, Ohio, on June 24, 1842, was given such education as the country school of that day afforded (he was an inveterate reader as a boy), and volunteered as a private at the outbreak of the Civil War, in 1861. He served for the entire duration of the strife, and during its latter years was an officer on the staff of General Hazen, He twice rescued wounded companions, at grave risk, and was himself twice wounded, once in the heel, and once, far more severely, in the head, this casualty during the battle of Kenesaw Mountain.
The war ended, he was brevetted Major for distinguished services, by especial act of Congress. He then joined his elder brother, Albert, in San Francisco, and took a position in the United States Mint there. But our Lady of the Inkwell was soon to call him, and not long afterwards he gave up that occupation for creative work, holding editorial positions consecutively on several San Francisco weeklies, the News Letter, the Argonaut and The Wasp.
In 1872, however, he went to London, where for four years he was on the staff of Fun, and an intimate friend of George Augustus Sala and the younger Tom Hood. It was during this period that he published those three little volumes, how rare, called "The Fiend's Delight," "Nuggets and Dust," and "Cobwebs from an Empty Skull." They were original in their often ghastly humor, but, though Gladstone himself had a good word for them, remain almost unknown, nor would Bierce himself acknowledge his authorship to the extent of autographing copies.
He returned to San Francisco in 1876, and lived in that city and such small towns as Auburn, Angwin and Wright for the next twenty-one years, his only absence from California being a brief period of employment as general manager of a mining company near Deadwood, Dakota. He was at first editor of The Wasp, whose caustic qualities lost nothing for his connection with that weekly. From this position he was allured by William Randolph Hearst, who had just begun the career that was to prove so ominously successful, and till the final years of his life was to conduct a department on the editorial page of Hearst's Sunday Examiner and, after his removal to Washington, D. C, on the New York American and finally in the pages of the Cosmopolitan Magazine.
By far the greater part of this work was polemical in its nature. Journalism in the West had not yet become entirely tame, had not yet resorted to the amenities and timidities of the more cultured regions of the planet. Bierce's pen was dipped in wormwood and acid, and he being, as H. L. Mencken has justly asserted, then and to this day the keenest wit of America, his assaults were more dreaded than the bowie knife and revolver, since relegated to the eastern centers of civilization. . He spared no one whom he thought deserving of his castigations. From millionaire to labor-leader, all were to know the "strength and terror" of his verbal onsets. Nor did he take refuge in words only: to my own knowledge he always carried, at least when in California, a large revolver, and was quite ready "to go farther into the matter" with such as cared to meet him on that plane! I have no memory that he was ever so challenged, though he once broke a cane over the head of a friend who had become a friend no longer.
It was during these twenty-one years in California, spent mostly in the country hamlets and towns that I have mentioned, that Bierce wrote practically all the work on which his fame is to rest. After his hegira to Washington, in 1896, his literary toils were perceptibly lighter, his satiric verse milder and his short-stories (though he did not believe this) much less fascinating. But his work had been done, and further efforts were to awaken but echoes in the dim caverns of the ghostly domains where he had wandered so far. Some of his contributions to the American never found publication, and arc lost to this day. The short-stories that appeared in the Cosmopolitan seem alone of any especial value.
Bierce, himself, thought that he would be remembered, if at all, as a satirist. In these days of universal tolerance and courtesy, the breed is almost extinct, but had he lived in the time of Pope he would have made that writer's work seem, by comparison, mild stuff indeed. There is little invective so terrible as that poured forth by him on California's fools and rascals—instances, in most cases, of breaking the butterfly on the wheel. But no English satirist has equaled the blistering intensity of wit that ran so easily from his pen.
Bierce had married, early in his western career the beautiful Molly Day. The couple took separate ways after the birth of two sons and a daughter, nor were they ever to meet again. Day Bierce, the brighter of the boys, was murdered in northern California, as the result of a love affair. Leigh, the younger, died when an assistant editor of a newspaper in New York City. Helen, the daughter, lives I with her husband, Francis Isgrigg, Esq., in Los Angeles. As for Bierce himself, he entered Mexico, in November, 1913, and was for a while on the staff of the insurgent Villa, but by January all letters from him ceased, and though, at the close of the war, diligent inquiry was made for him by both our State and War Departments, no trace of his actions nor fate was forthcoming until five years had passed.
It was then that an account of his death appeared, written by George F. Weeks, a correspondent in the field during the revolutionary period. It relates Mr. Weeks' friendship with Dr. Edmund Melero, a young man of Durango, who said that he was "the best of friends" with Bierce while the two were still connected with Villa's forces. He readily identified Bierce's photograph, and promised to make inquiry as to his fate.
That promise was fulfilled -when, a few months later, he came to Mr. Weeks' office in Mexico City, and related his meeting with a friend who had been a sergeant in General Tomas Urbina's forces under Villa. This man recognized Bierce in memory, from Don Urbina's description, and indeed Bierce was an unforgetable personality, what with his six feet of height, his ruddy face, snow-white hair and mustache, and piercing blue eyes. Bierce, said the sergeant, had been shot by command of Urbina.
According to the circumstances alleged, Bierce must have deserted Villa's army and joined that of the Constitutionalists, for the man's story went that Urbina, during a forced march, captured near the village of Icamole a pack-train of ammunition, all its guards escaping with the exception of a Mexican and an America. Brought before Urbina, they were questioned, but the American merely shook his head in reply, when interrogated. As none of Urbina's men could speak English, communication was impossible, and Urbina, being in extreme haste, promptly ordered both men to be shot. The order was executed at once, and both bodies buried in the same shallow grave. So, to quote Mr. Weeks: "This was undoubtedly the fate of Ambrose Bierce — exactly the fate he had expressed a desire to meet." And as this is the only account of the affair that diligent search has revealed, it may safely be taken as an accurate statement of the end of the author. Melero afterward brought his sergeant friend to see me, and he repeated his story as already given, also identifying a photograph which was shown him as that of the American whom he saw so summarily executed. Urbina fell out with Villa not long after this execution, and was himself killed by "Butcher" Fierro, the more or less private executioner for Villa.
Now appears, in a late issue of one of our quarterlies, a more circumstantial account of Bierce's end, in an article by one Adolph Danziger ("Adolphe de Castro"). Danziger flatly states that Bierce, after Villa's capture of Chihuahua and the inaction following, proposed to a peon acquaintance that they desert to the Carranza side. Villa, somehow hearing of this, obtained by torture a confession from the peon, and ordered him, sardonically, to lead Bierce to the Carranzista forces. This attempted, they were shot down by night, before they had gone more than a quarter of a mile, by a squad of soldiers, and their bodies left to the dogs and vultures.
Danziger goes on to relate that, ten years afterward, he obtained an interview with Villa, who scowled at the mention of Bierce, but who would go no further than to state that he had turned traitor and hence had been "driven away."
So the reader may take his choice between the two versions of the tragedy. Among those who knew Bierce, the Danziger account is laid open to grave doubts by his deliberate mendacitv in asserting that Bierce once worked for M. H. de Young, and had also endeavored to find a position with the Southern Pacific Railway, both acts for which he would cheerfully have suffered crucifixion rather than commit. Danziger was the person over whose head Bierce broke his cane to fragments, as hereinbefore stated, and his article, patently malicious, bears more than the above evidence of being a postponed revenge. One is left to wonder that he did not repair to Chihuahua and feast on the bones of Bierce.
I have gone to this length in writing of Bierce's possible fate, because its mystery has become one of profound interest to all readers of his work. It is significant that Bierce (if it was indeed he) refused to reply to Urbina. And yet Bierce had at least a slight acquaintance with the Spanish tongue. Again provided that it was he, the refusal is entirely in line with his evident wish to be slain in war. For he had definitely indicated that he was entering Mexico with that hope. "I am so old," he wrote (he was but seventy-one, with the vitality of a lion), "that I'm ashamed to be alive." And again: "To be a Gringo in Mexico—that is indeed euthanasia!" Icamole or Chihuahua—the Peace was the same.
I have said that Bierce's first appearance between book covers was with the publication in London of three small volumes whose paternity he was slow to acknowledge and whose literary worth he was wont to disavow. His next book was not to appear until 1891, with the publication, under the unimaginative title of "Tales of Soldiers and Civilians," of the stories in this volume. It failed, what with obtuse critics and the benighted public, to create the sensation that he expected. One purblind creature, reviewing the book in the New York Sun, went even so far as to suggest that it was written to scare children and timid old ladies—that, of these tremendous and impeccable tales! Bierce replied that the stories were published because he thought them good and true art, which is a modest estimate, "The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter," Bierce's only romance, written at the suggestion of Dr. Danziger, the plot being the creation of Professor Richard Voss, appeared the next year, and. was followed by his first book of satiric verse, entitled "Black Beetles in Amber." No further stories appeared, for all his prolific pen, for the following twenty years; but in 1898, G. P. Putnam's Sons republished "Tales of Soldiers and Civilians" under the present title. In 1899, appeared "Fantastic Fables"; in 1903, the second volume of satiric verse, "Shapes of Clay"; in 1906, "The Cynic's Word Book," a collection of epigrams, diabolically astute, for which he had hoped to be permitted the title, "The Devil's Dictionary"; in 1909, "Write It Right," a blacklist of literary faults, and "The Shadow on the Dial," a collection of essays recording some of his dislikes, and finally, during the years from 1909 to 1912, "The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce."
With the publication in these last volumes of such of his work as he felt best fitted to represent him in the annals of literature, Bierce laid by his pen. In the dust-thatched numbers of the weeklies, including the Sunday Examiner, to which he contributed his thousands of columns, lie, however, almost inexhaustible treasures of wit and wisdom, which, with the continuous growth of his fame and interest in his vivid personality, are sure to be brought back to the light of future years. A laborious task, indeed, and one whose outcome yet awaits a discerning public of numbers sufficient to make publication profitable. And yet the thing will be accomplished, some day, and the time to come will marvel at the mind that found so chary a welcome during its own existence.
It is hardly to be wondered at. Bierce, the first of the "columnists," never troubled to conceal his justifiable contempt for humanity at its present stage of development, a contempt truly Caligulan in its scope and intensity. Man leaped naked under that furious scourging, for Bierce was a "perfectionist," a quality that in his case led to an intolerance involving merciless cruelty. He demanded in all others, men or women, the same ethical virtues that he found essential to his own manner of life and mentation, and to deviate from his point of view, indeed, to disagree with him even in slight particulars, was the unpardonable sin. One was to have none other god beside him, and though he might, at the time, evince no anger at any lèse majesté, the offense was nevertheless recorded in his unerring memory, to be used as a weapon of wrath when the final break came, as come it did with practically all of his friends. His brother Albert attributed this failing to the wound in the head that Ambrose received in the Civil War, asserting that after that casualty his entire nature underwent a change of which a certain assumption of infallibility, combined with implacable severity, was the most disconcerting element. Be that as it may, his pessimism was darker than even Swift's, though, like his, of the same sophomoric quality that concerned itself with the immediate condition of the race, and was innocent of the far more terrible implications of infinity.
But whatever his opinion of mankind, he left it richer by his tremendous short stories, the richest trophies he was to wrest from oblivion, and the most notable of which are between the covers of this volume. Their highest claim to distinction is, I think, their style, of a clarity and simplicity unequaled in English letters. It is as crystal clear, yet as disquieting, as the waters of a haunted well. His heroes, or rather victims, are lonely men, passing to unpredictable dooms, and hearing, from inaccessible crypts of space, the voices of unseen malevolencies. No easy optimism is here, but one is made aware of the possible horrors' of life like cobras hidden in heaped orchids. Dislike the stories one may; forget them one cannot. Perhaps the greatest "terror tale" in our literature is Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher." But close behind it, that granted, come a dozen of Bierce's stories, prominent among them "The Death of Halpin Fraser." While in "An Occurrence at Owl Bridge"—Bierce was not fortunate in his choice of titles—we have one of the very greatest stories in the world's literature. It is absurd to claim that he derived from Poe, and indeed he wrote his tales with the intention in mind to have them differ from them as much as possible, so that we have in them a steely reserve that makes Poe's, usually, seem almost boyish by comparison. Of course, the "terror tale" was neither Poe's discovery nor sole property. It was Bierce's fortune to make it less fantastic, yet no less remarkable. But his tales do not depend, for their strange and dreadful impact, on the cerements and putridities that make those of Poe indelible. Bierce's tragedies are not of the tomb.
The stories are, naturally, in the "old style," the manner superseded not, as many imagine, by O. Henry, but by Kipling. As for the former, read any of his tales but "The Lost Leaf," and you have read it forever: the plot once known, the flippant manner is negligible. While in the case of Bierce's stories the reverse is in evidence, and one finds, in proof of their supreme artistry, that they can be read over and over, with continually increasing pleasure, what with their perfection of style, a style at once inimitable and unforgetable.
San Francisco, October, 1926.
Publishers Note: Two weeks before his tragic death, George Sterling, lifelong friend of Ambrose Bierce, completed his introduction for the Modern Library edition of "In the Midst of Life." It was the last writing from his pen.