The ABP Journal
Fall 2005, Vol. 1 No. 1

[journal table of contents]

Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study. By Donald T. Blume. (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2004.)

Tales of Soldiers and Civilians
. By Ambrose Bierce. Originally published 1891 [1892]. Edited by Donald T. Blume. (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2004.)

NEW COMPANION VOLUMES from Kent State University Press present both Donald T. Blume's fresh editorial treatment of Ambrose Bierce's key 1892 collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, and his exhaustive critical analysis of the genesis and revision of the tales in the light of their periodical contexts.

Virtues first: Blume has clearly read more of Bierce's journalism than any other scholar who has tackled editing or criticism of Bierce's fiction. Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers is thus the best-informed study of Bierce's writing practices ever published. Blume understands keenly that Bierce's fiction and journalism are of a piece, not separated by artificial generic barriers.

The editorial care Blume takes in his reconstruction of the 1892 Tales of Soldiers and Civilians is also worthy of considerable praise. This edition is meticulous and beautifully-produced. Supplementary primary material from Bierce's journalism abounds. Apparatus is kept to a minimum, but with the help of Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers in Context, academic readers can trace Blume's major editorial interventions.

And they are interventions. Blume's version of Tales of Soldiers and Civilians is admittedly "an eclectic one informed by my judgment" (xxvii). Not offering a strict diplomatic version of the 1892 text, Blume instead attempts to present the 1892 volume as an integral artistic whole. He usually rejects revisions that Bierce made in the several ensuing editions, but is attentive to variant readings from the first periodical publications.

I can wholeheartedly recommend Blume's edition of Tales of Soldiers and Civilians for academic library collections and for Bierce fans inside the academy and out. For the first time since 1892, we can see Bierce's collection as a unified work of art, unobscured by the exigencies of later collected and selected editions.

I can recommend Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers in Context too, although merely as an ancillary companion to the edition. Unfortunately, it's not very readable as a critical essay, and its interpretive claims are often strained and sometimes curiously extreme.

The tone of the study is set by Blume's analysis of Bierce's "A Holy Terror," the first of the "Soldiers and Civilians" stories to be published. Blume's typical interpretation is well-illustrated here. He conceives of an ideal reader for one of Bierce's tales as someone who has read attentively, indeed nearly memorized, Bierce's journalism. Such a reader has been indoctrinated by Bierce in appropriate hermeneutic strategies. "To read 'A Holy Terror' as Bierce meant it to be read by those who could unlock its secrets, it is essential that the Wasp's role as the story's original host publication be understood" (5). Puzzling to me is not so much the insistence on contextualizing, which is standard 21st-century critical practice, but the suggestion that Bierce offers secrets to unlock. For Blume, reading Bierce is an initiation into esoterica. Readers who have been through an apprenticeship as decoders will succeed, but the master has deliberately sealed up his lore in occult packages.

I don't know why a popular newspaper writer would be so intent on hiding his meanings from anyone but an acolyte. But Bierce was a strange man, and perhaps he was so intent. The problem in Blume's readings is that once we have unmasked the real meaning beneath the ostensible ones, there isn't all that much to show for our efforts.

In the case of "A Holy Terror," for instance, the secret at the center of the tale turns out to be nothing more than an assertion that Bierce is more satirical than farcical. In readings of other tales, Blume's self-proclaimed critical incisiveness turns out to be little more than a detection of ironies (see the readings of "One of the Missing, "A Tough Tussle," and "The Horseman in the Sky"). On the best-known story in the collection, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Blume's innovation is to read the death of Peyton Farquhar as occurring over a period of fifteen minutes rather than being near-instantaneous, as the story implies and most readers assume. The result is a belabored excursus on hanging and death thereby that does not materially alter any of the dramatic effect of the story.

I don't mean to comment too harshly on Blume's exceptionally well-supported readings of Bierce. But the tone of his interpretations here is often querulous over what turn out to be exceedingly small matters. Readers will return from a close look at the trees, however, with a new appreciation of the forest of Bierce's art, as informed by Blume's venture into Bierce's workshop of 19th-century periodical publication.

Professor of English
University of Texas at Arlington

Copyright © 2005 The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights reserved.