To discover more about the Salem Literature online database, click here.
Critical Insights: Mark Twain
Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce
By Lawrence I. Berkove
Of all the authors who were contemporaries of Mark Twain, none had as much in common with him as Ambrose Bierce. When Twain's relationship with Bierce went well, it sometimes rose to the level of lukewarm. Usually, however, the two men kept their distance from each other, a respectful, polite distance at best, but occasionally a frigid and biting distance. Most scholars who know both authors think there was some antipathy between them. This perhaps overstates the case, but it is noteworthy that Twain and Bierce were not more friendly. Despite having genuine differences, they shared many striking similarities in their lives, in positions they held on a large variety of topics, and in some of their literary techniques. Twain is unarguably the superior author and richly deserves his reputation, but Bierce, a more remarkable author than is generally recognized, remains undervalued.
Comparisons of the two writers turn up so many parallels that either they arrived at amazing resemblances of mind, values, and works independently or there are grounds for the possibility that each may have been more aware of the other's work than he admitted, and that they may have engaged in a rivalry that involved reciprocal borrowing. If that proves to be the case, it would constitute additional evidence that Twain was not as original as he is generally believed to be.1 However, such a conclusion would not diminish Twain's genius, as no author develops in a vacuum. Moreover, in most cases, Twain improved upon the originals from which he is known to have borrowed. Such a conclusion should encourage further inquiry into the influences on him of other authors.
Comparisons begin with Twain's and Bierce's biographies. Both men were born into low-income families in tiny rural communities--Twain inFlorida, Missouri, in 1835; Bierce in Ohio's Horse Cave settlement in 1842. Both of their families soon moved to larger and more established towns--Twain's family relocated to Hannibal, Missouri, where he spent most of his boyhood. His youth in that Mississippi River town was his first formative experience and has come to be popularly known as the "Matter of Hannibal." He would later use Hannibal as the backdrop for much of his fiction, most notably The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894),"The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" (1899), and the posthumously published No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger. Bierce's family, with nine children, moved first to a farm near Circleville, Ohio, later to Warsaw, Indiana, and finally to Elkhart, Indiana. The recognizable presence of these early homes is abundant in Twain's fiction but sparse in Bierce's fiction. A reason for this may be found in a stanza Carey McWilliams quotes from an autobiographical poem Bierce wrote and published in the November 3, 1883, issue of the Wasp:
With what anguish of mind I remember my childhood,
Recalled in the light of a knowledge since gained;
The malarious farm, the wet, fungus grown wildwood,
The chills then contracted that since have remained.
The scum-covered duck pond, the pigstye close by it,
The ditch where the sour-smelling house drainage fell,
The damp, shaded dwelling, the foul barnyard nigh it (Biography 26)
Bierce's bleak recollection of his boyhood homes is possibly also in the unflattering descriptions of some of the rural communities he depicts in his short stories. Bierce was a stickler for unvarnished truth throughout his entire career, and his literalism and concomitant refusal to paint over the disagreeable facts of commonplace existence may be one reason he never matched Twain in popularity. However, the real difference between Twain's and Bierce's attitudes toward their boyhood homes might not be as great as first appears, especially when it is realized that Twain typically began his fictions with romantic illusions that when stripped away reveal ugly aspects of initially attractive fictional characters and communities, such as St. Petersburg, Pikesville, and Dawson's Landing. Scholar Victor A. Doyno has suggested that Huck Finn's preference for food in "a barrel of odds and ends" in which "things get mixed up, and the juice kind of swaps around" (Huckleberry Finn ch. 1, p. 2) was Twain's indirect hint that Huck, shunned by the respectable families of seemingly benign St. Petersburg to fend for himself, foraged for food in a swill barrel before it was poured into a hog trough.2
The Civil War
Seven years older than Bierce, Twain had some time to pursue his career interests before the Civil War in 1861 interrupted both of their lives. As is well known,Twain spent some of his prewar years in the printing trade at home and in various cities of the eastern United States. Later, he realized one of his boyhood dreams and became a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River between St. Louis and New Orleans. This second formative experience in his life, now popularly known as the "Matter of the River," became another source for much of his literature. Bierce, on the other hand, did not have much time for personal development. With the help of a benevolent uncle, he left his immediate family around the age of seventeen and enrolled in the respected Kentucky Military Institute, where he spent at least a year and learned military fundamentals and developed some advanced skills in topographical engineering and mathematics. In 1860, he returned to Indiana and worked at several jobs until President Abraham Lincoln issued a call for military volunteers on April 15, 1861. Four days later,Bierce enlisted for a three-month period. A bare month later, his unit was sent to western Virginia and saw action at Philippi, one of the first land battles of the Civil War.
The Civil War caused a major difference in Twain's and Bierce's lives, but one that grew less important over the years. On July 18, 1861, Twain left St. Louis for Nevada Territory, to be a secretary to his brother Orion, who had been appointed secretary of the new territorial government. In reality, Twain fled the Civil War. In Roughing It (1872),Twain states that he expected to be in Nevada for three months--the length of time generally believed by people in both the North and South that hostilities would last before an accommodation was reached. Instead, Twain stayed in Nevada nearly three years, through May 1864. From there he went to California, where he remained until December 1866, except for a four-month visit to Hawaii between March and July 1866.
After his first few months in the West, Twain entered journalism--a profession from which he was never thereafter completely separated. His five and one-half years in the Far West constituted his third major formative experience, during which he accumulated what can be called the "Matter of the West." Twain became a professional writer during that time and also acquired a reputation as a humorous speaker that followed him when he arrived in New York in January 1867 and helped establish him in the East.
For Bierce, theCivil War was the formative experience of his life. He served in the Union Army almost continuously from 1861 until 1865, except for a three-month furlough in 1864 to recover from a head wound. For a soldier, no engagement in which he fights is "minor," but among the major battles that Bierce endured were Shiloh (which was a seminal experience in the formation of his philosophy and came for him to epitomize warfare), Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Stones River, and Kennesaw Mountain. Through most of his military career, he was a lieutenant and a topographical engineer whose job was to reconnoiter prospective battlegrounds and prepare maps of the terrain. As his wounds testify, his was not a safe rear-echelon position. By the time he received a medical discharge in January 1865, he had seen more action than most Civil War veterans and, probably, more than most future literary figures.
Bierce was discharged from the army with the rank of lieutenant. Later, as a civilian, he received an honorary brevet commission as major, which skipped him over the intermediary rank of captain, and he was thenceforth occasionally addressed as "Major Bierce." Although Bierce undoubtedly deserved the tardy promotion and took pride in the title, none of his stories glorifies war. On the contrary, he was sharply skeptical of anything approaching a romantic view of war. He acquired a reputation as a military authority and harshly criticized military incompetence, especially among officers, some of them famous, who foolishly or willfully risked or wasted the lives of their soldiers.
After the war, Bierce worked for the federal government's Reconstruction program in the South, serving in Selma, Alabama, as agency aide to the special agent for the Treasury Department (Sole Survivor 69). The corruption he observed from that post eroded what little idealism he had left, so when his admired former leader, General W. B. Hazen, offered him a place on an army mapping expedition to California, he accepted. When he arrived in California in 1866 and discovered that the commission in the regular army he expected was not offered him, he resigned from the army, took a position as a night watchman at the San Francisco Sub-Treasury, and began writing for the San Francisco News-Letter and California Advertiser. This launched him into a new career, and for the rest of his life he supported himself as a journalist and achieved national prominence, especially for "Prattle," his weekly feature column of commentary.
While Bierce and Twain were both still early in their writing careers, they met each other in California, probably during the mid-1860s. Carey McWilliams believes that by that time Bierce already admired Twain and was studying his writings "to sharpen lethiferous wit against bovine humor" (Biography 83) and that their first meeting was humorous and friendly (87-88). If so, the friendship soon took a rocky path. By February 19, 1870, Bierce in his News-Letter column remarked on Twain's recent marriage toOlivia Langdon with a charge that Twain had calculatedly chosen "some one with a fortune to love--some one with a bank account to caress" (qtd. in McWilliams, Biography 88). Roy Morris, Jr., records a subsequent accusation from Bierce that Twain's wife's wealth had made it unnecessary for him to lecture anymore and that he could now indulge his "native laziness." Still later, when Twain's father-in-law died, Bierce ironically approved in print the marriage because Livy's inheriting a quarter of a million dollars had removed any doubt concerning the "propriety of the transaction" (125). Even making allowances for the rough humor of the West of that era, Bierce's comments were nasty, and if they reached Twain's ears, they would have caused resentment. There is no reason to believe that Twain learned of them,3 but they indicate either hostility or jealousy at some level in Bierce.
Twain and Bierce met again in 1872 in London, England, where Bierce--who by then had also married an affluent woman--was now living and making his living writing for hire, especially for the British humor magazine Fun. McWilliams says of this period that "Bierce and Twain met often and became quite good friends" (Biography 88). This is perhaps a bit too strong. Although the two men occasionally socialized with each other, even in their early years they seemed to regard each other as rivals. For example, while they were both in London, they were invited to a dinner at a club at which Bierce was engaged to speak. He chose to tell in a humorous way about his first meeting with Twain. However, while Bierce was speaking, Twain managed to look bored in such a way as to upstage and undercut him. Bierce saw this and faltered in his delivery. Bierce was proud, and, according to Morris, he was white-faced with humiliation when he sat down; he never again spoke in public (142-43). It is true that Twain and Bierce occasionally complimented each other to third parties (Grenander, "`Five Blushes'" 170), but the record of Bierce's subsequent brief and scattered comments about Twain in publications tends to be on the sarcastic side.4 The few references to Twain in his private letters are either innocuous or mildly friendly, and in one of his late letters, he affects disingenuously to have barely known Twain and to have met with him only several times (Much Misunderstood 151).
After Twain returned to the United States in 1874, he wrote a damning letter about Bierce to his British publisher, Chatto & Windus, in which he described Bierce's 1873 book Nuggets and Dust as "the vilest book that exists in print--or very nearly so" and claimed that "for every laugh that is in his book, there are five blushes, ten shudders and a vomit. The laugh is too expensive."5 Although both M. E. Grenander and one of the editorial notes to volume 6 of Mark Twain's Letters (102) see this letter aimed narrowly at Nuggets and Dust, the possibility remains that Twain sensed a rival in Bierce and, as he did with such potential competitors as the "Phunny Phellows" humorists, emphatically denied any tie to his works.
It is unlikely that Bierce knew of Twain's letter, but what he could not have missed fourteen years later was the marked underrepresentation of his work in Mark Twain's Library of Humor (1888). Published by Twain's own firm, Charles L. Webster & Co., this anthology understandably gave prominence to Twain, including some of his best short fiction and extracts from books. But it included only seven brief fables of relatively trivial significance written by Bierce.
Twain's genius as a writer had appeared almost from the beginning of his career in Nevada, but Bierce also hit the ground running. Although it tookhim almost a quarter of a century after the Civil War to begin writing the extraordinary tales that now establish him as the most important author to have come out of that war, long before those tales Bierce was already recognized as one of the leading and most versatile authors of the West. His work had appeared in the Overland Monthly, Argonaut, and Wasp--leading literary journals on the West Coast. Approximately one-third of his total fictional output had been written by 1886.6 Much of it is humor at least as good as other authors' works in Mark Twain's Library of Humor, and some of it consists of pieces close in quality to the Twain items that were included. Bierce's "Why I Am Not Editing `The Stinger'" (1874) and "Mr. Masthead, Journalist" (1879) parallel Twain's own "How I Edited an Agricultural Paper Once" (1870). Bierce's "Jupiter Doke, Brigadier-General" (1885) is choice and unlike anything Twain wrote until the lesser-quality"Luck" (1891).
While Twain lent his pen name to Mark Twain's Library of Humor, most of the selecting was actually done by William Dean Howells and Charles H. Clark,7 but Bierce did not know that. If no rivalry existed between them before the book came out, Bierce would now have reason to feel slighted. If a rivalry had already existed, it would have been further fueled.
Shock, Humor, Wit, and Satire
Twain maintained ties with his former associates in Nevada and California and undoubtedly was kept informed of literary news there, in which Bierce featured prominently. Meanwhile, from his own occasionally sour or snide comments on Twain, it is certain that Bierce kept apprised of Twain's growing reputation. More than that, McWilliams reports, Bierce admonished the poet George Sterling to reread Huckleberry Finn (Biography 88). However, did either man appreciate what the other was doing? No hard evidence exists to answer that question definitively, but the similarities in what they wrote are too many to be dismissed as mere coincidences. On the surface, it is evident that they covered the same ground, often in much the same way, and they sometimes wrote similar pieces inspired by the same sources. Some of the most apparent similarities are outlined below.
Gory Details to Induce Shock
Bierce has long been notorious for his use of gory details to shock readers. He used them as early as 1873 in Fun, and he continued to use them throughout most of his writing career. However, as Gladys Bellamy points out, in such early works as "The Great Prize Fight" (1863) and "A Bloody Massacre near Carson" (1863), Twain anticipated Bierce's lifelong development of this technique (100-101). In Bierce's fiction, shock is seldom if ever used as an end in itself; almost always it is used as a means to induce readers to face up to and reflect on unpleasant realities. Twain also, as early as"Cannibalism in the Cars" (1868), displayed a similar use and then went on to devise ways of concealing and delaying shock until after readers penetrated his stories' surfaces and reached their content level.
Humor and Wit
Both Twain and Bierce have been praised for being humorists and wits, both produced notable examples of both genres, and both gave thought to distinctions between humor and wit. Their ideas on these distinctions changed subtly over the years and deepened. In 1885, Twain observed:
Wit & humor--if any difference, it is in duration--lightning and electric light. Same material, apparently; but one is vivid, brief & can do damage--tother fools along & enjoys elaboration. (Notebooks 162)
He later elaborated on the differences among humor, wit, and comedy in his well-known essay "How to Tell a Story" (1895). However, in the"Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar" epigram that heads chapter 10 of Following the Equator (1897), he wrote: "Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of Humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven."
As previously mentioned, M. E. Grenander thought of Bierce as a wit and Twain as a humorist. This reflects Bierce's own view of himself. In a "Prattle" discussion of the subject, he wrote:
Humor is tolerant, tender; its ridicule caresses; wit stabs, begs pardon--and turns the weapon in the wound. Humor is a sweet wine, wit a dry; we know which is preferred by the connoisseur.
He then added, "They may be mixed, forming an acceptable blend" (Examiner March 23, 1903). An earlier example of his idea of wit occurs in a "Prattle" response to a letter writer: "L. C.--If the paragraph `made you laugh' it was not `witty.' Wit is not laughable. N.B.--I'm assuming that you understand what you read" (Examiner February 5, 1893). It is hardly profitable to pursue hairsplitting distinctions among wit, humor, comedy, irony, sarcasm, satire, and sardonicism, inasmuch as they overlap. Both authors exhibit all of these literary techniques, but Twain expressed a preference for humor and Bierce for wit, and both authors in the final analysis transcend pigeonholing by any or all of these distinctions.
Another form of wit was Twain's and Bierce's use of oftencynical aphorisms. R. Kent Rasmussen notes that Twain always had a gift for the "superbly turned phrase" (xiv), but it was Bierce who as early as 1874 began writing satirical definitions. In 1875, he composed a piece titled "The Demon's Dictionary," and in March 1881 he began a feature series in the Wasp titled"The Devil's Dictionary" that attracted much notice. He later expanded this dictionary, which he eventually published as a book. The genre of the aphorism, however, sometimes forces meaning to be subordinated to wit, and Bierce apparently found that mere quotableness could misrepresent his thinking. From 1885 through 1909, he published less sensational but deeper epigrams, first in the Wasp and after 1887 in his syndicated columns in Hearst periodicals. The cynical maxims of Twain's"Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar" in Pudd'nhead Wilson and "Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar" in Following the Equator thus had precedent in the already famous definitions and epigrams that Bierce had popularized.
Cynical Satires of Moralistic Fables and Folktales
Twain'sbest-known pieces in this category are"The Story of the Bad Little Boy Who Didn't Come to Grief" (1865) and"The Story of the Good Little Boy Who Did Not Prosper" (1870). Later developments of his along this line include"Some Learned Fables for Good Old Boys and Girls" (1875) and"Little Bessie" (1908-1909). These tales are transparently ironic and, through the employment of the Sunday-school narrative style used to entertain and instruct children, undercut conventional religious morality. In 1873, in some of his contributions to Fun, Bierce began mocking conventional morality for its romantic shallowness in such parodic sketches as "The Magician's Little Joke," "The Grateful Bear," and "Converting a Prodigal," which last bears comparison to Twain's"Story of the Bad Little Boy." Under the guise of obvious humor, both Twain and Bierce thus evinced a cynically bleak view of human nature.8
Some evidence suggests each man might have had an earlier work of the other in mind when he wrote a later piece of his own. This is not to claim that Twain and Bierce plagiarized each other, but that though their styles certainly differed and their plots may have varied, they still used similar situations and central ideas. For example, Bierce's "Perry Chumley's Eclipse" (1874), though amusing, weakly resembles Twain's sparkling "A Full and Reliable Account of the Extraordinary Meteoric Shower of Last Saturday Night" (1864). However, as the latter's publication antedated Bierce's arrival in California, similarities in the two stories may have been only coincidental. A nearer resemblance can be found in both men's interests in the idea of erecting a monument to the Bible's Adam. Howard G. Baetzhold reports that the genesis for Twain's satirical"A Monument to Adam," which was published in Harper's Weekly in 1905, was an interest he first had in 1879 that subsequently found expression in an 1883 talk "On Adam" (522). Meanwhile, Bierce published his own satirical piece titled"A Monument to Adam" (which mentions Twain) in the Californian of 1880; it was reprinted in 1890 in the Wasp. Even if both men independently developed an interest in the topic at the same time, Bierce's earlier publication of his piece makes it eligible to be considered a precursor to Twain's work. Similarly, Bierce's tale "The Famous Gilson Request" (1878) anticipates by more than twenty years Twain's "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" (1899). Both stories, Robert L. Gale observes, are satirical and expose human avarice and civic self-righteousness (93-94).
Even more directly, both authors wrote sketches not only on the same topic but also with almost identical titles. Twain's 1865 piece "Just `One More Unfortunate'" describes a girl in jail who pretends to be simple, innocent, and unassuming but is actually just the opposite. There is no subtlety in Twain's style; he frankly denounces the girl as "competent to take charge of a University of Vice." In 1871, Bierce published a brief sketch in the San Francisco News-Letter titled "One More Unfortunate" that at first seems to be pathetically describing a young woman bent on suicide, but it turns out that the girl has a romantic crush on a policeman and is trying to entrap him into becoming involved with her. The sketch is skillful, understated, and in the manner of classical Cynicism analyzes conduct for an underlying agenda. Bierce concludes the sketch without obvious moralizing, the last line only describing ironically that on the woman's "clean, delicate face" was "an expression that can only be described as frozen profanity."
In 1868, Bierce published in the News-Letter a series of four satires purporting to be observations by a traveler from a hitherto unknown Asian country on American culture as he observed it in San Francisco ("Letters from a Hdkhoite"). Naive and idealistic, the traveler attempts to understand what he sees by reference to what he knows from his own country. A contrast results, generally to the disadvantage of San Francisco. The influence of Oliver Goldsmith's Letters from a Citizen of the World (1762) and Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) is easily seen in these accounts. In 1870-1871, Twain wrote a similar short series, "Goldsmith's Friend Abroad Again," for the Galaxy. Openly indebted to Goldsmith's Letters, Twain's series was an exposé of California's corrupt system of justice from the point of view of a naive and innocent Chinese traveler. In 1875, he wrote"The Curious Republic of Gondour" for The Atlantic Monthly. That sketch is a Swiftian account of a visit to an imaginary land with better laws than our own. Between 1888 (when Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward was published) and 1907, Bierce again returned to Gulliverian social satires with eleven short pieces that were later amalgamated into a single work: "The Land Below the Blow." Although Swift and Goldsmith were the ultimate inspirations for these works of Bierce and Twain, Bierce was first into print with "Letters from a Hdkhoite" and might thereby have been a more immediate model than Goldsmith for Twain. On the other hand, Twain's success with "Gondour" might have moved Bierce to return to his Gulliverian satires.
Both authors also wrote pieces in the subgenre of "future history." In these works, generally both satirical and pessimistic, narrators from some point in the future look back on what are for Twain's and Bierce's readers the present and try to make sense of the scattered and almost obliterated remnants of the once-glorious American civilization and detect the causes of its demise.
Both Bierce and Twain learned the technique of the hoax from the masters of Nevada's Sagebrush School. Twain, of course, lived and worked in Nevada from 1861 to 1864, and he kept up friendships with some of his Nevada associates through the rest of his life. Elsewhere, it has been advanced at length that much of Twain's most important fiction, most especially his novels, have subtle hoaxes deep in their cores that when recognized reveal powerful and surprising themes that unify the individual works and relate all of them to each other.9 Bierce also had direct contact with Sagebrush authors both from his position as editor of the Argonaut, which published contributions of some of them, such as Dan De Quille and Joe Goodman, sometimes in the same issues with his own contributions, and especially from his occasional visits to Nevada's Comstock Lode and his close personal friendship with Sam Davis, one of the most accomplished Sagebrush authors.10
In one of his essays, Carey McWilliams perceptively observes that it is impossible to discuss Bierce apart from the tradition of the hoax ("Introduction" iii-vi). Although this statement certainly applies to Bierce's penchant for literary pranks, such as his parts in the Poe hoax and the early book The Dance of Death (1877), it also extends to some of his best-known stories, such as "The Death of Halpin Frayser" (1891), the Parenticide Club tales (1886-1893), "Moxon's Master" (1899), and most particularly and brilliantly his masterpiece,"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890).11 Apart from their use in common of the technique of the hoax, Twain and Bierce evince themes that, though not identical, are close in their artistic subtlety and pessimistic content.
Both Twain and Bierce were raised in frontier Calvinism. The influence of this on Twain was seminal and far too involved to be summarized adequately here other than to say that a deep and bitter criticism of God is explicit and notoriously abundant in the writings of Twain's last two decades. Also, that although Twain remained a believer, his opposition to God in the form of heretical Calvinism is central to many if not most of his works of fiction.12 Bierce was only slightly influenced by his Calvinist background, but he, too, expressed a lifelong antipathy to religion, especially Christianity. Bierce remained interested in and informed about theology during his entire life but replaced formal adherence to a religious creed with an engagement with philosophy. He was particularly attracted to classical Stoicism and Cynicism, both of which emphasized moral conduct. Classical Stoicism emphasized Reason as the guide to behavior; classical Cynicism advocated following Truth but tested all claims to it for underlying agendas. Bierce explicitly acknowledged the importance to him of both philosophies in his weekly newspaper columns in the San Francisco Examiner, and their presence can be seen operating in the stands those columns take. His stories, however, put those philosophies on trial and derive no small measure of their power from demonstrating the ultimate failure of philosophy to cope with life.
Like Twain, whose examples of similar skepticism of, or outright hostility to, Christianity and its professional promoters are well known and easily available, Bierce never tired of exposing clergymen and avid devotees of all religions for hypocrisies, ignorant or mean-spirited positions, and illegal activities. So many instances of this occur in his journalism that only a few selections will have to represent the range. In a cynical response, for example, to a reader's letter, he wrote, "`Heaven and Hell, as taught to us,' are neither places nor conditions; they are parts of an apparatus for picking pockets" (Examiner December 2, 1894). On July 3, 1887, he published a poem in which he satirized the egotistic cupidity and the deep distrust of God underlying the prayers for rain of Illinois farmers: "Send us the showers, Lord, and parch the plains/ Of Indiana./. . . ./We've sold our wheat already--high: that crop's/ Beyond Thy Power." This sentiment closely parallels Twain's attack on Special Providences in "The Second Advent" (1881).
In 1891, when Rabbi Jacob Voorsanger of San Francisco complained that Bierce had been unfairly critical of him, Bierce replied in the Examiner, "I have ever taken an unholy delight in making mischief in all the houses of the Lord." All other denominations have had their turn, he wrote, "will he [Rabbi Voorsanger] decline his inning at the spit?" Bierce then proceeded to a larger point, a characteristic theme of his:
It is not for . . . any priest of any religion, to complain of injustice. Through all the centuries of history the trail of every priesthood has been a trail of blood--the blood of those who dared to believe otherwise than they. Whenever and wherever they have had the power they have conducted their controversies with fire and sword: they have combated [sic] heretical doctrine by removing the heads that entertained it. (September 6, 1891)
This position is so close to Twain's that it would be virtually impossible to be certain of its authorship were it not verifiable that Bierce wrote it.
Unlike Twain, however, Bierce's "crusade" against Christianity did not include Christ. Twain retained an ambivalent default Trinitarian belief in Christ and respected the human Christ as a dispenser of mercy and salvation while despising the divine Christ for introducing Hell (Letters from Earth 46). In contrast, Bierce always praised Christ but regarded him not as divine but as a "lightning moral calculator." Bierce stated that, for himself, the ultimate test of right was what
"under the circumstances, would Christ have done?"--the Christ of the New Testament, not the Christ of the commentators, theologians, priests, and parsons. The test is perhaps not infallible, but it is excellently simple and gives as good practical results as any. (Examiner June 28, 1891)
Coming from different perspectives, therefore, both Bierce and Twain arrived at a similar practical conclusion. They also fully agreed on the position that Bierce articulated when he wrote that "in the matter of width the gulf between Christianity and Christ is no floor-crack" (December 25, 1898). For both men, the institution of Christianity was a diminution, a warping, even a perversion of the best of that for which Christ stood.
Despite their hostility toward institutionalized religion and God, both Twain and Bierce gave evidence of being uncomfortable with their intellectual conclusions and showed signs during their careers of a concern with supernaturalism and God. As early as Roughing It (1872), but also in Huckleberry Finn (1884) and A Connecticut Yankee (1889), there is muted evidence of Twain's belief in a malevolent deity. Especially in his last period, a number of Twain's works--some left unpublished or incomplete--reflect a mind obsessed with manifestations of a deity and the appearance of angels, spirits, and mysterious strangers. The most extensive and searching of these works is the posthumously published No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger (written 1902-1908). Its protagonist, a youth in medieval Austria named August Feldner, is taught by a supernatural being named Forty-Four to regard the universe as literally unreal, essentially a thought projection. Forty-Four's last instruction to August can be read as an inducement to use his mind to create his own world. This "inducement," however, intimidates August with its overwhelmingly daunting challenge for a mortal and imperfect human to act like God. As much, therefore, as Twain was disposed to consider God as intending no good to the majority of humanity, and life between the cradle and the grave as a sort of hell, in the final analysis he recognized that if God were evil, fallible humans would make even worse deities.13
Although Bierce professed to be an unbeliever, several of his pieces suggest his dismay at the idea of existence without meaning. Probably the best known of these pieces is "An Inhabitant of Carcosa" (1886), a nightmarish tale of obliteration and spiritual desolation. McWilliams speculates that it might have had its genesis inBierce's Civil War experiences in Coosa County, Alabama (Biography 67). In a revealing and remarkable Examiner column Bierce wrote on July 24, 1887, about some of his recurring dreams, he included the following stanza that expressed the "dreadful truth" of the "extravagant fancy" of another, similar nightmare:
Man is long ages dead in every zone,
The angels all are gone to graves unknown;
The devils, too, are cold enough at last,
And God lies dead before the great white throne!
Bierce later inserted this stanza in "Finis Aeternitatis," a longer poem that ends as a satire on a contemporary millionaire; however, the satire appears to be unsatisfactorily tacked on to what started out to be a serious religious reflection on a hauntingly empty universe.14 Admittedly, such ventures are rare in the majority of Bierce's works, but toward the end of his life, in his last published fiction, such as "The Moonlit Road" (1907), "A Resumed Identity" (1908), "The Stranger" (1909), and, most particularly, "Beyond the Wall" (1908), Bierce tentatively but seriously explores the possibility of postmortem existence, a spiritual dimension in which souls might complete missions and even unite with each other in fulfilling love.
Although both Twain and Bierce were critical of institutionalized religion and God, both at times conceived of a God who created grandeur and inspired awe. In 1886, Bierce wrote the following poem, titled "Creation," for his column in the Wasp:
God dreamed--the suns sprang flaming into place,
And sailing worlds with many a venturous race!
He woke--His smile alone illumined space.
In 1909, Twain wrote the manuscript of Letters from the Earth, which would not be published until 1962. On its first page appears the following passage:
He [God] lifted His hand, and from it burst a fountain-spray of fire, a million stupendous suns, which clove the blackness and soared, away and away and away, diminishing in magnitude and intensity as they pierced the far frontiers of Space, until at last they were but as diamond nail-heads sparkling under the domed vast roof of the universe.
The contrast of the former considerations of a malevolent or meaningless world with these glorifications of an imagined deity are inconsistencies within the works of both authors, but these inconsistencies themselves constitute another similarity. The age in which both men lived was damaging to faith. Some found peace of mind in one extreme or the other: unquestioning faith or radical unbelief. Ultimately, it was common particularities of both Bierce and Twain that although their stands on religion were angry, they derived no pleasure from them, and while both men were characterized by skepticism, both also allowed expression to the impulse of their will to believe.
Social Criticism and Antipathy to War and Imperialism
Twain and Bierce were among the most outspokensocial critics of their time. From his early journalistic experiences in Nevada and California to the end of his life, Twain attacked in prose and fiction a broad spectrum of injustices: the corruption of justice, racism, unethical business practices, sham, pretense, misdemeanors of the high and mighty, the materialism of the Gilded Age, and betrayal of public trust. As for Bierce, it is impossible to read more than three or four of his weekly columns without encountering the fearless, almost reckless scourging of rogues, scoundrels, and fools that earned him the sobriquet of "the man with the burning pen." He became a predecessor of the muckraker movement when in 1896 his investigative journalism led the successful assault on Collis P. Huntington's railroad refunding bill scam. In short, both men were profoundly involved in the day-to-day affairs of their time and place and attacked many of the same targets.
Twain'shatred of war manifested as early as"The Private History of a Campaign That Failed" (1885) and in the chapters on the Battle of the Sand-Belt in A Connecticut Yankee. It thereafter appeared with increasing frequency and explicitness in such works as"The Chronicle of Young Satan" (1900),"The War Prayer" (1905), and "Glances at History (Suppressed)" (1906?). At first supportive of the Spanish-American War of 1898, Twain became disillusioned by America's decision to retain some of its wartime conquests, and he immediately became involved in the cause of anti-imperialism, which overlapped with his scorn of shallow appeals to unthinking patriotism and his basic antipathy to war. He did not know war at first hand, but as "The War Prayer" demonstrates, he did not need personal experience to intuit its horrors. Similarly, his humanitarianism overrode his sectarian patriotism, and he could empathize with Spaniards, Filipinos, Chinese, and aboriginal Australians and Tasmanians, as well as African Americans, when they were victimized by the brutal arrogance of his own nation, race, or culture. At heart, he was oppressed by the legacy of Cain, the ancient flaw of human nature that perversely inclines humans to murder one another. He blamed God for having created it and humans for possessing and acting on it.
OfBierce it can be said that he came to hate war during his service in the Civil War. Vincent Starrett realized this in his perceptive observation that the stories of Bierce and Stephen Crane are "enduring peace tracts" (60). None of Bierce's tales glorifies war. The Civil War shocked him. It was not just the spectacle of armies fighting a modern war with horrifying new technology that troubled him, but the gory particulars of individual situations that he could not forget: units being decimated in minutes by virtually solid onslaughts of shredding lead and iron; soldiers being mangled and disemboweled and left on the battlefield, sometimes still alive, for animals to eat or for fire to burn; the agonies and screams of the wounded; incompetents ordering men into hopeless charges and fatal traps; bravery wasted and mediocrity rewarded. Whatever religious belief Bierce might have brought with him to the war, he lost it in combat. "Heroism," "glory," "triumph"--these became hollow words for him. "Divine purpose" and "justice" became abstract terms whose meanings conflicted with the details of fields of corpses and numberless personal tragedies.
These memories stayed with Bierce and tormented him through the rest of his life. It took him almost a quarter of a century after the war to begin to exorcise them by writing stories. By focusing on the perceptions and mental processes of their protagonists, his war tales raise realism to a new level and expose in their protagonists' minds the pain, suffering, and, frequently, the self-deceptions of war. Still, Bierce did not go to the extreme of automatic opposition to all war; he understood that there are times when war may be justified. In his columns on theSpanish-American War, Bierce initially supported American military action, but as soon as he realized that the war was not one of national necessity, he became critical of it in his columns--one of the extremely few Americans to do so publicly during the war. As he saw the ineptness of the way the military was conducting the war, his commentaries became ironic. Once the war turned imperialistic, Bierce directed his irony toward the McKinley administration, and he thereafter flayed the nation's reaction to the Philippine insurrection and its intention to rule the territories and populations it had "liberated."15 Bierce did not approve of imperialism but accepted that Nature drove it as part of its impartial law of "survival of the fittest" and expected that just as America annexed territory now because it could, in the future it would be effaced in its turn and replaced by some other power that would conquer its way to eminence.16 Considering therefore that Twain's initial response to war was to flee it and Bierce's was to enlist, each man ultimately drew much closer to the other's position.
This study of the relationship of Twain and Bierce neither pretends to be exhaustive nor denies that there might be more than one cause for particular similarities. However, is it likely that there is no common denominator for all or most of them? It would seem willfully obtuse to dismiss all of Twain's and Bierce's similarities as coincidences; there are too many--the above list is not complete--and they are too close to have been merely accidental. The purpose of this study has been to consider two contemporary authors who are rarely mentioned in the same context and who are ranked very differently as literary figures, and to recognize that there exists a case for connecting them.
In life, Twain and Bierce seemed to have little regard for each other, but what passed before as indifference or hostility may now be understood as rivalry. It would have been difficult for Bierce to be detached from Twain's growing fame; indeed, the record of his Examiner acerbities suggests that he read more of Twain's work than he later chose to admit. Resentment or envy could well have been at work. Twain, on his part, was notoriously indisposed to acknowledge literary indebtednesses, and neither his denials nor his silences can be trusted to give us an accurate account of his sources. He was widely disliked on the Comstock for his hoaxes and sharp satires but also for his unacknowledged borrowings, and it is now recognized that his famous derogations of such authors as Bret Harte, Edgar Allan Poe, and even Sir Walter Scott did not prevent him from acquiring ideas and information from them. Insofar as Twain kept abreast of literary developments in America and especially the writers of the Far West, it is hard to imagine that he remained in the dark about what Bierce, one of the foremost and most talked-about literary figures of California, was doing. It is more improbable that both authors remained ignorant of or uninterested in each other's writings than that both at some level felt the other to be a competitor, semisurreptitiously took note of what that other was doing, and sympathetically resonated to it in subsequent writings of his own.
Time has a way of clarifying things and putting them into better perspective. We have learned more about both authors and how to read them more productively. As a result, Twain has outgrown the once-popular stereotype of him as only a genial humorist and a warmhearted spinner of delightful stories about an idyllic rural America. But of all the important authors of the nineteenth century, Bierce even now remains one of the most underestimated, although some scholarship reflects a broad-based competence in Bierce's work instead of just a narrow focus on one or two stories. However, now that S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz have recently edited and made available almost all of Bierce's fiction and many of his other writings,17 it is to be hoped that Bierce will attract more attention of the highly professional kind that has been lavished on Twain. Twain remains an unaccountable literary genius, a giant for the ages, but Bierce, too, is outstanding in his own right and, at least in his masterpiece"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," reaches the level of Twain. This is no small accomplishment. Both authors, properly understood, are moralists at heart and literary artists of surprising range and depth. Whatever the personal reasons for their uncongeniality, we can now get past that and see that in their minds and writings there was much that made them kindred.
1. Over the years, scholars have traced unacknowledged but detectable "borrowings" or adaptations by Twain of particular passages from some other author's work into a work of his own. Within only my own experience, in three items listed in the bibliography I have documented conclusive evidence that specific passages in Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, and Huckleberry Finn derive directly from material first published by Twain's former Nevada roommate Dan De Quille. Gladys Bellamy kindly excuses the borrowings from frontier humor as unconscious (46), and Walter Blair less kindly but still gently explains them as "unconscious plagiarism" (127). However, these borrowings are more than a few, and they form a pattern. Twain once explicitly denied the "crime" of plagiarism (Bellamy 45), although his unacknowledged borrowings were noticed in his own time, and he could not have remained totally unaware of the open resentment they caused. Scholarly recognitions of these "borrowings" have been so scattered and infrequent as to be neglected, and their cumulative importance remains unassessed.
2. Doyno made this suggestion in a talk I attended. See also Tom Towers's article "`Never Thought We Might Want to Come Back'" for a negative view of St. Petersburg in Tom Sawyer. In chapter 3 of Heretical Fictions, Joseph Csicsila and I corroborate Tower about St. Petersburg and extend his interpretation to other towns that Twain seems at first to idealize. Towers goes on to place Twain among the leaders of the "revolt against the small town" movement in American literature.
3. Negative comments in newspapers about Twain from his former western associates were not uncommon. Although he had some strongly loyal friends, he was not very popular in either Nevada or California. Even his friends Joe Goodman (Berkove, Insider Stories 557) and Arthur McEwen (33) admit this, and when Twain's future father-in-law wrote to some of Twain's former associates for character references, many of the replies were unsatisfactory.
4. I wish to thank S. T. Joshi and David Schultz for giving me access to their extensive file of Bierce's journalism and letting me see for myself the records of Bierce's comments about Twain.
5. See Grenander's essay"`Five Blushes, Ten Shudders, and a Vomit'" (170-71) and volume 6 of Mark Twain's Letters (101-2), especially note 1, which speculates that Twain wrote only a narrowly focused opinion that in effect headed off an invitation to write a "puff" of Bierce's book Nuggets and Dust (1873), which Chatto & Windus had also published. Grenander offers a more deeply argued defense of the book as wit instead of humor and suggests several reasons Twain denigrated it as a work of humor, including resentment of the book's disparagement of American humorists (of whom Twain, of course, was one) and resentment toward the publishers for not respecting his pen name (175-77).
6. Volume 1 of the three-volume edition of The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce contains all the tales and sketches that Bierce is known to have published through 1886.
7. See Gohdes's foreword in Mark Twain's Library of Humor (vii-ix).
8. The sketches that Bierce wrote in England, long almost inaccessible but mentioned here, are included in volume 1 of The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce.
9. Heretical Fictions offers extended analyses of five of Twain's novels that identify distinctive themes that are carried through those works by their use of the hoax.
10. In a published 1915 memoir of Bierce, Davis wrote of their forty-year friendship. In addition, Davis's own short story, "The Reporter's Revenge," qualifies as a possible source for Bierce's "Owl Creek." For more information on these items and Bierce's connections with Sagebrush authors, see Berkove, A Prescription for Adversity.
11. See A Prescription for Adversity for discussions of all these and similar tales, and especially chapter 6, which is entirely devoted to "Owl Creek."
12. This is the main thesis of Heretical Fictions.
13. See chapter 6 of Heretical Fictions for a fuller discussion of this story.
14. This column, with the poem, is reprinted in A Sole Survivor (307-11). "Finis Aeternitatis" appears in "Black Beetles in Amber" in The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce (5: 65-67).
15. Bierce's newspaper columns covering the Spanish-American War, the Philippine insurrection, and other international hostilities from 1898 to 1901 have been collected in Skepticism and Dissent.
16. For Bierce's views on the natural causes of "expansionism" see his Skepticism and Dissent (85-87, 126-27, 182-85) and Berkove, A Prescription for Adversity (40-47).
17. See the list of works cited, under Bierce, for a partial listing.
Works Cited and Consulted
Baetzhold, Howard G. "A Monument to Adam." Mark Twain Encyclopedia. Ed. J. R. LeMaster and James D. Wilson. New York: Garland, 1993. 522-23.
Bellamy, Gladys. Mark Twain as a Literary Artist. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1950.
Berkove, Lawrence I. "Dan De Quille and `Old Times on the Mississippi.'" Mark Twain Journal 24.2 (Fall 1986): 28-35.
____________. "Dan De Quille and Roughing It: Borrowings and Influence." Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 37.1 (Spring 1994): 52-57.
____________. "New Information on Dan De Quille and `Old Times on the Mississippi.'" Mark Twain Journal 26.2 (Fall 1988): 15-20.
____________. A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2002.
____________, ed. Insider Stories of the Comstock Lode and Nevada's Mining Frontier, 1859-1909. 2 vols. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2007.
Berkove, Lawrence I., and Joseph Csicsila. Heretical Fictions: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2010.
Bierce, Ambrose. The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce. 10 vols. New York: Neale, 1909-1912.
____________. The Fall of the Republic, and Other Political Satires. Ed. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2000.
____________. A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce. Ed. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2003.
____________. The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce: A Comprehensive Edition. 3 vols. Ed. S. T. Joshi, Lawrence I. Berkove, and David E. Schultz. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2006.
____________. Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism, 1898-1901. Ed. Lawrence I. Berkove. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1980.
____________. A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography. Ed. S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1998.
Blair, Walter. Mark Twain and Huck Finn. Berkeley: U of California P, 1962.
Branch, Edgar Marquess. The Literary Apprenticeship of Mark Twain. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1950.
Fears, David H. Mark Twain Day by Day. Vols. 1-2. Banks, OR: Horizon Micro, 2008-2009.
Gale, Robert L. An Ambrose Bierce Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.
Gohdes, Clarence. "Foreword." Mark Twain's Library of Humor. 1888. New York: Bonanza, 1969.
Grenander, M. E. Ambrose Bierce. New York: Twayne, 1971.
____________. "`Five Blushes, Ten Shudders, and a Vomit': Mark Twain on Ambrose Bierce's Nuggets and Dust." American Literary Realism 17 (1984): 169-79.
McEwen, Arthur. "Heroic Days on the Comstock." 1893. The Life and Times of the "Virginia City Territorial Enterprise." Ed. Oscar Lewis. Ashland, OR: Lewis Osborne, 1971. 29-36.
McWilliams, Carey. Ambrose Bierce: A Biography. 1929. Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1967.
____________. "Introduction." Bierce and the Poe Hoax, by Carroll D. Hall. San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1934.
Morris, Roy, Jr. Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.
Rasmussen, R. Kent, ed. The Quotable Mark Twain: His Essential Aphorisms, Witticisms, and Concise Opinions. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1997.
Sketches of the Sixties by Bret Harte and Mark Twain; Being forgotten material collected for the first time from "The Californian," 1864-1867. San Francisco: John Howell, 1927.
Starrett, Vincent. Buried Caesars. Chicago: Covici-McGee, 1923.
Towers, Tom. "`Never Thought We Might Want to Come Back.'" Modern Fiction Studies 21 (Winter 1975-76): 509-20.
Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. 1884. Ed. Victor Fischer and Lin Salamo. Berkeley: U of California P, 2002.
____________. Best Short Stories of Mark Twain. Ed. Lawrence I. Berkove. New York: Modern Library, 2004.
____________. Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays, 1852-1910. 2 vols. Ed. Louis J. Budd. New York: Library of America, 1992.
____________. The Complete Essays of Mark Twain. Ed. Charles Neider. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963.
____________. Early Tales and Sketches. 2 vols. Ed. Edgar Marquess Branch and Robert H. Hirst. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979-1981.
____________. Fables of Man. Ed. John S. Tuckey. Berkeley: U of California P, 1972.
____________. Letters from the Earth. Ed. Bernard DeVoto. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
____________. Mark Twain's Letters, vol. 6, 1874-1875. Ed. Michael B. Frank and Harriet Elinor Smith. Berkeley: U of California P, 2002.
____________. Mark Twain's Library of Humor. 1888. New York: Bonanza, 1969.
____________. Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts. Ed. William M. Gibson. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.
____________. Notebooks and Journals, vol. 3. Ed. Robert Pack Browning, Michael B. Frank, and Lin Salamo. Berkeley: U of California P, 1979.
____________. A Pen Warmed-Up in Hell: Mark Twain in Protest. Ed. Frederick Anderson. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
SALEM PRESS, a division of EBSCO Publishing. © Salem Press, All Rights Reserved.
Sales Offices: 2 University Plaza · Hackensack · NJ 07601
Editorial Offices: 10 Estes Street · Ipswich · MA 01938