Ambrose Bierce Buries Jules Verne

The highest powers of imagination?

I imagine most of you reading Doctor Strangemind are familiar with Ambrose Bierce. At the very least you will know he wrote An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge as that is widely regarded as one of the most famous short stories in American literature.

You are perhaps even more familiar with Bierce’s longer work, The Devil’s Dictionary. Certainly just about everybody I’ve ever counted as a friend has been a fan of this satirical lexicon. Even people who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool cynics are often familiar with at least some of The Devil’s Dictionary.

It’s even possible that you are familiar with the story of how Ambrose Bierce disappeared without trace in Mexico, having last been seen in the city of Chihuahua in January 1914. Some have said this mysterious disappearance was a fitting end to a life that was as epic as any of the great stories Bierce wrote. I on the other hand prefer to believe that Ambrose Bierce took the opportunity while in Mexico to travel through time and reinvent himself as Philip K. Dick, but that’s just me and I wouldn’t trust me if I were you.

However what you are almost certainly unaware of is that well before Bierce entered Mexico and legend he was a columnist for Cosmo. Yes, that Cosmo, the thick and glossy fashion magazine you’ve seen on newspaper stands and in doctor’s waiting rooms more times than you can count. However Cosmo, or to give it its current proper name Cosmopolitan has been around longer than I bet you were aware. The Cosmopolitan was first published in 1886, which would make it one of, if not the oldest newsstand magazines in the world.

However, you need not fear that Beirce wrote the nineteenth century equivalent of those sex and fashion exposes that Cosmopolitan has been more recently known for. When The Cosmopolitan first appeared it was intended to be a ‘family magazine’, in other words a magazine which was suppose to entertain and educate the entire family (assuming the family was sufficiently well-off to afford the ten cent cover price).

The Cosmopolitan
                                                                Cosmopolitan Magazine, Vol. XL No. 2, December 1905

From what I’ve read of Beirce’s column, The Passing Show, I can’t help but feel he was hired to keep the curmudgeonly old man demographic happy. This isn’t a bad thing mind you, it’s rather entertaining to read his grumbling about trends and the swatting of malefactors with his cane of good practise. This became doubly entertaining for me when I discovered him straying into one of my favourite genres of fiction.

In Cosmopolitan Magazine, Vol. XL No. 2, December 1905 he reacted to what he considered to be a hagiographic response to the death of Jules Verne:

The death of Jules Verne several months ago is a continuing affliction, a sharper one than the illiterate can know, for they are spared many a fatiguing appreciation of his talent, suggested by the sad event. With few exceptions, these “appreciations,” as it is now the fashion of anthropolaters to call their devotional work, are devoid of knowledge, moderation and discrimination. They are all alike, too, in ascribing to their subject the highest powers of imagination and the profoundest scientific attainments. In respect of both these matters he was singularly deficient, but had in a notable degree that which enables one to make the most of such gifts and acquirements as one happens to have: a patient, painstaking diligence—what a man of genius has contemptuously, and not altogether fairly, called “mean industry.” Such as it was, Verne’s imagination obeyed him very well, performing the tasks set for it and never getting ahead of him—apres vous, monsieur. A most polite and considerate imagination, We are told with considerable iteration about his power of prophecy: in the “Nautilus,” for example, he foreshadows submarine navigation. Submarine navigation had for ages been a dream of inventors and writers; I dare say the Egyptians were familiar with it before they

“heard Cambyses sass
The tomb of Ozymandias.”

As well say that in “Rasselas” Doctor Johnson prophesied the modern flying machine, although one could remember Daedalus and Icarus if one would try. When Verne took his readers to the moon, he might have shown them, carved in the bark of a lunar sycamore, the name of Lucian, with the date—for Lucian was a cautious man–”Circa A.D.CLXXXVII.” Jules Verne was a lovable character and a good writer. The world, if no wiser, is better for his having lived and written; but to compare him with so tremendous a fellow as Mr. H. G. Wells is to stray into the beaten path of literary criticism and incur the plaudits of the respectable.

For the record I will note that Mr H.G. Wells was a regular contributor to The Cosmopolitan (and was indeed present in this very issue) so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Ambrose Bierce was was slightly biased towards somebody who was a valuable asset to his employer. I prefer to think however that Bierce was sufficiently independent in his attitudes that he wouldn’t write the above just to please an editor or the owner.

Besides which I have to agree with him in regards to Verne. I’ve only read a couple of books by Jules Verne but what I have read (Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea) isn’t what I would call ambitious. To me neither of them were novels so much as catalogues of wonders with a little plot to hold these viewings together. Jules Verne is certainly interesting from a historical perspective but that doesn’t make his fiction especially memorable.

A harsh assessment of Verne perhaps but as Bierce’s words above demonstrate, there is no romance or glory in criticism, not if you want to be honest.