by Phoebe Adams
When AMBROSE BIERCE assembled The Devil’s Dictionary for his collected works, he omitted, with properly Satanic insouciance, about half of what he had written under that heading. Ernest Jerome Hopkins has recently unearthed what Bierce left out and edited the whole thing as THE ENLARGED DEVIL’S DICTIONARY (Doubleday, $5.95). Bierce, the first of Hearst’s pampered, provoking columnists, affected a pedantic correctness of style which did not prevent him from describing one hazard of frontier politics as “bad-egging and dead-catting.” He also affected to despise all the arrangements of the universe, from human intelligence to the design of flowers. The Devil’s Dictionary is a gloriously promiscuous attack. It is also a proper piece of lexicography, with definitions reinforced by illustration— EUPHEMISM is described as “to call Mr. Charles Crocker ninety nine kinds of a knave” — and ornamented with deliberately terrible verse by imaginary authors. Some definitions are short, as “GULL, v.t. To tell the sovereign people that if elected you will not steal,” and “PLURAL, adj. Troubles,” while others ramble into short stories. Mr. Hopkins’ researches suggest that Bierce neglected items in 1911 for various reasons, one of which was that he had improved on his first notion. HABEAS CORPUS began as “A writ by which a man may be taken out of jail and asked how he likes it,” and ended as “A writ by which a man may be taken out of jail when confined for the
wrong crime.” The implications in that revision are the essence of Bierce.
The detail is to be found in AMBROSE BIERCE (Little, Brown, $6.95), a biography by RICHARD O’CONNOR. Mr. O’Connor obviously enjoys his subject — no biographer could fail to enjoy a subject as quotable as Bierce — but makes little attempt to soften his faults. Bierce was a fine literary gadfly and innovator and honest about money, but a terrible man in almost every other respect. It is impossible not to like him.
Bierce’s reputation has always suffered from the contemporary presence of Mark Twain. It is amusing to observe in the Dictionary how many comic tricks they had in common — the bathetic collapse, the explosive exaggeration, the hoax, the reversed cliché, the catalogue in which one unorthodox item alters the meaning of the whole list. Neither was aping the other. They had both learned newspapering in the same place and period, and were firing the established battery of frontier journalists. The style had been developed by a horde of inventive, improvident, moderately trigger-happy editors and printers who went west on the heels of the fur traders, and whose proceedings have been chronicled by JOHN MYERS in PRINT IN A WILD LAND (Doubleday, $6.50). Mr. Myers has collected a great deal of information about these fellows and quotes copiously and hilariously from their fly_by-night publications. His weakness is a tendency to apply stylistic monkeyshines to material that needs no such polishing up.
BRIGID BROPHY’S reviews, critical essays, and radio talks are assembled under the title of DON’T NEVER FORGET (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $5.95), which is a quotation from Mozart. Fiercely intelligent, exceedingly well informed about literature, music, and psychiatry, to name only the most obvious areas, and unwilling to accept any notion without examining it, Miss Brophy pounces on her subjects as though they had never been considered before. She discovers that de Sade is harmlessly tiresome, that Sartre’s admiration for Genêt is based on misunderstanding, and that A. L. Rowse’s Shakespeare does not, contrary to the author’s boast, stick to proper historians’ methods of proof.
Her comments on the Ward-Profumo affair, commissioned but never broadcast by the BBC, predictably have to do with hypocrisy, but hypocrisy viewed from angles and illustrated with examples that are quite unpredictable. We could do with more critics like Miss Brophy, but I fear that she is a phoenix.
The foggy interest in art nouveau which has been gathering for several years seems to be clearing, and the prospect revealed is Aubrey Beardsley. THE EARLY WORK OF AUBREY BEARDSLEY and THE LATER WORK OF AUBREY BEARDSLEY (Da Capo, $25.00) are just what the titles imply. The two large volumes are in effect reproductions of books published in 1900, with the original preface by H. C. Marillier, which is interesting as a view of the artist in his own time. AUBREY BEARDSLEY (United Book Guild, $10.00) is a much smaller book, containing the selected best of Beardsley’s previously published drawings plus suppressed versions, and the illustrations for Lysistrata, monstrous anatomical caricatures, funny, and for Beardsley, uncharacteristically blunt, as though Aristophanes had rather got the better of the collaboration. None of these beautifully made books tells anything about the art nouveau movement as a whole; for that, one has JOHN RUSSELL TAYLOR’S THE ART NOUVEAU BOOK IN BRITAIN (M.I.T. Press, $12.95), which locates the beginnings of the style in Blake and traces it all the way to 1929. It is odd to find art nouveau finished off by the Depression, like a careless stockbroker.
NICOLETTE DEVAS’S TWO FLAMBOYANT FATHERS (Morrow, $5.00) is a memoir which tells something of her brother-in-law, Dylan Thomas, but much more about her father, Francis Macnamara, and Augustus John, in whose disorderly ménage the Macnamara girls grew up after Francis abandoned his family. Macnamara and John were friends and alike in being large, gaudy, and conscientiously roistering types, but where John became a highly regarded painter, Macnamara dithered his talent away on a nevercompleted philosophical system. Without proposing to explain the contrast, Mrs. Devas makes it a fascinating story set against a background of hardworking, independent, non-chic dedication to the arts.