A Horseman in the Sky
A Horseman in the Sky
Ambrose Bierce's short story "A Horseman in the Sky" was first published in the San Francisco Examiner on April 14, 1889. Bierce presented a slightly altered version in his anthology Tales of Soldiers and Civilians in 1891 (which was not sold until the first weeks of 1892). That version of the story also appeared in the edition of his complete works that Bierce oversaw in 1911, and it has been widely anthologized ever since. Recently it has appeared in Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce, edited by Russell Duncan and David J. Klooster and published in 2002.
Bierce enlisted to fight in the Civil War in the first rush of patriotic fervor that swept through the country in the spring of 1861, and he became a heroic and then an experienced soldier and officer. After the war he became an important newspaper columnist and author, noted for his cynical attacks on the complacencies of American culture, which earned him the sobriquet "Bitter Bierce." In "A Horseman in the Sky," he mixes together the extreme realism of a veteran writing about the Civil War with fantastic religious and visionary elements that would later become characteristic of the literary style of magic realism. Bierce's purpose was to show through symbol and irony that the sentimental conception of the Civil War that was becoming prevalent in America in the Gilded Age amounted to a hypocritical betrayal of the real meaning that the war had in the lives of the soldiers who fought
in it as well as an attempt to cover over the scars that were left on American life and history.
Ambrose Bierce was born Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce on June 4, 1842, in the Western Reserve, Ohio. His ancestors had been Puritans from Scotland who joined the colony of Connecticut. Ambrose was of a different temperament, however, and felt estranged and neglected by the patriarchal rule of his father, Marcus Aurelius Bierce, over the family. He looked on the coming of the Civil War as a deliverance, allowing him to set out on his own. He volunteered only three days after the outbreak of war on April 12, 1861; in fact, he went to the recruiting office for the Ninth Indiana Regiment the night before it opened and was the second man in line. He rose rapidly through the ranks and became an officer as a result of numerous citations for physical bravery in the face of the enemy. He eventually became a staff officer, but even then he put himself in the thick of the fighting; he was discharged as a major after being wounded in January 1865.
Bierce worked for a brief time in the military justice system (trying soldiers for cowardice and desertion) but finally spent much of the war as a topographer, or mapmaker. Bierce reenlisted soon after the war, joining a mapping expedition that covered much of the American West, and resigned his commission in San Francisco in 1866. He began to write for the San Francisco Examiner, a newspaper controlled by the publishing baron William Randolph Hearst, and it was this periodical that first published "A Horseman in the Sky," on April 14, 1889. While working for the San Francisco Examiner, Bierce became a nationally recognized reporter, columnist, and editor and was one of the most popular journalists in the country. Bierce was hated as much as he was loved by the public for the cynical and biting satire he used to expose hypocrisy and pretension in contemporary society. He might be described as a mean-spirited Mark Twain. Much of his most caustic writing was collected in the bestselling work The Devil's Dictionary.
By the late 1870s, Bierce had become one of the first writers to produce reminiscences and fictional accounts of his Civil War service. He is generally considered by critics to be the only literary figure of the first rank to have fought as a common soldier in the Civil War and used that experience as a basis for literary work. His other fiction consists mostly of stories of the supernatural. Bierce published hundreds of poems, essays, and short stories, such as "The Damned Thing," "Oil of Dog," and "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," always initially in newspapers and occasionally afterward in collections, including Black Beetles in Amber and Can Such Things Be? In 1911, he reissued his entire collected works in a single set of eleven volumes. Bierce's death is something of a mystery. Although seventy-one years old, he traveled to Mexico in late 1913 to report on the uprising of Pancho Villa against the Mexican government. He disappeared without a trace sometime early in 1914.
The first of the four sections of "A Horseman in the Sky" establish the action of the story during the opening months of the American Civil War, in the early autumn of 1861. The location of the story is the countryside of West Virginia. The action of the story is described by an omniscient narrator who first calls attention to a single Federal (that is, Union or Northern) soldier who has been posted as a sentry. He is lying in hiding, as concealed by a grove of laurel trees, and has fallen asleep at his post. The narrator points out that this is a capital crime under military law, meriting the death penalty, and also offers the opinion that the man's execution, if he were to be found out and tried, would be just. Despite this notice, as Donald T. Blume points out in his book Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study, a casual reader unfamiliar with military life might feel a natural sympathy for a soldier who is so exhausted that he falls asleep on duty. Once a reader has formed such an opinion of the matter, he or she may well fail to take to heart the later and more technical description of how the sentry is putting the lives of thousands of his comrades at risk. The sleeping sentry is meant to be guarding a Federal force of five regiments (about five to ten thousand men) hidden in a forest in a valley between two high ridges (approximately one thousand feet high). This force is waiting for nightfall to launch an ambush on a larger Confederate force atop one of the ridges. This plan has a good chance of success if the element of surprise can be maintained, but if the Federal force is discovered, its position in a valley with only a few outlets would doom it to complete destruction. Such a precise description of the relation of terrain and position to warfare would have been informed not only by Bierce's service in combat but also by his later experience during the war serving as a topographer.
At the beginning of the second section we learn that the sleeping sentry's name is Carter Druse. The narrator then explains Druse's backstory, telling how he came to be in the present situation. At the start of the Civil War, the state of Virginia was as split as the nation itself. When Virginia seceded from the Union, the western part of the state, in the Appalachian Mountains, in turn seceded from Virginia and remained in the Union as the new state of West Virginia. This split also happened to divide the Druse family. The reader is shown a scene in which Druse announces to his father over breakfast his intention to enlist in the Union army. His surprised father responds, "Well, go, sir, and whatever may occur do what you conceive to be your duty. Virginia, to which you are a traitor, must get on without you." The father's overtly formal tone and his dwelling on duty and treason show that he is thinking in terms of the code of honor that dominated antebellum genteel life. His ensuing comment, "Should we both live to the end of the war, we will speak further of the matter," might, in other circumstances, be taken as a challenge to a duel at that time; as the story shall go, the remark foreshadows the father's later service in the Confederate army and his encounter with his son. The father also suggests that Druse's mother, who is lying on her death-bed, does not need to hear of what he considers his son's treason. Blume points out an important fact to be considered in connection with the brief reference to Druse's dying mother: In the first days of the Civil War, young men on both sides believed that the war would quickly end in glorious victory for their own army. Accordingly, they were anxious to volunteer and have their share of adventure and honor before it was over. Many also saw the war as a means of escape from family authority, which was a far more domineering and controlling force in 1861 than it is today. This story perhaps reflects the circumstances of Bierce's own rapid enlistment. Druse's father's admonition to "do what you conceive to be your duty" may indicate that he considers his son to be selfishly seeking glory at the expense of his real duty to his dying mother.
Druse was given the important post of sentry because he was familiar with the local terrain, with his unit stationed in his native West Virginia. The narrator also mentions that Druse was selected because, "by conscience and courage, by deeds of devotion and daring, he soon commended himself to his fellows and his officers." However, as Blume points out, since no serious fighting had yet occurred in this theater of the war, this statement likely refers to acts of bravado rather than military competence, since neither Druse nor his superiors would have had actual combat experience useful for making judgments about his quality of soldiering. This statement, then, may reveal Bierce's love for subtle irony.
In a change from the heretofore realistic tone of the story, Druse is awakened from his sleep by an angel or demon; the narrative leaves this point purposefully obscure: "What good or bad angel came …, who shall say?" What Druse first sees on awakening is presented through ekphrasis, or a highly visual description: there is a colossal statue of a man mounted on a horse, sitting on a cliff before him looking down onto the valley. Druse immediately takes "a keen artistic delight" in the sight. The figure is described with technical artistic terms such as "foreshortened" and "cameo"; the very cliff it is sitting on is called a "pedestal," or statue base. The figure is the gray color of granite, with the form of the bearded rider compared to the form of a Greek god. Druse cannot help but feel that he is seeing in the statue a future monument to the war and its glories that will contrast to his own inglorious conduct of sleeping at his post.
Druse eventually realizes that the horseman is in fact a Confederate scout who has discovered the Federal troops laying in ambush. (Druse himself can see that some of them have left their hiding places in the valley to water their horses, so there is no doubt that the scout has seen them, too.) Just as clearly, he realizes that his duty is to kill the scout to prevent him from reporting what he has found out. Accordingly, he aims his rifle, intending to shoot the man. The narrative pauses for a moment to foreshadow later developments in the story by asserting that if Druse had fired at that instant, everything would have turned out well for him (probably indicating that he had not yet recognized the horseman). Instead, Druse waits a moment, and the scout happens to look directly toward him; Druse suddenly has the impression that the figure is looking not only at him (an impossibility due to his concealment) but through him, into him. The emotional effort needed to actually attempt to kill this other human being leaves Druse overcome with shock (a drop in blood pressure), turning him pale, making him shake, and nearly making him faint; his senses start to fail him. After a greater moral effort, Druse is able to refocus on his duty and again prepares to shoot, making certain the scout indeed saw the Federal troops. He seems to draw the strength needed to calm himself in recalling his father's admonition that, even as a traitor to Virginia, he must do what he believed to be his duty. Druse's soul then speaks to his own body, saying, "Peace, be still"—a quote of Jesus's command that calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee prior to his walking on it. Druse aims and fires—yet not at the scout but at his horse.
After the abrupt and ambiguous ending to the preceding section, the point of view of the narrative switches to that of a Federal officer who is scouting on the valley floor along the base of the cliff. He suddenly sees a horse and rider falling together from the cliff above. The suddenness and strangeness of the sight unnerves him, and he imagines for a moment that he is having some sort of supernatural vision such as those described in the Apocalypse of St. John, in the New Testament. It seems to him at first as though the figures are flying rather than plummeting; he sees them fall as far as the treetops. He then sets out to search for them, but his impression of their flight is so strong that he searches a good distance away from the cliff, whereas in fact they would have fallen straight down to the foot of the cliff. He looks for a half hour but does not find them. He is so upset by what he has experienced that he thinks it better to omit all mention of the episode during his later report to his commanding officer.
In the short final section, a sergeant, having heard Druse shoot, crawls to him through the underbrush, reaching him about ten minutes later. When he asks Druse for his report, the private at first says only that he shot a horse. The sergeant demands to know if there was anyone riding the horse. Druse says there was and reveals for the first time that he recognized him: the man was his own father. Most likely, after the death of Druse's mother, his father enlisted in the Confederate army and was made a scout for the same reason Druse was made a sentry, owing to his knowledge of the local terrain.
An angel or fallen angel sets the plot of the story in motion by awakening Druse in time to encounter his father in the guise of the statuesque horseman. Bierce is purposely ambiguous in describing the angel as a supernatural entity but not clearly stating whether its awakening Druse is good or bad. This makes the reader consider the moral quality of the actions Druse consequently performs. The appearance of this angel is the first indication that on one level at least, the story will function as an allegory told in mythological terms.
The commander hears the report of the officer who witnessed the fall of Carter Druse's father. While the officer omits his having seen the falling horseman at all, the commander is wise enough to infer that something was omitted from the report; yet he does not press the officer for the omitted details. The commander's objective distance from the events of the story—he receives his information only from the narrative of the officer—identify his viewpoint with that of the reader living twenty years (or more) after the events imagined in the story.
The main character of the story, Druse, is a young recruit who felt bound by honor to join the Federal army and fight for the North. This causes a split with his father, who considers his decision to be treason to the state of Virginia. "By conscience and courage, by deeds of devotion and daring," Druse gains the recognition of his superiors. For this reason as well as for his knowledge of the local terrain, he is made a sentry protecting a Federal force that is preparing an ambush. The dreamlike character of the story derives from the fact that Druse has fallen asleep at his post as a sentry. The second section of the story justifies its mixed presentation of symbolic and realistic material from Druse's waking, rather than wakeful, state. The tension of the story is created by Druse's apparent dilemma in choosing between his duty to his family and to Virginia and his perceived duty to the United States, but his decision to enlist seems to be made not in response to any duty at all but rather as a means of avoiding duty. This is the flaw that ultimately dooms him when the climax of the story forces Druse to decide between the moral imperative of honoring his father and the military necessity of killing his father, whom he encounters as a Confederate soldier. While on the first reading Druse's character might seem sympathetic, faced as he is with the difficulties of war, deeper analysis concerning his abandonment of his family, his dereliction of duty, and his ultimate patricide (killing his father) may leave a different impression.
Carter Druse's father is a nearly godlike figure who serves many roles in the story. He initially is presented as a stern parent disapproving of Carter Druse's abandonment of his mother (perhaps even more so than of his political decision). His son's decision to kill him, in one sense to be viewed as an acceptance of military duty, perhaps has as much to do with the young man's chafing under strict patriarchal control. The father's decision to enlist may have had as much to do with the death of his wife and his abandonment by his son as with his obvious patriotism for Virginia. After his role in his son's backstory, he becomes more nearly a cipher, presented as the initially anonymous and in any case grandly symbolic figure of the horseman.
The figure that Carter Druse shoots is initially described simply as a horseman. His subsequent fall over a thousand-foot cliff is the source of the story's title. The entire tension and climax of the plot is created because the narrative voice of the story keeps the horseman's identity as Druse's father unrevealed until the last line of the story. The figure of the horseman is unusually fluid. He is initially presented as a sort of mythological revelation, and only slowly does he come to take on a more and more concrete reality, until his true human identity is fully established. Interestingly, once he has already been humanized in the eyes of Carter Druse, from Druse's initial epiphany to the point where Druse recognizes the horseman and shoots, he plays the same role in just such a sighting again, being initially perceived as a supernatural apparition by the anonymous officer, who only after some time realizes that what he saw was all too real. On one hand, the rapid fluctuation of meaning and interpretation attached to the figure of the horseman could stand for the sentimentalizing view of the war in the 1890s against which Bierce was writing. On the other hand, it may represent the contrast between the overwhelming immediate experience of war and the more comprehensible experience of memory. This fluidity allows the horseman to function at many levels of meaning. At one and the same time he is the embodiment of the Gilded Age's response to the war as much as he is Carter Druse's father.
Druse's mother does not appear in the story, but her presence and situation shape her son's decisions and actions. She has a fatal but never clearly specified illness that is expected to soon end her life. Druse's father considers that his son would have done better to attend to his mother during what remains of her life.
An unnamed Federal officer is the only witness to the death of Druse's father. Like Druse himself, he imagines the sight of the horseman, in this case as seen falling over a thousand foot vertical cliff, to be a supernatural apparition before adopting a more rational explanation of what he saw. After unsuccessfully searching for the horseman's body, he refuses to report on the matter to his superior. Perhaps this is a symbolic expression of the difficulties entailed when veterans consider describing their experience of combat.
The sergeant hears Druse's sniping and prods from him the admission that he killed his own father. He is naturally astounded that the course of Druse's duty involved him in committing an act of patricide.
The Civil War (1861-1865) was one of the most significant events in American history. The Union victory against the rebellious secessionist states ensured that the United States would remain a unified nation and ended the institution of slavery. Manifold aspects of the war have been contemplated in American literature and film. The war forms the central thematic element in a number of Bierce's stories, and these works are generally considered the most important in the corpus of Civil War literature. Moreover, "A Horseman in the Sky" is acknowledged as among the best of Bierce's Civil War stories, in which the war is featured both literally and figuratively. By placing a father and son on opposing sides in "A Horseman in the Sky," Bierce presents a microcosm, a parallel situation on a reduced scale, of the rift that divided the nation.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Read Chapters 17 and 18 of Mark Twain's novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. What attitudes toward honor and violence do the various characters demonstrate? The Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons? Huck Finn? What do you think Twain's opinion of these attitudes might have been? Write a paper comparing these views to those expressed by Bierce in "A Horseman in the Sky."
- Think of a facet of modern life that you find oppressive, hypocritical, or otherwise unacceptable. How can religious or magical symbolism make the issue clearer? Write a short story in which magic realism addresses the issue you chose.
- Read Bierce's short story "The Damned Thing." What fantastic element or elements are present in the story? What techniques does Bierce use to make the reader accept them as believable? Are they presented as magical or scientific? What contemporary scientific discoveries might they be based on? Give a class presentation comparing the fantastic elements in this story with those in "A Horseman in the Sky."
- Presented as a film, the material in "A Horseman in the Sky" would only run a few minutes. Research the lives of Civil War soldiers, gather some ideas from a few of Bierce's other Civil War stories, and write a treatment for a full-length screenplay based on the story.
The killing of one's own father, or patricide, is a violation of the most basic strictures of all human cultures. Because of this, patricide has always been of keen literary interest. It forms the basis of the ancient Greek dramatist Sophocles' play Oedipus Tyrannus, in which it was prophesied that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother. Accordingly, Oedipus was abandoned as an infant, but he was later found and adopted. As an adult, he unknowingly fulfilled the prophecy, and the course of the drama concerns Oedipus's discovery of his own terrible crime. William Shakespeare's play Hamlet deals with the same theme but at a greater metaphorical distance: Hamlet kills his stepfather, Claudius, in revenge for Claudius's having killed his real father. Like Bierce, Roman poets such as Horace used the theme of relatives killing each other as metaphor for civil war. Bierce used this theme in several stories besides "A Horseman in the Sky" and collected them in The Parenticide Club. In "A Horseman in the Sky," Druse's act of patricide comes as the resolution to the conflict between two duties, to the family and to military discipline; it also seems to serve as a commentary on the divide between tradition and modernity.
Religion also figures prominently in "A Horseman in the Sky." Critic David M. Owens, in The Devil's Topographer: Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story (2006), draws attention to the remarkable amount of religious symbolism in the story. The officer who sees Druse's father fall over the cliff, thinking he is seeing some sort of supernatural apparition, wonders if he is seeing a new divine revelation such as John saw in the New Testament book of Apocalypse. More fundamentally but less obviously, Druse likens himself to Jesus by quoting him at a vital moment in the story. When Druse first recognizes his father, he is reluctant to kill him, and the strain causes him to shake and nearly faint. But then, "In his memory, as if they were a divine mandate, rang the words of his father at their parting: ‘Whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty.’" The recollection of these words allows Druse to impose order on his reluctant body, speaking to it as though his will were a separate force, "Peace, be still." This imperative is a quotation of Jesus's command in the Bible, at Mark 4:39, to calm a storm on the Sea of Galilee so that he and his disciples could walk on the water. (Of note, it seems to the officer that the falling horseman is walking on air.) It follows from this that Druse can be in some sense identified with Jesus, but the identification is an inversion of the Biblical myth. Druse acts in accord with his father's "divine mandate," but rather than suffering execution (as Bierce has already reminded us he deserved), he kills his father, sacrificing him to save the lives of his comrades. His father, rather than ascending to resurrection, descends into death.
The term magic realism was appropriated from art history in the 1950s by Latin American critics and writers to denote a particularly South American genre of literature in which elements that are magical are used to provide a revealing contrast to realism, especially in the work, for example, of Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges (who was strongly influenced by Bierce). Magical in this case means something that happens as governed by causes or a logic different from the physical laws known to science. Instances of magic are, in many cases, intrusions of traditional religious or folkloric beliefs into the modern world. Realism means that the whole of the story is presented in a highly realistic and plausible prose narrative. The magical elements, which are jarringly out of place in the modern world in which the narrative is anchored, are nevertheless presented in the same realistic style and detail and not treated by the narrative as incongruous or out of place. One feature that critics identify in magic realism is that the magical intrusion into the modern is a dialectical process, calling into question the validity of the post-Enlightenment conception of reality. This reflects a historical process. Traditional ways of viewing the world, such as in accord with magic or religion, often consist of superimpositions onto the world of elements of human consciousness and feelings. Since these older magical worldviews are based on human feeling, they can still have as much meaning to people as the scientific worldview that has disproven many of the reputed properties of such magic as physical facts. Magic realism is often used to criticize the underlying assumptions of the reality into which the magical elements intrude, for example, in terms of social justice by writers living under tyrannical regimes.
Writing before magic realism was defined as a literary style, Bierce prefigured some of its basic tenets. In "A Horseman in the Sky," Bierce presents a highly realistic narrative of the preparations for a Civil War battle in which reference is repeatedly made to the intrusion of angels, and the horseman appears in the epiphany of Druse to be some sort of god or apparition. The figure of the horseman bears the symbolic burden of Bierce's social criticism, but in narrative terms, it breaks into the story as a supernatural vision, only to become more and more concrete in Druse's view; and again, the figure is perceived as miraculous by the Federal officer, who also soon realizes his mistake. By the introduction of a perspective that allows for the magical, Bierce leads readers to explore the deeper meaning of the story for themselves. In the magical realism
of Latin American authors, as the style evolved later in history, extremely improbable or even impossible events are more directly incorporated into the narrative. For example, in a situation that offers a fitting contrast to the magically oriented realism of the falling horseman in Bierce's story, in Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, a character spontaneously floats away into the air and is never seen again.
Most American writers of the late nineteenth century, influenced for example by French authors such as Emile Zola, strove for an effect of realism in their work, drawing their subject matter out of everyday life rather than emulating the fantastic symbolism of Romantic writers of previous generations, such as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Bierce, an experienced journalist, was a master of realistic writing, as exemplified in his Civil War stories, which were often closely based on his own experiences and observations during the war. Yet Bierce could rarely approach realism on its own terms, instead introducing ironic elements that largely undercut the realist effect of his prose. In "A Horseman in the Sky," Bierce begins with a detailed description of the effect of topography on warfare, a subject on which he was a considerable expert. This plausible discussion serves to engage the reader's belief in the narrative before the appearance of the apparition of the horseman calls on the reader to suspend disbelief and accept the fantastic, along with the symbolic value Bierce assigns to it.
Duality of Language and Meaning
Bierce was uncommonly concerned about language, even for a professional writer. Bierce was so particular about his style that he only either published his fiction with small presses owned by personal friends or self-published it, as he did not want to submit his writing to the final control of any other editor but himself. His Devil's Dictionary is a demonstration that language has as much power to deceive as to communicate, that words are often used to cover the truth rather than reveal it. Typical of his attitude is his definition of a Christian from The Devil's Dictionary: "One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teaching of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin." Indeed, Bierce was obsessed in his own writing with precision and clarity of expression. As such, readers are often able to appreciate the true meaning of Bierce's fiction only when they discover for themselves the meaning that his language has purposefully covered over.
Any serious efforts at education in mid-nineteenth century America entailed education in the Greek and Latin classics. Bierce's father seems to have taken a special interest in his son's learning, as he insisted that the youth supplement the normal high school curriculum with an even more intensive study of the ancient languages. Therefore, even the slightest classical reference in Bierce's work is liable to have an importance for its text that will become apparent only through careful consideration of its background and the qualities it evokes. For example, Carter Druse is first encountered in a grove of laurel trees. The mention of this plant, not native to West Virginia, is a foreshadowing of later events in the story at many levels; much of the rest of the story turns on demonic possession or inspired prophecy, both of which are within the province of the Greek god Apollo, whose symbol was the laurel. On the other hand, laurel wreaths were adopted to adorn the graves of "heroes" fallen in battle on Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) in the post-Civil War era in which Bierce was writing.
The action of the story is described by an omniscient narrator, that is, an unnamed authorial voice who sees things much more broadly than any particular character of the story does. This narrator supplies knowledge unknown to the characters as well as insights into their minds and thoughts to which no human observer could have access; the viewpoint is not limited by time or space.
An ekphrasis is a detailed narrative description of a work of art such as a painting or sculpture. Carter Druse's first sight of his father at the top of the cliff is presented as though it were an ekphrasis: "His first feeling was a keen artistic delight. On a colossal pedestal, the cliff,—motionless at the extreme edge of the capping rock and sharply outlined against the sky,—was an equestrian statue of impressive dignity." This is an instance of metaphor in which an actual person is described as a statue, but, since Druse is said to be in a dreamlike state and because no other context is given, the effect is to produce a sense of disorientation in the reader, who, though he knows no statue has suddenly appeared out of thin air, is unable at first to tell what plain sense the narrative is meant to convey.
In Medias Res
Many narratives, including those of the earliest Western literary texts, the Iliad and the Odyssey, begin at some dramatic moment of action that captures the reader's attention, even though the event is in the middle of the story (in medias res). Thus, the temporal sequence of the narrative is rearranged, with later material describing earlier parts of the story. Bierce does this in "A Horseman in the Sky." In the first section, a Federal sentry is asleep at his post, endangering his unit and its military operation; only in a later flashback in the second section is the reader told who the sentry is and how he came to be in that situation.
The Civil War in Retrospect
The American Civil War (1861-1865) was the defining event in the history of nineteenth-century America and in Ambrose Bierce's life. The country entered the war under the most romantic notions about honor, duty, and heroism, only to experience a reality of carnage that included the deaths of well over a million soldiers under conditions that eventually degenerated into almost industrial slaughter prophetic of World War I. Soldiers were expected to charge prepared positions under concentrated artillery and small arms fire many times greater than anything experienced before in human history.
Nevertheless, as time created distance from the devastating reality of the Civil War, the popular memory of the war began to take on a romantic character. By the 1870s, literature and art were beginning to be produced in which the Civil War was viewed in heroically ideal terms, replete with morally uplifting examples of personal heroism exemplifying medieval concepts of honor. Even many veterans acquiesced in a sentimental perception of the war that reinforced their heroism and worth, letting them turn away from the necessarily traumatic memories of battle. In the collective memory of the public, then, an abstract and fantastic "heroism" replaced the horrors of war.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
1860s: Many Americans feel a greater sense of loyalty to their states than to the nation as a whole.
1890s: The Pledge of Allegiance is introduced into public schools as a tribute to those who died in the Civil War fighting for the unity of the nation.
Today: The Pledge of Allegiance is seen to have different significance among various groups. To some, it represents support for "traditional" American values; to others, national solidarity in the face of foreign aggression; to yet others, state-enforced political conformity.
1860s: Most Americans live and work on farms.
1890s: Americans are rapidly moving to cities and factory towns as the American economy becomes industrialized.
Today: The population of the United States is overwhelmingly urban, with the economy in a transition to a basis in service and information technologies.
1860s: Warfare in the Napoleonic model is believed to be an affair of honor that can quickly be decided by a few victories.
1890s: In a series of essays on the growing arms industry, Bierce makes the point that the Civil War demonstrated the brutal industrial nature of modern warfare.
Today: The industrialization of war has accelerated to the point that, thanks to high-tech weapons, warfare so efficiently leads to destruction that all-out war between nuclear powers is unthinkable, as it could result in the extinction of humanity.
1860s: Dueling is an important part of public and political life. Previously, Andrew Jackson had gained national popularity by fighting a series of duels. Later, Abraham Lincoln had gained popularity by displaying his caustic wit in publically declining to duel.
1890s: Though duels cease to be part of political culture, they continue to be common as part of a romantic reaction to modernity; one of Bierce's sons is killed in a duel in the early 1890s.
Today: In view of the ease with which simple modern firearms can extinguish human life, dueling has become outdated and plays no part in American life.
1860s: Freed slaves are initially integrated into the United States as full citizens under the civil rights amendments.
1890s: Plessy v. Ferguson, an 1896 Supreme Court decision, legalizes the system of institutional segregation in the southern states.
Today: After much social turmoil in the 1950s and 1960s, American citizens are equal under the law irrespective of race, although racist views among individual Americans remain common and many vestiges of racism remain in effect.
As Duncan and Klooster explain in their introduction to Bierce's Civil War writings, Bierce could not agree with this attitude. Though an exemplary soldier whose physical courage was exceptional, Bierce was keenly aware of the awful moral and physical dangers under which soldiers lived and fought during the war; he knew that many soldiers risked or gave their lives for vague principles, such as honor, virtue, and patriotism, that had little relationship to the underlying economic and political factors that led to the war, which ordinary soldiers did not, in general, understand. In fact, the disconnection that Bierce saw between the realities of the war and its later sentimentalization accounted for the essentially cynical and bitter tone that marked his whole literary output, with his main theme being the exposure of hypocrisy and pretense. Indeed, it seems likely that Bierce's main motive in writing about the war, which he did copiously both in vignettes of memoir and in short stories, was precisely to present a more realistic view of the Civil War as an antidote to its sentimentalization.
The romantic view of the Civil War proliferated during what Mark Twain called, in a term worthy of Bierce, the "Gilded Age" (meaning that however much the postwar period appeared golden, that appearance was only a sham covering baser material). This period saw the institution of veterans' parades on Decoration Day (which Bierce never attended) and of the Pledge of Allegiance in American schoolrooms. But nowhere was the worship of idealized "heroes" more obvious than in the monuments erected during these years in town squares and parks in nearly every city and town in America, North and South. Many of the monuments were built to honor a locally raised regiment or some local notable who had risen to the rank of colonel or general. A few such monuments are of national importance, including General Ulysses S. Grant's tomb; the equestrian monument of General William Tecumseh Sherman in New York by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, a leading artist of the era; and the bas-relief sculpture at Stone Mountain, Georgia, completed at an enormous expense.
Almost invariably, monuments to individual officers took the form of equestrian statues, showing their subjects mounted on horseback, as if leading military operations. This was not a purely American phenomenon; Americans were influenced by taste in Europe, and this period saw a tremendous number of equestrian statues dedicated to historical figures who were becoming important in new national mythologies, including Joan of Arc and the medieval Holy Roman emperors Charlemagne and Frederick Barbarossa. The inspiration for all these equestrian statues came from the only surviving intact such statue of a Roman emperor. Although equestrian statues were common in antiquity, they were generally destroyed in the Middle Ages because the then-ruling Christian authorities considered them part of the idolatrous pagan worship of the Roman emperors as living gods. One example, in Rome, was spared because it was believed to represent Constantine, the first Roman emperor to become a Christian. In fact, however, as early as the Renaissance (sixteenth century), scholars realized that the statue depicted instead the earlier emperor Marcus Aurelius. Every artist and every wealthy young man making the grand tour of Europe would have seen this world-famous statue prominently displayed in Rome; the lithographic printing that was then becoming cheap and popular ensured that practically every literate person would have been familiar with it. It is not surprising, then, that this particular image became the archetype for the presentation of nationalist heroes in both Europe and America.
In "A Horseman in the Sky," Bierce seems to recall the days before the Civil War with great irony by claiming not to know whether his character Carter Druse is inspired by a "good or bad angel." This can be taken as a reference to perhaps the most famous political speech in American history, Lincoln's first inaugural address. In this speech, Lincoln expresses his hope that war can yet be avoided if Americans in both the North and the South can be touched "by the better angels of our nature." Given the failure of Lincoln's hope and the horror of the ensuing war, Bierce may be suggesting that America's inspiration for the war might instead have come from bad—that is, fallen—angels.
The first critical response to "A Horseman in the Sky" (from an anonymous 1892 review in the New York Sun, quoted in Duncan and Klooster) finds in it a failure of realism:
‘A Horseman’ in the sky [sic] is the worst in the book so far as illusion is concerned. We will venture to say that no such erroneous impression could have been produced in the Federal army, or in any portion of it, as the author here alleges. We are certain that the horseman in the sky was never mistaken for a repetition of the Apocalyptical vision, but was only regarded as a Confederate General and his horse descending a precipice in obedience to the laws of gravitation, as the facts warranted.
Bierce's friend and biographer Vincent Starrett, in his Ambrose Bierce, one of the first critical texts on Bierce, debates whether or not the patricide could have been closely based on actual events witnessed by Bierce during the war. Bierce's language is considered a failure of realism and a source of trivial humor and shock.
Cathy N. Davidson, in her 1984 study The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable, approaches Bierce in modern critical terms for the first time. Though she does not cite his work as magic realism (preferring the critical terminology of Bierce's own era), she draws attention to the profound influence of Bierce on magic realist authors such as Borges. She locates the particular quality of Bierce's work in the disconnection between language and reality: "Bierce structures nearly all of his stories around breakdowns in perception and communication. These breakdowns are experienced by the characters in the text as well as by readers who recreate the text in the act of reading."
New historicist critics, who are interested in the historical context of literature as opposed to philosophical issues such as those raised by magic realism, show considerable interest in Bierce's Civil War stories. Donald T. Blume, in Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study, concentrates on the textual history of "A Horseman in the Sky" and points out that Bierce made some significant changes in the text between its publication in the Examiner in 1889 and its inclusion in the 1891 anthology. The most important of these changes occur at the end of the story, when Druse is being interrogated by the sergeant. In the original version, in answer to the sergeant's question as to whether there was anyone on the horse that Druse shot, the soldier replies, "Do you mean the horse which had wings?" Blume believes that this single line means that Druse was driven mad by the moral conflict of shooting his father; the critic considers that the alteration to the text resulted in a completely new meaning and a lessening of the story's literary quality. David M. Owens, in The Devil's Topographer: Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story, demonstrates to a much higher degree than earlier critics how closely stories such as "A Horseman in the Sky" were based on Bierce's wartime experiences. He relates many of the events and places in the story to the real topography of the area of West Virginia where Bierce fought in the autumn of 1861, and he even discovered that a legend circulated around the Union army in West Virginia to the effect that a soldier fell off a spectacularly high cliff at Seneca Rocks.
Bierce has always been considered a master of the "plain style," or "pure English," because of the great concision and exactness of his use of language. For this reason, together with his critiques of conventional assumptions about morality, politics, and manifold other aspects of society, his short stories and essays had an important role in the English literature and composition curricula in the United States throughout most of the twentieth century, as the writings of the educators and English Journal contributors Bernice L. Caswell and Helen F. Olson attest. "A Horseman in the Sky" has always been among the most common of Bierce's stories to be used in the classroom. Owens points out that "A Horseman in the Sky" is frequently read in courses on military ethics at the American service academies.
Bradley A. Skeen
Skeen is a classics professor. In this essay, he considers "A Horseman in the Sky" as an early example of magical realism and from the point of view of Freudian psychoanalysis.
The narrative of "A Horseman in the Sky" begins in a highly realistic manner, drawing on Bierce's own experience during the Civil War. A Federal sentry (Carter Druse) is neglecting his duty by sleeping on watch. The supernatural suddenly intrudes, however, as he awakens:
What good or bad angel came in a dream to rouse him from his state of crime, who shall say? Without a movement, without a sound, in the profound silence and the languor of the late afternoon, some invisible messenger of fate touched with unsealing finger the eyes of his consciousness—whispered into the ear of his spirit the mysterious awakening word which no human lips ever have spoken, no human memory ever has recalled.
This passage may lead the reader to expect that what follows is the narration of a dream or vision. This impression is strengthened by the next sentence: "He quietly raised his forehead from his arm and looked between the masking stems of the laurels." In ancient Greek myth, the laurel was sacred to Apollo and his attendants, the Muses, who were responsible for inspiring prophets with visions and poets with verse. Indeed, the following paragraphs seem to describe the miraculous appearance of an equestrian statue atop the cliff Druse is guarding. The pose of the figure is likened to that of a Greek god, suggesting that Druse is seeing an epiphany or a vision of the appearance of a god on Earth. The reader is then just as suddenly brought back to reality as the movement of the supposed statue reveals it to be a mounted Confederate scout. The narrative then dwells on the horrible psychological pressures on Druse in his having to act as a sniper and kill the scout suddenly and without warning.
The narrative next abruptly shifts to a description, still realistic, of a Federal officer in the valley below. He is placed so that he can see the falling Confederate horseman, and the reader is again plunged into a magical realm by his reaction: "Filled with amazement and terror by this apparition of a horseman in the sky—half believing himself the chosen scribe of some new Apocalypse, the officer was overcome by the intensity of his emotions; his legs failed him and he fell." Here, similarly, a natural event, the wounded horse and its rider falling from the cliff, is perceived by its viewer as a miracle and a sign of the biblical revelation of the end times.
In his brief response to a hostile review of "A Horseman in the Sky" (quoted following the story in Duncan and Klooster), Bierce is somewhat dismissive of this prophetic intrusion into the realistic narrative, pointing out that the Federal officer only "for that instant half believed" that he was experiencing something supernatural. Nevertheless, the descriptions of the two soldiers' flights of fancy constitute a large, and in many respects the most important, portion of the story. In "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," written the following year, Bierce makes the whole substantive action of the story an extended fantasy of escape in the mind of a Confederate spy during the instant it takes the rope to break his neck when he is hung by Federal troops; thus, the author was certainly well aware that the force of his fiction could rest in the detailed description of momentary fancies. Moreover, the singular intrusion of the mysterious or supernatural into an otherwise realistic narrative was a specialty of Bierce's. He had perfected this technique through his numerous horror stories. His formula was to keep the narrative as near to reality as possible and introduce only a single reality-breaking element that the reader must accept through the willing suspension of disbelief. In writing his Civil War stories, Bierce moved from the mere shock value of horror stories to attempts to inspire sober philosophical reflection in the reader.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- In Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, published in 1891, Bierce edited and collected his Civil War stories together with a selection of stories of the uncanny.
- In The Devil's Dictionary (1911) Bierce collected his cynical newspaper columns criticizing Gilded Age culture through a series of definitions exposing the often hypocritical use of language.
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written by Mark Twain and published in 1884, is an exploration of the culture that existed in America before the Civil War from a viewpoint similar to Bierce's, as written in the rapidly changing nation of the 1880s.
- Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative, published in three volumes between 1958 and 1974, is a popular introduction to the Civil War.
The intrusion of the visionary into the realistic text of "A Horseman in the Sky" is certainly a key element in the meaning Bierce wished to convey through the story. The visionary aspects highlight the transformation of American culture in the crisis of the Civil War. This literary technique is known as magic realism, where the sudden intrusion of the dreamlike or miraculous into a realistic narrative is taken as a dialectic with reality, often establishing dissatisfaction with the existing nature of things and calling for change. Bierce, moreover, utilizes the symbolic nature of the fantastic elements to call into question the legitimacy of the American attitude to the Civil War, an attitude that was dramatically changing by the time of his writing in the late 1880s.
The horseman of Bierce's title first appears as a mysterious statue in Druse's vision. There can be no question that Bierce is calling to mind the typically equestrian statues of prominent Civil War officers that began to appear throughout America in the North and South in the 1870s: "For an instant Druse had a strange, half-defined feeling that he had slept to the end of the war and was looking upon a noble work of art reared upon that eminence to commemorate the deeds of an heroic past of which he had been an inglorious part." Such statues were eventually erected in almost every city and town in the nation. Druse's vision, then, serves to contrast the way the Civil War was coming to be viewed twenty-five years after it was over and the way Bierce and other soldiers had experienced it. On the one hand, the Civil War commemorated by the statues, memorials, and the new holiday of Decoration Day was a glorious testimony to national honor, but on the other, the war that veterans like Bierce remembered in the secret places of their hearts was terrible and destructive. The role of nearly every soldier, which was to kill, brutally if necessary, was inglorious compared to romantic ideals of virtue and honor. The contrast is developed through the hint of magic realism, by the intrusion of a vision of the future into the past. Bierce wished to demonstrate that the common idea that the Civil War was glorious was a dreamlike fantasy. From this perspective, the traditional association of laurel with prophecy and inspiration may be considered a masterful piece of misdirection by Bierce; given the retrospective context, the laurel grove in which Druse is hidden must refer to the laurel wreaths that became a stock symbol for graveside ceremonies held on Decoration Day (which officially became Memorial Day in 1967).
In the system of moral conduct viewed as the American ideal in the nineteenth century, one man settled an affair of honor with another by openly challenging him to a duel and fighting fairly before witnesses and referees. A man who simply killed with expediency was a criminal and a coward. But Carter Druse is forced by the circumstances of the war to lie in concealment and kill without warning any enemy he sees, thus honorably fulfilling his duty as a soldier. Indeed, the moral standards of traditional civilian life are inverted by the necessities of war. Druse's act of patricide, then, can be considered symbolic. The brutal realities of the war made the sentimental ideals of antebellum America obsolete; the death of Druse's father is the death of America's innocence. Bierce, cynic that he was, could only view as hypocrisy the nation's attempts to revive its state of innocence by covering over the reality of the war with a blanket of sentimentality. The realities of the war made any attempts to create heroes by erecting statues to veterans seem like acts of self-deception about the true character of life and how it had been changed by the war.
In the third chapter of the story, the Federal officer who sees Druse's father fall, "half believing himself the chosen scribe of some new Apocalypse," is introduced to reiterate the point. The biblical Apocalypse is a vision of the end of the world. The indiscriminate killing that transformed men in the crisis of the Civil War brought about the end of the civilized, traditional, and innocent world that had existed before. But such a truth is too awful for the officer to recount to his superior. "This officer was a wise man; he knew better than to tell an incredible truth. He said nothing of what he had seen." The commander, in turn, somehow seems to know the truth yet thinks it better to keep silent about it. His willful ignorance of the truth may be the hypocrisy that Bierce saw developing about the Civil War in his later years.
The murder of one's own relative is an apt symbol for Bierce's perception of the Civil War and its effects on American culture. The scenario of brother killing brother was one popular stereotype of the war, recalling the biblical story of Cain and Abel and the classical story of Romulus and Remus. Also a metaphor for citizens of the same state killing each other on the battlefield, this scenario heightens the drama and horror of the situation. Bierce returned to the same theme in another of his Civil War stories, "The Affair at Coulter's Notch," in which an artillery officer must bombard a town containing his wife and child and in fact kills them. On the one hand, no worse crime can be imagined, but on the other, the actions can be seen as entirely proper because they came about through a soldier honorably doing his duty. The point is that traditional morality was irreparably damaged by the war. The theme is highlighted in Druse's father's final admonition to him: "whatever may occur do what you conceive to be your duty. "When his father says this, he means it as an ironic criticism of his son, who is abandoning his mother and betraying his biblically mandated duty to honor his parents. When Druse is forced to choose between the traditional duty of honoring his father and his military duty of killing his father, he resolves the paradox by recalling these very words and taking them as a warrant to do his military duty. The violence of the war exploded traditional morality.
Murder within the family seems to have had a special fascination for Bierce. A number of his comedic stories, such as "Oil of Dog," turn on this theme, and he reissued them in a separate collection titled The Parenticide Club. In his publication of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Freud popularized his discovery of the Oedipus complex. This identified psychological dynamics within a family according to which the infant first feels love in connection with the special relationship of dependency on his mother. The infant boy then experiences his father as a rival for the other parent's love and expresses this through unconditional hostility, since the infant's emotional range is still quite unrefined. To express this in adult terms, one would say that a baby boy loves his mother and wants to kill his father—events that actually occur in the ancient Greek myth of Oedipus. Although Freud was the first to articulate these psychological factors in scientific terms, he realized that writers going back to Sophocles, the playwright of Oedipus Rex, had nevertheless already approached the same psychological truth.
It is easy to explain the events of "A Horseman in the Sky" in psychological terms. One factor in Druse's initial abandonment of his mother by enlisting might well have been the overwhelming nature of the emotions he feels as a result of her impending death, making it easier for him to leave than to fully experience them. His decision to join the side that his father considers to be traitorous is unmistakably to be seen as an act of hostility against him. And then Druse indeed kills his own father. However, Druse's father looms largest in the story as an equestrian statue, a genre of art that is traced back to a single Roman equestrian statue of the emperor Marcus Aurelius. It is that statue, which he recognizes finally to be his father, that Druse must kill. It can hardly be a coincidence that Bierce's own father was named Marcus Aurelius. Part of the genesis of the story, underlying much of its emotional power, is Bierce's own patricidal fantasies, which naturally find an echo in the minds of his readers. In the same way, Roy Morris, Jr., has found the inspiration for the killing of the artilleryman's wife and child in "The Affair at Coulter's Notch" in events of Bierce's own life. At the time of writing, Bierce was in the process of divorcing his wife after discovering her in an affair, and his son had just been killed, ironically enough, in a duel arising over the honor of his fiancée.
Source: Bradley Skeen, Critical Essay on "A Horseman in the Sky," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Roy Morris Jr.
In the following excerpt, noted biographer and historian Morris describes Bierce's experiences in the West Virginia mountains during a Civil War campaign that formed the basis of the story "A Horseman in the Sky."
… Despite McClellan's earlier boast that "our success is complete & secession is killed in this country," Bierce and his regiment were soon back in Virginia, making sure that secession—or, at any rate, its stubbornly unburied ghost—remained dead. They found themselves again in the Cheat Mountain Valley, "holding a road that ran from Nowhere to the southeast." As veterans of the summer campaign, Bierce noticed that "we were regarded by the others with profound respect as ‘old soldiers.’ (Our ages, if equalized, would, I fancy, have given about twenty years to each man.) We gave ourselves, this aristocracy of service, no end of military airs; some of us even going to the extreme of keeping our jackets buttoned and our hair combed. We now ‘brought to the task’ of subduing the Rebellion a patriotism which never for a moment doubted that a rebel was a fiend accursed of God and the angels." Their burgeoning patriotism would soon be tested. Robert E. Lee, stung by the loss of western Virginia, personally led a new force into the valley, with the stated intention of retaking Cheat Mountain from the Union invaders.
Bierce's regiment, at Elkwater, was too far away to take part in the mishandled Confederate attack on Cheat Mountain on September 12, but on October 3, it participated in a reconnaissance in force against rebel breastworks near the Greenbrier River. The subsequent skirmish there "has not got into history," wrote Bierce, "but it had a real objective existence. Its short and simple annals are that we marched a long way and lay down before a fortified camp of the enemy at the farther edge of a valley. Our commander had the forethought to see that we lay well out of range of the small-arms of the period. A disadvantage of this arrangement was that the enemy was out of reach of us as well, for our rifles were not better than his. Unfortunately—one might almost say unfairly—he had a few pieces of artillery very well protected, and with those he mauled us to the eminent satisfaction of his mind and heart. So we parted from him in anger and returned to our own place, leaving our dead—not many." One of the dead the regiment left behind was a fellow named Abbott, whose taking off, Bierce remembered with mordant irony, was distinctly unusual. "He was lying flat upon his stomach." Bierce wrote, "and was killed by being struck in the side by a nearly spent cannon-shot that came rolling in among us. The shot remained in him until removed. It was a solid round-shot, evidently cast in some private foundry, whose proprietor had put his ‘imprint’ upon it: it bore, in slightly sunken letters, the name ‘Abbott’". The nineteen-year-old Bierce was quickly becoming a connoisseur of the grotesque.
Two months later, both his irony and his patriotism were severely challenged by a new engagement at Camp Allegheny, at the southern end of the Tygart Valley. Brig. Gen. Joseph J. Reynolds, the new brigade commander, had determined to probe the enemy defenses at Buffalo Mountain, a move that Bierce, as a rapidly seasoned veteran, justifiably considered one that was being made "more to keep up the appearance of doing something than with a hope of accomplishing a military result." What it accomplished was a stinging Union defeat. "Here," wrote Bierce, "the regiment had its hardest fight in Western Virginia, and was most gloriously thrashed." Revisiting the site decades after the war, Bierce found the rebel breastworks still standing, although so rotten that he could pick through the timber with his fingers for souvenir bullets (to his disappointment, he found none). The works had been admirably constructed to defend both front and rear, a wise choice, since Reynolds divided the attackers into two columns, each led by a guide who was a native of the parts. When the columns predictably failed to converge on the site for a simultaneous attack, the rebels found themselves enjoying "that inestimable military advantage known in civilian speech as being ‘surrounded.’" Bierce's column, attacking from the rear, was pinned down behind an obstacle course of fallen timbers, an act that probably saved their lives, said Bierce, since it prevented them from forming into line for a frontal assault. "We took cover," he wrote, "and pot-shotted the fellows behind the parapet all day and then withdrew and began our long retreat in a frame of mind that would have done credit to an imp of Satan."
The regimental mind-set was scarcely improved by the sight that greeted them along their retreat. They had already passed "some things lying by the wayside" on their way to the front. These "things" turned out to be the corpses of Union scouts slain by "Allegheny Ed" Johnson's Confederate troops in earlier skirmish. Bierce, with his avid eye for the macabre, had already examined the bodies, "curiously lifting the blankets from their yellow-clay faces. How repulsive they looked with their blood-smears, their blank, staring eyes, their teeth uncovered by contraction of the lips!" The sight of their dead comrades left the men of the Ninth speechless—"for an hour afterward the injunction of silence in the ranks was needless." The troops were still as patriotic as ever, observed Bierce, "but we did not wish to be that way."
Repassing the site the next day, "feeble from fatigue and savage from defeat," Bierce and the others were surprised to see that the dead men seemed to have altered their positions and thrown off their covering. The reason—and its effect—was quickly seen. A herd of wild pigs had eaten the faces off the dead men. Years later, in his short story "The Coup de Grace," Bierce gives a graphic rendering of the hideous sight: "Fifty yards away, on the crest of a low, thinly wooded hill, he saw several dark objects moving about among the fallen men—a herd of swine. One stood with his back to him, its shoulders sharply elevated. Its forefeet were upon a human body, its head was depressed and invisible. The bristly ridge of its chine showed black against the red west. The swine, catching sight of him, threw up their crimson muzzles, regarding him suspiciously a second, and then with a gruff, concerted grunt, raced away out of sight." The real-life soldiers quickly shot the pigs—Bierce termed it "a military execution"—but they could not bring themselves to eat the repulsive animals. "The shooting of several kinds was good in the Cheat Mountain country, even in 1861," he noted dryly.
Bierce would make use of the mountainous West Virginia terrain in another postwar story, "A Horseman in the Sky." In it, the civilian guide who led Bierce's column up to the rebel camp at Buffalo Mountain is personified by a young, well-born Virginian who has impulsively joined the Union army at Grafton. This traitor to Virginia, as his father sorrowfully calls him, finds himself posted as a sentry in a clump of laurel overlooking a sheer drop-off hundreds of feet below. The character's name, Carter Druse, bears a certain euphoric similarity to the author's, and it is perhaps something of a private joke that he is described as "the son of wealthy parents, an only child, [who] had known such ease and cultivation and high living as wealth and taste were able to command." Aware that his regiment is planning a surprise attack on the enemy camp that night, Druse is startled to see a Confederate scout suddenly appear on horseback on the ridge across the way. After a brief internal debate in which Druse struggles to reconcile himself with the act of shooting the horseman from ambush, he remembers his father's parting injunction to "do what you conceive to be your duty." He shoots the rider's horse, sending both man and beast plunging over the sheer precipice, and a Union officer coming up the mountainside witnesses "an astonishing sight—a man on horseback riding down into the valley through the air!" The horseman in the sky turns out to be Druse's own father, and the hardened sergeant to whom he later tells the story can scarcely stomach Druse's act. "Good God!" he says, walking away. The story, like those in The Parenticide Club, is another of Bierce's compulsive acts of patricide, and the image of the rider on horseback silently plunging through the air to his death, his long hair streaming upward like a plume, is genuinely eerie and affecting …
Source: Roy Morris Jr., "What I Saw of Shiloh," in Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, Crown Publishers, 1995, pp. 21-39.
In the following essay, Mariani argues that while Bierce never glorified heroism or patriotism, he was nonetheless engaged by the martial spirit, as evidenced by his Civil War short stories.
No author would seem to be more resistant to the ritual celebrations of honor and military prowess that distinguished the work of many popular authors of the American 1890s than Ambrose Bierce. His well-known cynicism, corrosive irony, and predilection for the absurd appear resolutely antithetical to the patriotism, sentimentalism, and rhetorical embellishments characteristic of those texts which, whether explicitly or not, aimed at popularizing what T. J. Jackson Lears has aptly identified as the "martial spirit" of the age. Not surprisingly, critics have generally described Bierce's work, and especially his Civil War short stories, as the best anti-heroic war fiction to appear before Crane's The Red Badge of Courage. Eric Solomon, for example, has argued that Bierce's pieces are "vignettes of cosmic irony wherein man is brought to realize his insignificance in the face of the all-encompassing universe of war." Bierce consciously rejects "the glorious view of war" and is never sentimental about honor or glory; his business, Solomon insists, is to show "the irrationality of war." More recently Lawrence Berkove has proposed that both Bierce's fiction and his journalism are at the core "peace tracts." Bierce "truly and profoundly" believed that "war is both foolish and terrible, that its glamour is an illusion, and that the fine talk justifying it on the grounds of patriotism and idealism is all lies." Cathy Davidson has made a similar point in her interesting study of the dialectic of perception and misperception in his fiction. According to Davidson, Bierce shows that a military life grants no glory, that patriotism is dehumanizing, that the real meaning (or unmeaning) of war is to be found in its inevitable and chilling massacres.
Yet, paradoxically, Bierce gained at least part of his reputation by writing for the San Francisco Examiner, a paper owned by William Randolph Hearst, one of the most distinguished and fanatical masterminds of war propaganda of the 1890s. Several explanations have been offered as to why Hearst continued to employ a writer like Bierce even during the Spanish-American war, when Bierce's attitude towards American involvement oscillated between qualified support and bitter opposition. One can, of course, wonder whether Hearst preferred to include a dissenter's views in his papers so that he could not be accused of ignoring positions different from his own, or whether he was simply eager to keep on the Examiner's staff a very popular journalist who attracted a wide readership. This, however, should not obscure the fact that Bierce's anti-war feelings—even in his Civil War tales, where they are supposedly expressed more strongly—are marked by structural and ideological limitations which prevented them from becoming objectionable to imperialists like Hearst.
As Berkove himself notes, though Bierce never glorified heroism and patriotism, "it is also true that he was ambivalent about war. His reason opposed it; his emotions were exhilarated by it." In sum, "Bierce was far from being a pacifist." Solomon appears to agree with this position because, in his view, if Bierce "was revolted, intellectually, by the harsh brutalities of a repellent, paradoxical world," he still "enjoyed the test of combat, the companionship and the excitement of war." The limit of such qualifications of Bierce's anti-war sentiments is two-fold. First, both Solomon and Berkove draw a clear-cut line between, on the one hand, Bierce's "intellect" and "reason," which would feed his anti-war position, and, on the other hand, his "emotions" and gut-feelings, which, in tune with the martial spirit of the times, would find war an exhilarating experience. One need not be an orthodox believer in psycho-analysis to find of dubious value such sharp distinctions between the rational and irrational spheres of the human mind. Moreover, by focusing on the author's personality, this way of approaching the issue moves attention away from the texts. On the contrary, the ambivalence of Bierce's anti-war views lies at the very heart of his best short stories of the Civil War. While he certainly subverts the stereotypes which dominated popular fiction through a constant juxtaposition of the idealistic view of war to the brutality and horror of the battlefield, Bierce does not try to expose the world of war as a cultural and historical reality serving specific interests, and which could be called into question by a different value-system. In the narrative machinery of his stories there is no slot free from the logic of war and aggression, so that any attempt at criticizing the martial universe becomes impossible. That world may be revolting and horrifying, but it is the only one the author knows, and the only one in which his characters can function.
"An Affair of Outposts" contains a characteristically Biercean anti-war tirade:
In all this there was none of the pomp of war—no hint of glory. Even in his distress and peril the helpless civilian could not forbear to contrast it with the gorgeous parades and reviews held in honor of himself—with the brilliant uniforms, the music, the banners, and the marching. It was an ugly and sickening business: to all that was artistic in his nature, revolting, brutal, in bad taste…. "This is beastly! Where is the charm of it all? Where are the elevated sentiments, the devotion, the heroism, the—."
The "helpless civilian" is in fact the villain of the story. The Governor of the State, he grants a military commission to an Armisted, who wishes to enlist and die in battle since his wife has betrayed him. Even though Armisted later discovers that her secret lover was the Governor himself, he still gives up his life to save that of his personal enemy when the latter, during a visit to the battlefield, wanders too close to the enemy lines. The quoted passage, as is the entire story, is built on the contrast between the foppish and false world of the civilian and the tough, bloody, but real world of Captain Armisted. Though the first impression may be that the shocking violence of a real battle is meant to debunk the Governor's fantasies of "gorgeous parades" and "brilliant uniforms," a closer look at the events and structural opposition of the tale will reveal that the "revolting, brutal" war environment is constructed in fact as something of an ideal, a yardstick through which the "nobility" and courage of the captain, as well as the pettiness and cowardice of the Governor, can be measured.
The Governor is one of those "distinguished civilians" who like to catch a glimpse "of the horrors of war" as long as this can be done "safely." When his "showily horsed" staff visits the camp, "the bedraggled soldier looked up from his trench … leaned upon his spade and audibly damned them to signify his sense of their ornamental irrelevance to the austerities of his trade." Real soldiers, who can discern "expectancy and readiness" where the civilian can see only "carelessness, confusion, indifference," are better men, men with a first-hand knowledge of the ugly face of the world, and men who can distinguish between substance and appearance, between what is essential and what is "ornamental." Thus Bierce's satire invests what people like the Governor think of war; that is, the idealistic conception which undoubtedly many contemporary readers shared with the tale's villain. Yet to criticize the view of war that prevailed in the popular imagination is not the same thing as attacking the martial ideology itself.
By contrasting the "composure and precision of veterans" that characterizes "raw soldiers of less than a year's training" to the "pride and terror" of the frightened Governor, the author does not do away with the rather traditional notions of courage and heroism and the idealization of war as a "raw" experience. The story does have a "hero," and that hero is obviously Armisted, who sacrifices himself in order to be a truly honorable soldier. He is disgusted by the world of lies inhabited by the Governor and his wife, but what he turns to for purification, far from being a rejection of the Governor's world of "elevated sentiments … devotion … heroism," is an intensification of the latter. Armisted is a better man because he truly believes in the chivalric code of honor which for the Governor is a mere smoke screen. The "horrors of war" in the midst of which Armisted shows his valor and honesty turn out to be at least more "human" and real than the "horrors of peace," which characterize the Governor's everyday life. What happens in another story, "The Coup de Grace," where the only humane thing Captain Madwell can do for his horribly wounded and agonizing friend Sergeant Halcrow is to thrust his sword into the latter's breast and thus put an end to his suffering, typifies the inescapable logic of the martial universe in which "An Affair of Outpost" and all of Bierce's war tales take place. No matter how appalling and horrible war may be, Bierce's fiction shows that its logic cannot be transcended.
Of course Bierce's reputation as anti-war writer lies precisely in the uncompromising depiction of the most terrifying, disgusting details of the battlefield. In "The Coup de Grace," for example, Halcrow's mortal wound is described as "a wide, ragged opening in the abdomen. It was defiled with earth and dead leaves. Protruding from it was a loop of small intestine." The sergeant's stomach has been partly eaten away by pigs who have been feeding on dead or half-dead soldiers. The polemical, anti-sentimental content of such images is clear enough. Similarly, and even more explicitly, in "One Kind of Officer" Bierce contrasts the idealization of war to its reality. In this tale the dead soldiers lying on the battleground are depicted as "very repulsive … wrecks … not at all heroic, and nobody was accessible to the infection of their patriotic example. Dead upon the field of honor, yes; but the field of honor was so very wet! It makes a difference." Honor, here, is unmasked as an empty construct, a term that cannot contain and account for the tragedy and absurdity of war. It is also fitting that such an attack on the idea of honor and loyalty to a higher cause should be developed in a text where, in order to follow strictly the orders he has received, a captain ends up firing on his own men only to be eventually sentenced to death because the general who gave the order in the first place is killed in battle and no one can defend him.
Bierce's irony, no doubt, points to the irrationality and monstrosity of war, and yet his own ironic assaults are regulated by an ill logic that parallels the one ruling the army world. Captain Ransom, though aware all along that he is attacking his own troops, is too much of a soldier to question the orders received. He is chronically incapable of reasoning beyond the letter of military codes. Quite appropriately, when he himself becomes the victim of the rigidity of those iron laws, he does not even say a word to try to save his life. The execution that ends the tale—and which could also be seen as Bierce's act of poetic justice against Ransom's total lack of common sense—duplicates the absurdity of the captain's own blind faith in discipline. He is, after all, only guilty of having carried out his orders; yet he must die. If Bierce's intention is to show his readers the absurdity of war and military life, one must note that his fictional world too is fed by a fascination for the absurd that mirrors the irrationality he seemingly wishes to unmask.
War, as Solomon argues, may well be "full of startling chances," but so is Bierce's fiction. Whether one finds his plots and situations forced or not, it would be hard to deny that their ironies have a certain "journalistic" flavor that would generally be associated with the sensationalist stories of crimes, scandals, and disaster that loomed very large in the yellow press of the day. Although it would be unfair to reduce Bierce's civil-war stories to their plot outlines, his tales too seem to exploit the popular demand for unusual, incredible, puzzling, irrational events. At the same time, they never point to any reality beyond that of the text itself. War, in his stories, is never treated as the result of larger social, political, or economic forces. War is a given, a second nature, an inescapable self-sufficient reality that provides Bierce's characters with all the knowledge they need to have.
More importantly, perhaps, like popular journalism of the day, Bierce's tales are programmed to evoke astonishment. Several of Bierce's war stories strive to perplex and shock the reader precisely by resorting to what Roland Barthes has called "disturbed causality." In "One Kind of Officer," for example, one would expect the captain to fire on his own men because he is a spy or a traitor. On the contrary, he does so because he is a supremely loyal soldier. In "An Affair of Outposts" one would think that Armisted would exploit the opportunity of taking revenge on the Governor. He does not: his "revenge" is to save his enemy's life. Similarly, in "A Coup de Grace" Madwell is brought to kill his friend Sergeant Halcrow in order to spare him further pain. In the strange, sensational world of Bierce's war stories, logic and normal causality are constantly subverted.
But Bierce makes an even more generous use of another type of disturbed causality, "the relation of coincidence." In "A Horseman in the Sky" Carter Druse, who, though from Virginia, has joined the Union Army, must fire on an enemy who has come too close to his camp and could report crucial strategic information to the Confederate Army. That man is his father. In "The Mocking Bird" Private Grayrock, while on duty as a night sentinel, fires at the "indistinct outlines of a human figure." Later he discovers he has killed his own twin brother, from whom he had been long separated. In "The Affair at Coulter's Notch" Captain Coulter, another southerner who has joined the Union, is ordered to engage the enemy encamped near his family house, and he bombs to death his own wife and child. In "One of the Missing" a recently shelled barn collapses on the scout, Jerome Searing, leaving him trapped by a timber and with his cocked rifle "protruding from a pile of debris … aimed at the exact centre of his head."
The sensationalist elements of Bierce's tales have not gone unnoticed among critics. Larzer Ziff, for example, has written that in the Civil War stories "grotesque coincidences abound, in contempt of the natural laws of probability." Cathy Davidson, on the other hand, has tried to answer the accusation that Bierce too often resorts to trick endings by arguing that his endings "are effectively designed to emphasize the author's narrative manipulations" (p. 4). For Davidson, the shocks generated by the text encourage the reader to reconsider the logic of the narration by calling for a second reading. As "open-ended and incomplete" texts, the best of Bierce's stories construct war episodes as "inescapably indeterminate" events: "The various perspectives, including the narrator's, give us different possible ways of looking at men at war—and, also, at peace—but no way of validating any particular vision." In other words, whereas some critics consider Bierce's plots strained and too sensational, Davidson points to the fact that they generate reading problems of impossible solution. The reader is not instructed as to whether Druse was right or wrong in firing on his father, nor given any counsel on how to interpret the unfailing obedience of people like Ransom and Coulter, or the final scene of "A Coup de Grace."
Davidson obviously believes that Bierce's texts call for "critical," "creative" readings, that they disclose new scenarios affording the reader a perspective from which war and the martial ideal can be condemned as dehumanizing and immoral. This point of view is far too optimistic. Davidson's reading model is obviously that of the contemporary post-structuralist moment, and she does not do much to show its applicability to the social and historical context in which Bierce operated. At any rate, the rhetorical and structural peculiarities she discerns in Bierce's tales are also common to texts (like those of the yellow press) which one would not normally call open-ended. Like several contemporary critics, Davidson tends to reify the category of indeterminacy by considering it as an automatic source of critical, open-minded, mature, responsible attitudes. The ambiguity and indeterminacy of Bierce's tales can be seen as generating effects rather different from the ones imagined by Davidson. No matter how nihilistic the general outlook of his texts may appear, and no matter how shockingly uncompromising their description of the horrors of war may be, the forces that dominate the world of war are those of a power beyond human control. In some sense Bierce allows his readers to have their cake and eat it too: they can morally condemn the perversity of war and at the same time blame it on the obscure design of a Destiny no one has really any ability to influence. Bierce's war universe is a historical not because it does not contain enough circumstantial details on the events presented but because the category of historical causality is replaced by Fate. Fate, as anyone knows, cannot be influenced by humans.
The main limit of Bierce's critique of war, therefore, is that nobody can really be held responsible for its horrors. In a piece he published some years after his Civil War tales, Bierce wrote:
That is all the nonsense about "the horrors of war," in so far as the detestable phrase implies that they are worse than those of peace; they are more striking and impressive, that is all…. Wars are expensive, doubtless, but somebody gets the money; it is not thrown into the sea…. [Besides a] quarter-century of peace will make a nation of blockheads and scoundrels. Patriotism is a vice, but is a larger vice, and a nobler, than the million petty ones which it promotes in peace to swallow up in war. In the thunder of guns it becomes respectable.
The man upholding this philosophy of war is sarcastically labeled by Bierce a "superior intelligence." Yet his views are not refuted; they may not be Bierce's own, but they exemplify the deadlock into which his critique of war inevitably runs. Impermeable to his attacks on myths of military glory and heroic exploits, the martial spirit reemerges, phoenix-like, as a positive, cleansing force necessary to counter the corruption of modern society. Bierce's failure to position himself outside the martial discourse of his time shows that the war fever of the 1890s was hegemonic even in areas where it was contested. At the same time it also shows that while the causes that bring people to rationally and systematically plan ways to kill one another may be difficult, perhaps even impossible, to assess with scientific accuracy, to abdicate altogether all logical categories can only lead one to abandon the world of history and eventually blame every man-produced horror on Fate and Nature. Such an imperfect unmasking of the logic of war is very likely to bring one back, as in the case of the "superior intelligence," to a praise of the martial spirit since it does not supplement the criticism of weapons with any weapons of criticism.
Source: Giorgio Mariani, "Ambrose Bierce's Civil War Stories and the Critique of the Martial Spirit," in Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 19, No. 2, Autumn 1991, pp. 221-28.
In the following excerpt, Solomon identifies the source of Bierce's "bitter irony": the failure of reason, particularly amidst the madness of war.
In his brilliant study, The Art of Satire (1940), David Worcester defines cosmic irony as the satire of frustration which has a particular relevance for post-Copernican man, who is no longer the center of his universe. Ambrose Bierce's short stories of war, Tales of Soldiers (1891), are vignettes of cosmic irony wherein man is brought to realize his insignificance in the face of the all-encompassing universe of war as well as the futility of all "normal" acts and aspirations. Only Stephen Crane has written as powerfully as Bierce about the shock of recognition brought on by the Civil War.
The keynote of Bierce's war fiction is frustration. His soldiers are chagrined by their limits of knowledge and their lack of control. As Bierce states in his military memoirs, "Bits of Autobiography," "It is seldom indeed that a subordinate officer knows anything about the disposition of the enemy's forces … or precisely whom he is fighting. As for the rank and file, they can know nothing more of the matter than the arms they carry." Man in war, afflicted by the failure of reason and the impact of collective suffering, is also unable to live up to his preconceived ideals. Again in the memoirs, we find Bierce telling us of a gallant charge that has been beaten back by a heavy fire: "Lead had scored its old time victory over steel; the heroic had broken its great heart against the commonplace. There are those who say that it is sometimes otherwise." These two concepts, unreason and failure, provide the basis for the bitter irony of Bierce's brief, rapid anecdotes, which silhouette the blackest side of war.
The fifteen extremely short "Tales of Soldiers" included in the collection, In the Midst of Life, strike a mean between violently contrived naturalism—replete with disgusting ugliness and shocking coincidence—and the accumulation of exact, realistic, and factual observations of combat life. There can be no doubt that the author loads the dice in each of his tales. The theme of every story is the death of the good, the honest, and the brave. A Northern soldier kills his rebel father; a young enlisted man on guard duty discovers his brother's corpse; a gunner destroys his own house, murdering his wife and children. All the gestures of heroism turn out to be empty. Certainly the coincidences are over-emphasized for added ironic effect in these war stories as in all of Bierce's work. The mordant cynicism of The Devil's Dictionary and Fantastic Fables, the misanthropic savagery of Bierce's treatment of insanity and the supernatural in Can Such Things Be? do not lead to an objective point of view. Life is terrible, and war is the epitome of its misery.
War fits Bierce's philosophy perfectly. The very nature of combat that involves a heightening, a tension, an absurdity of situation, an incongruity that calls for satire, suits his dark approach. In Bierce's "Tales of Civilians" which make up the second half of In the Midst of Life, his stories seem labored and contrived. The writer must spend much more time to build up the situation than in the war stories, where the background may be taken for granted simply because war is war. The later stories become discursive—an almost fatal flaw for an epigrammatic method—since Bierce must describe the mining camps or the San Francisco social hierarchy; within the war context everything is understood at once. The military situation, by its nature rapid and simple, supplies its own foreshortening. Wilson Follett, perhaps Bierce's most acute critic, points out that the chief artistic weakness in his fiction comes from the substitution of an external irony for the irony inherent in the nature of things. War, with its own frame of irony, is the finest subject for "Bitter Bierce's" corruscating, witty excursions into fiction.
Bierce had ample opportunity to learn about war first-hand. He enlisted in the Ohio Volunteers at the age of nineteen, young enough for the ironies of war to become an integral part of his education. Bierce later spoke of his six years of soldiering as spent under a magic spell, "something new under a new sun." He was a success as a soldier. He rose through the ranks to become a sergeant, then a lieutenant, and finally, as a topographical engineer, he became a member of the staff of General W. B. Hazen. Bierce sums up his war experiences with an old soldier's quiet modesty: "… although hardly more than a boy in years, I had served at the front from the beginning of the trouble, and had seen enough of war to give me a fair understanding of it."
He was at Shiloh, Stone's River (Murfreesboro), Chickamauga, Kenesaw Mountain, and Franklin, among other engagements. Like almost every veteran who lives long enough, Bierce is able in his memoirs to cast a gloss of sentiment over army life, but he is realistic enough to comprehend that this warm sentiment is not called for. "Is it not strange" he reminisced, "that the phantoms of a blood-stained period have so airy a grace and look with so tender eyes?—that I recall with difficulty the dangers and death and horrors of the time, and without effort all that was gracious and picturesque?" We must not be misled by his fine war record and vintage memories. Bierce's war recollections are also sprinkled with the materials that go into his stories—the irony of a man named Abbot being killed by a shell with the foundry mark "Abbot" on it, or the ghastly sight of his dead comrades after they had been trampled by a herd of swine. While Bierce enjoyed the test of combat, the companionship and the excitement of war, he was revolted, intellectually, by the harsh brutalities of a repellent, paradoxical world.
Moving from memoir to fiction, Bierce found the short, almost elliptical story to be his ideal form. As critics have been quick to point out, Bierce learned a great deal from Edgar Allan Poe's theories of fiction. Like Poe, Bierce is highly selective, fixing upon the decisive, revealing moment. For example, he catches the instant of an execution in his famous "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," the intense immediacy of the discovery of cowardice and courage in the two protagonist of "Parker Adderson, Philosopher," or the momentary stasis in "A Horseman in the Sky," where a boy quietly presses the trigger and his father's body slowly falls into space.
Unquestionably, Bierce's plots are forced. Consider the manipulation for effect in "An Affair of Outposts." Here a young man, Armisted, informs the governor of his state that he wants a commission in the army in order to die in battle because his wife has taken up with some unknown person. Much later, the governor visits the battlefield, wanders too far, is endangered by an enemy attack, and saved by Armisted, who dies in the attempt—but not until both men realize that they share the knowledge that the governor is the villain of the piece. The bare plot outline, as always, hardly does justice to the story, which gains its effect from the conjunction of the civilian and military frames of reference and the bitingly sarcastic tone of the narrative. Yet this example shows how Bierce uses a highly unusual military situation that focuses the whole history of his characters onto one remarkable event. Since war is full of startling chances, the author's controlling hand is less obtrusive than it might be.
Although Bierce's figures are flat (to use E. M. Forster's term), each story expresses a deep psychological trauma, one that ends in madness or loss. Again, war is the proper setting for the intensified emotion Bierce presents. In war character becomes automatized, part of the military machine. Relying on this firm military context, Bierce easily sketches as much or as little of his heroes' past lives as he desires. The immediate impression is important in the war construct. So the hero of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a spy who is about to be hanged—that much is germane to the story. We take for granted the reason for his being in this situation and what his beliefs are.
Bierce provides the barest minimum of character description:
Peyton Farquhar was a well-to-do planter of an old and highly respected Alabama family. Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician, he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause. Circumstances of an imperious nature, which it is unnecessary to relate here, had prevented him from taking service with the gallant army …
Who he is makes little difference. How he reacts to war is important. Bierce's attitude towards plot and character may be cursory, but his fictional treatment of war is, with the exception of the work of Crane (and possibly Rudyard Kipling), the most extensive in nineteenth century English and American fiction. Bierce's subject is man in war. He does not heighten his fiction with the details of war in the manner of John W. De Forest or John Esten Cooke; rather he steeps his stories in the aura, the meaning of battle. Bierce captures the principle that lies behind the facts. He catches war at its sources, and he makes it an intensification of personal experience….
Source: Eric Solomon, "The Bitterness of Battle: Ambrose Bierce's War Fiction," in Midwest Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 2, January 1964, pp. 147-65.
Stuart C. Woodruff
In the following excerpt, Woodruff argues that although Bierce was cynical about the possibility of meaning in human life, he nevertheless demonstrated "genuine concern" for the agony of his characters in his Civil War stories.
In his journalism and satiric verse, and especially in The Devil's Dictionary, Bierce is primarily concerned with castigating a flawed humanity, "a world of fools and rogues, blind with superstition, tormented with envy, consumed with vanity, selfish, false, cruel, cursed with illusions—frothing mad!" In his short stories, on the other hand, Bierce's characteristic theme is the inscrutable universe itself, whose mechanisms checkmate man's every attempt to assert his will or live his dreams. If the universe is not actively hostile or malevolent, as in many of his tales of the supernatural, it is at best always indifferent to human need. From birth, that "first and direst of all disasters," to death, life is but the "spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay." This dismal concept of the human situation is Bierce's central imaginative impulse in his short stories, the idea that gives shape to his fictional world. Repeatedly, his protagonists become enmeshed in some fatal trap or are destroyed by uncontrollable fears. They move in ignorance toward their destiny, ground into oblivion by some spectacular ordering of events, or else unhinged by their encounter with the supernatural. To Bierce the picture was "infinitely pathetic and picturesque."
Although Bierce's expository writing was largely devoted to excoriating human folly, he would occasionally hold forth upon a universe whose Maker, as Stein tells Marlow in Lord Jim, was a "little mad." Like many nineteenth-century pessimists, Bierce was sensitive to the implications of scientific determinism and to the operation of vast impersonal forces in nature which reduced man to the status of a puppet jerked by the strings of chance. In The Devil's Dictionary he defines a calamity as "a more than commonly plain and unmistakable reminder that the affairs of this life are not of our own ordering," and in one of his newspaper columns he remarks: "I believe that in the word ‘chance,’ we have the human name of a malign and soulless intelligence bestirring himself in earthly affairs with the brute unrest of Enceladus underneath his mountain." Victim of what Bierce calls in one of his tales "the pitiless perfection of the divine, eternal plan," man vainly sends his prayers on high:
From Earth to Heaven in unceasing ascension flows a stream of prayer for every blessing that man desires, yet man remains unblest, the victim of his own folly and passions, the sport of fire, flood, tempest and earthquake, afflicted with famine and disease, war, poverty and crime, his world an incredible welter of evil, his life a curse and his hope a lie.
As a scientific determinist, Bierce believed in evolution through natural selection, but to him it implied no march toward human perfection. Instead, he saw man caught in an eternal round of progress and disintegration. As a part of nature's principles of force and strife, man, innately selfish, engaged in an endless series of wars which destroyed the capable and strong while preserving the feeble and incompetent. Man's attempts at humanitarian and social reform, such as the rehabilitation of criminals, salvaged the very misfits and "incapables whom Nature is trying to ‘weed out.’" Similarly, Bierce saw a strange irony in medical science, "which is mainly concerned in reversing the beneficent operation of natural laws and saving the inefficient to perpetuate their inefficiency." Scientific progress and discovery had managed to prolong man's life, but in so doing, had intensified the struggle for existence through overpopulation and increased competition. The basic paradox was that the very means by which man would save himself and improve his lot multiplied his problems instead of solving them. To Bierce, "the one goal of civilization is barbarism; to the condition whence it emerged a nation must return, and every invention, every discovery, every beneficent agency hastens the inevitable end." Consequently, "peace is more fatal than war, for all must die, and in peace more are born. The bullet forestalls the pestilence by proffering a cleaner and decenter death."
Perhaps Bierce's most violent diatribe against the inhospitable universe and the clearest expression of his attitude occurs in an essay sarcastically entitled "Natura Benigna." Despite the mannered and rhetorical flourishes, the violence of Bierce's assault suggests something of his own frustration and rage over a world in which "Howe'er your choice may chance to fall,/ You'll have no hand in it at all." Because Bierce always insisted, as did Poe, that a storyteller must remain detached and impersonal in his narrations, such personal concern is usually disguised in his fiction. Its deliberate concealment or distortion in the direction of macabre humor has caused several of Bierce's critics to call him "inhuman" or "without pity." As the following quotation from "Natura Benigna" indicates however, Bierce's frequent claim that "nothing matters" requires careful qualification:
In all the world there is no city of refuge—no temple in which to take sanctuary, clinging to the horns of the altar—no "place apart" where, like hunted deer, we can hope to elude the baying pack of Nature's malevolences…. Dodge, turn and double how we can, there's no eluding them; soon or late some of them have him by the throat and his spirit returns to the God who gave it—and gave them.
Particularly evident in this essay is Bierce's compulsive desire to assault what disturbs him most profoundly. The thought of that "pack of Nature's malevolences" triggers a kind of frenzied despair:
What a fine world it is, to be sure—a darling little world, "so suited to the needs of man." A globe of liquid fire, straining within a shell relatively no thicker than that of an egg—a shell constantly cracking and in momentary danger of going all to pieces! Three-fourths of this delectable field of human activity are covered with an element in which we cannot breathe, and which swallows us by myriads…. Of the other one-fourth more than one-half is uninhabitable by reason of climate. On the remaining one-eighth we pass a comfortless and precarious existence in disputed occupancy with countless ministers of death and pain—pass it in fighting for it, tooth and nail, a hopeless battle in which we are foredoomed to defeat. Everywhere death, terror, lamentation and the laughter that is more terrible than tears—the fury and despair of a race hanging on to life by the tips of its fingers! And the prize for which we strive, "to have and to hold"—what is it? A thing that is neither enjoyed while had, nor missed when lost. So worthless it is, so unsatisfying, so inadequate to purpose, so false to hope and at its best so brief, that for consolation and compensation we set up fantastic faiths of an aftertime in a better world from which no confirming whisper has ever reached us across the void. Heaven is a prophecy uttered by the lips of despair, but Hell is an inference from analogy.
Such a chilling vision, nourished by Bierce's own experiences in the Civil War, his incisive knowledge of "how it was," provides the main creative impulse for many of his stories, especially those contained in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. The war became for Bierce a controlling metaphor of the world and its ways. Always irrationally destructive, war reduced life to its lowest common denominators; the war-world he depicted made a unifying dramatic action of the hopeless struggle for existence. Its elements of surprise, confusion, and the predatory instinct constituted that blind causality which struck with devastating and unpredictable finality. The common soldier, an expendable pawn ignorant of the larger strategies and issues, was shifted about at random, fighting his enemies in treacherous forest depths or dense fog. Shells leapt out at him from nowhere, stupid or depraved officers gave disastrous orders, irrational terror overwhelmed him. Under such pressures individual will or desire became not only impossible but irrelevant, or was converted into an obsessive longing to rush wildly into certain annihilation….
Bierce's fatalism is very similar to Thomas Hardy's, and both writers must necessarily rely on coincidence to enforce their particular vision. "One of the Missing," for example, is reminiscent of Hardy's poem "The Convergence of the Twain" in which the ship Titanic and the gigantic iceberg move relentlessly toward a collision that "jars two hemispheres." Both story and poem, moreover, point up the futility of any assertion of human will. But in a way "coincidence" is a misleading term, for Hardy and Bierce are careful to show at work an intricate pattern of causal connection, unseen by those involved but all too discernible to the detached gaze of an omniscient author. As Edmund Wilson once said of Dickens's novels, the mysterious connection events have with each other becomes the moral of the tale. And in Bierce, the plot becomes the trap that snaps shut on the helpless protagonist. Virtually all of Bierce's stories, in fact, have what has been called a "snap ending"; while the term is sometimes justly used in a pejorative sense, it is important to see how Bierce's conclusions derive from his ironic point of view….
Writing to a young female admirer in 1901, Bierce expressed the hope that she was "well and happy—as happy as it is consonant with the plans of God's universe for any of his helpless creatures to be—or believe themselves to be." This sense of man's helplessness, of the terrible inevitability of his fate, is the most persistent theme running through Bierce's stories, especially those dealing with war. For Bierce, war was the ideal metaphor to define the human predicament, not simply because he had known war intimately, but because it was the clearest demonstration of how the instinctive and the accidental combined to thwart human endeavor. But war's most important function was to represent what Bierce regarded as the central fact of existence: one's physical annihilation. Believing that the "mind or spirit or soul of man was the product of his physical being, the result of chemical combinations," Bierce looked upon death as the "awful mystery," awful because of its irreducible finality, its negation of all of man's hopes and creative impulses. As his friend David Jordan wrote: "Whether glory or conquest or commercial greed be war's purpose the ultimate result of war is death. Its essential feature is the slaughter of the young, the brave, the ambitious, the hopeful." Bierce's war stories are fables of life's essential movement toward disillusion, defeat, and death. They concentrate and accelerate the inexorable process of disintegration. Thus the demolished building in "One of the Missing" becomes Searing's "sole universe" as his "throbs tick off eternities," and the child in "Chickamauga" has "his little world swung half around" in a matter of hours.
For reasons that will be discussed in a subsequent chapter on Bierce's severe limitations as an artist, his stories always fall short of tragedy. Nevertheless, in the best of them, to be found among the tales of soldiers, there is a genuine pathos that arises from Bierce's intense awareness of a suffering humanity….
The congealing sense of doom that permeates Bierce's war stories suggests a Calvinism from which all sense of grace or benevolent purpose has been removed. As one critic has put it:
Bierce had rejected the God of his New England ancestors and his Puritan upbringing, but the code that he retained implied a metaphysic almost identical to the Calvinism that he denied. A harshly personal God was replaced by a harshly impersonal Fate. Every man's slightest action was preordained, and his duty was to submit to the mysterious workings of the supernatural.
One important effect of this rigid fatalism is to minimize or ignore the question of man as moral agent in favor of portraying the effects of a deterministic universe. This is not to say that Bierce was indifferent to moral values—the whole body of his journalism and satire shows how accountable he held man. But in the short stories his characters have no inner moral life in any decisive sense. What they do have is a kind of rudimentary psychology which reacts according to the stimulus they receive and their "constitutional tendency." Bierce's characters are really human types—types of susceptibility—rather than fully drawn individuals. They may have a history, but they lack an identity apart from the circumstances they are exposed to.
Since these circumstances are invariably destructive in one way or another, the story ends when the maximum pressure has been brought to bear on the protagonist. If he does not actually die, at the very least his private world collapses and death would even seem preferable—the "boon of oblivion" that Madwell accords his friend. He is a "humble, unheroic Prometheus" because his suffering serves no discernible purpose, and because his fate is not something consciously risked in defiance of the gods. Fate, like Major Halcrow concealed in the "haunted forest," simply comes upon him unaware. If the protagonist commits suicide, it is either because he realizes he is inextricably caught or because, like George Thurston, he has long recognized his fate as some inherent compulsion which makes life unbearable. In any event Bierce's characters are never responsible for what happens to them. Often, like Captain Madwell or Jerome Searing, they are good, brave men or, like the child in "Chickamauga," merely ignorant and naïve. Essentially passive, sometimes literally immobilized like Prometheus in his chains, they have an interior life of acute sensation. Because we can know them only through their feelings, which are usually very unpleasant or painful, we can only respond to them with pity. We do not really know them; we know their suffering.
Because it was the reality of their suffering and frustration that Bierce responded to, his war figures make a serious claim upon our attention. Only in the war stories does Bierce achieve the sense of genuine concern for human frailty endlessly cheated and baffled by life. His characters are credible even when their dilemmas are not, because he believed in the agony of their ordeal, even if he believed in little else.
Source: Stuart C. Woodruff, "‘The Divine Eternal Plan,’" in The Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce: A Study in Polarity, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964, pp. 19-53.
Bierce, Ambrose, The Devil's Dictionary, in The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Gordian, 1966, p. 49.
———, "A Horseman in the Sky," in Phantoms of a Blood-stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce, edited by Russell Duncan and David J. Klooster, University of Massachusetts Press, 2002, pp. 57-62.
Blume, Donald T., Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study, Kent State University Press, 2004, pp. 145-60.
Caswell, Bernice L., "Character Education and the Short Story," in the English Journal, Vol. 23, No. 5, 1934, pp. 406-409.
Davidson, Cathy N., The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable, University of Nebraska Press, 1984, pp. 1-5.
Duncan, Russell, and David J. Klooster, eds., Phantoms of a Blood-stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce, University of Massachusetts Press, 2002, pp. 5-31, 64.
Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. V, edited by James Strachey, Hogarth, 1958, pp. 260-66.
Joshi, S. T., and David E. Schultz, Ambrose Bierce: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary Sources, Greenwood, 1999, p. 20.
Morris, Roy, Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, Crown, 1995, pp. 31-2.
Olson, Helen F., "What Is Good Teaching of Written Composition?" in the English Journal, Vol. 50, No. 4, April 1961, pp. 238-45.
Owens, David M., The Devil's Topographer: Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story, University of Tennessee Press, 2006, pp. 28-36.
Starrett, Vincent, Ambrose Bierce, Walter M. Hill, 1920, pp. 27-33.
Calhoun, Charles W., ed., The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America, Rowman & Littlefield, 2d ed., 2006.
This collection of essays by contemporary historians covers a wide range of aspects of late-nineteenth-century American life.
Fuentes, Carlos, The Old Gringo, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1985.
This magical realist novel is based on Bierce's final trip to Mexico and the mysterious circumstances surrounding his death; the title character of the novel, while not called by the same name, is based on Bierce. One section makes an extended reference to "A Horseman in the Sky."
O'Connor, Richard, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, Little, Brown, 1967.
No full-scale scholarly biography of Bierce has yet appeared. However, the information provided in this older work has not in general been superseded and has been followed exceptionally closely by many later writers.
Stutler, Boyd B., West Virginia in the Civil War, Education Foundation, 1966.
This book provides the standard survey of the military actions that inspired "A Horseman in the Sky."
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