Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Short Story Genius of Ambrose Bierce

The Library of America has just announced a new author in their series of editions of great writers: Ambrose Bierce. The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs. The book includes Bierce’s greatest collection, In the Midst of Life (Tales of Soldiers and Civilians), as well as Can Such Things Be? The Devil’s Dictionary, and Bits of Autobiography, and Selected Stories. Edited by S. T. Joshi, who has edited several other books on Bierce, it is due out in bookstores on September 1, 2011.

I have always been a great admirer of Bierce’s stories, for in face of the increasing demand for realistic novels in the late nineteenth century, he remained faithful to the short story as a form. In my opinion, Bierce, like Poe, is a brilliant short-story writer who has been snubbed by many academic literary critics who scorn the short story as being artificial and trivial. Thus, it should not surprise you that my favorite definition from Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary is:

Novel--A short story padded. A species of composition bearing the same relation to literature that the panorama bears to art. As it is too long to be read at a sitting the impressions made by its successive parts are successively effaced, as in the panorama. Unity, totality of effect, is impossible; for besides the few pages last read all that is carried in mind is the mere plot of what has gone before. To the romance the novel is what photography is to painting. Its distinguishing principle, probability, corresponds to the literal actuality of the photograph and puts it distinctly into the category of reporting; whereas the free wing of the romancer enables him to mount to such altitudes of imagination as he may be fitted to attain; and the first three essentials of the literary art are imagination, imagination and imagination. The art of writing novels, such as it was, is long dead everywhere except in Russia, where it is new. Peace to its ashes -- some of which have a large sale.

My favorite Bierce stories, included in this new collection, are:

The Man and the Snake
The Eyes of the Panther
The Death of Halpin Frayser
A Horseman in the Sky
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
A Son of the Gods
One of the Missing
Killed at Resaca
The Affair at Coulter’s Notch
The Coup de Grâce
Parker Adderson, Philosopher
The Mocking-Bird

Critics who have accused Ambrose Bierce of artificiality and lack of depth usually make such claims based on expectations derived from the realistic novel. By insisting on a faithful adherence to the external world, advocates of realism allow content, often ragged and random, to dictate form. As a result, the novel, which can expand to better create an illusion of everyday reality, is the favored form of the realists, while the short story, which requires more artifice and patterning, assumes a secondary role. Those writers of the latter part of the nineteenth century who were committed to the short story instead of the novel were well aware of this fact. When Ambrose Bierce entered into the argument raging between the romantics and the realists, he attacked the William Dean Howells school of realistic fiction by arguing that to them, "nothing is probable outside the narrow domain of the commonplace man's most commonplace experience. It is not known to them that all men and women sometimes, many men and women frequently, and some men and women habitually, act from impenetrable motives and in a way that is consonant with nothing in their lives, characters and conditions.”

Bierce says that the capable writer does not give probability a moment's attention, except to make the fiction seem probable or true in the reading process. Nothing is as improbable as what is true, says Bierce; the unexpected does occur, "but that is not saying enough; it is also the unlikely--one might almost say the impossible.” Bierce's characters, like those of Flannery O'Connor's, have an inner coherence rather than a coherence to their social framework. As O'Connor says, "Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, towards mystery and the unexpected.”

Bierce's most obsessive concern in the short story is not simple macabre horror, but rather the central paradox that underlies the most basic human desire and fear--the desire for a sense of unity and significance and the fear that the realization of such a desire means death. In terms of story telling, Bierce knew that the desire manifested itself as the compulsion to present life as if it were a fictional construct, that is, as if it had significance and meaning, beauty and order.

Bierce's characteristic short story dynamic is to distance his characters from the ordinary world of everyday reality--by presenting them in a static formal posture or picture, by putting them in a dream-like autistic state, by putting them on a formal stage. When this formal picture or frozen sense of reality is broken, the result is often the shock of entering another country, another realm of reality; the result is disillusion, despair, or death.

The simplest and most straightforward example of this technique of presenting a frozen reality and then ironically undercutting it is "Killed Resaca," in which Lieutenant Herman Brayle, the archetypal good soldier, sits his horse like an equestrian statue even in a storm of bullets. In a foolishly heroic and fatal gesture, he rides into battle, "a picture" described as "intensely dramatic, but in no degree theatrical." However, when the narrator returns a letter to the Lieutenant's lady friend, a letter that romantically states she could bear to hear of her lover's death but not of his cowardice, the heroic picture or statue of the Lieutenant is undermined when she, disgusted at the blood on the letter, flings it into the fire.

Bierce’s story “Chickamauga" is a particularly rich example of this theme of unreality being presented as reality until the spell is broken and the illusion of heroic order shattered. The story focuses on the two basic worlds: child and adult, fantasy and reality, innocence and experience. This is a story in which nobody listens. We say to child, "do you hear me?" We say to adults in war, "Why don't you listen?" When he reaches home, it is as if he has gone a long way to stay where he was; the plantation "seemed to turn as if on a pivot." The story ends with son's loss of mother, just as the war has to do with mothers' loss of sons. "The child was a deaf mute" completes the pattern of the adult observer. The story is another example of Bierce presenting stories in which language is inadequate and in which heroic pictures are startled into terrible life and in which illusory reality is startled into the reality of our deepest fears.

Of course, Bierce's most famous narrative play with the frozen moment of time and the power of imaginative reality is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The story explicitly and sardonically exploits the idea of the reader (and the protagonist) being pulled up short as Peyton Farquhar comes to the end of his rope and faces the ultimate and only genuine "natural end" possible--death. However, in this story death is forestalled in the only way it can be forestalled--through an act of the imagination and an elaborate bit of fiction making which the reader initially takes to be actuality.

The story is made up of three sections that correspond to three fictional elements--static scene, exposition, and action. But all of these elements are self-consciously ironic in presentation and thus undermine themselves. The first part of the story, the only part in which the realistic convention suggests that something is "actually happening," seems quite dead and static, almost a still picture, highly formalized and stiff. At the end of Part I, the teller tips the reader off to the play with time that the story, because it is discourse rather than mere event, must inevitably make: "As these thoughts, which have here to be set down in words, were flashed into the doomed man's brain rather than evolved from it the captain nodded to the sergeant. The sergeant stepped aside." The self-reflexive reference here is to the most notorious characteristic of fiction --the impossibility of escaping time. In spite of the fact that the author wishes to communicate that which is instantaneous or timeless he is trapped by the time-bound nature of words that can only be told one after another. It is this purely rhetorical acceptance of the nature of discourse that justifies or motivates the final fantastic section of the story.

The second play with the convention of time in the story is the insertion at the end of Part I--purely and perversely by the demand of discourse rather than by the demand of existential event--of a bit of exposition that tells the reader who the protagonist is and what he is doing in such a predicament. The reader sits patiently through this background formality while the protagonist plummets into Part III of the story--which itself is of course a depiction of that which does not happen at all except in the flash (which can only be recounted in words) that takes place in the protagonist's mind. It is thus only because of discourse that Farquhar's invention of his escape from hanging, drowning, and death by guns and cannons makes the reader believe that the escape is taking place in reality. At the conclusion, when the protagonist reaches the end of the fall, the verb tense of the story abruptly shifts from present to the ultimate past tense: "Peyton Farquhar was dead." At this point, the reader is forced to double back to look at the tone and details of the story which created this forestalling of the end--a forestalling which is indeed the story itself, for without it there would have been no story. Postponing the end until the ultimate and inescapable end of death is the subject of Bierce's self-conscious and self-reflexive discourse.

Thus rather than being a cheap trick dependent on a shocking ending, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a complex narrative reflecting both in its theme and its technique the essential truth that in discourse there is no ending but an imaginative, that is, an artificial, one.

If you have not read Bierce, I recommend his stories to you as brilliant examples of the short story as a genre.


Alain Gomez said...

Excellent post. I especially liked this line:

"Critics who have accused Ambrose Bierce of artificiality and lack of depth usually make such claims based on expectations derived from the realistic novel."

I would say that crime is not restricted to realism alone. More often than not, I find the harshest critics of the short story are those that constantly try to compare them to a novel. Invariably, they are left disappointed. The short story was not long enough, the ending didn't spell things out enough, the character descriptions were sadly lacking, no scenery descriptions, etc...

I find that in being so wrapped up in how it's not a novel, they often miss the point of the short story.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks to Alain for this cogent comment. In my opinion, most reviewers and critics are so fixed on approaches to the novel and so little aware of how short stories actually work that they tend to undervalue the form. I have spent my career trying to get students to read short stories for what they are--short stories. Novelistic approaches simply do not reveal the unique characteristics of the short story.

Caroline said...

Very interesting post.
I just re-read Ambrose Bierce and also posted on it and was suprised how few people outside of the US know him.
I found a similarity to Maupassant's short stories which did suprise me. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on that.
I really think he should be more appreciated but I realize as well that people in general prefer novels.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Caroline. I checked out your blog and enjoyed reading your comments on Bierce and Maupassant. I just posted an entry on Maupassant in response to your kind request for my thoughts on him.

Caroline said...

Thanks a lot.