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Bierced | The Nation

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Bierced

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In four years of fighting, Ambrose Bierce saw impossible things. And much to his regret, he remembered them. In time he wrote some of them down.

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About the Author

Victor LaValle
Victor LaValle is the author, most recently, of the novel Big Machine and a recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship.

In the realm of fiction, Bierce wrote short stories exclusively. He disdained novels. In a short essay titled "The Short Story" he dismisses novels as "mere reporting." Here he took aim, specifically, at realist literature. His problem with realism lay in the question of "probability." Could this incident really have happened? Would a person ever do such a thing? Bierce found this line of reasoning preposterous, if only because it meant a story's limits were determined by the reader, not the writer. It meant that if a reader couldn't imagine that such an event was possible, probable, then somehow the writer had failed. Toward the end of the essay Bierce blows his top. "Probability? Nothing is so improbable as what is true. It is the unexpected that occurs; but that is not saying enough; it is also the unlikely—one might almost say the impossible."

Declarations like these could easily come across as trite if expressed by many other writers. They could be taken as the noises of nothing but a thin-skinned author trying to defend himself against claims that his fiction is unconvincing, unbelievable. But Bierce isn't so easy to dismiss.

His most famous story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," concerns Peyton Farquhar, a Southern planter from an established Alabama family. He's been captured by the Union Army and is to be hanged for acts in support of the "Southern cause." The story contains a surprise ending, and while it is somewhat effective, it is also uncharacteristic because Bierce had a weakness for twist endings that rarely worked at all. But that's OK; much as with Stephen King and Martin Amis, you don't read Ambrose Bierce for the finale. You read him for the profound perceptual play:

He closed his eyes in order to fix his last thoughts upon his wife and children. The water, touched to gold by the early sun, the brooding mists under the banks at some distance down the stream, the fort, the soldiers, the piece of drift—all had distracted him. And now he became conscious of a new disturbance. Striking through the thought of his dear ones was a sound which he could neither ignore nor understand, a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith's hammer upon the anvil; it had the same ringing quality. He wondered what it was, and whether immeasurably distant or nearby—it seemed both. Its recurrence was regular, but as slow as the tolling of a death knell. He awaited each stroke with impatience and—he knew not why—apprehension. The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife: he feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch.

In another powerful story, "The Affair at Coulter's Notch," Bierce writes of a face-off between two batteries of well-fortified Confederate cannons, twelve in total, and a single Union cannon crew led by Captain Coulter. Coulter's crew is forced into an open notch and ordered to engage in a firefight just because a general in the field wants to see if the stories of Coulter's bravery are true. Though Coulter hesitates, he follows the order. He and his crew wheel one cannon out to the notch and commence firing. Soon the twelve Confederate cannons respond and the two sides are lost in the thunderous explosions and enormous clouds of artillery smoke. Each time one of Coulter's cannons is destroyed, his crew wheels a new one up to the notch so the fight can continue. Eventually the Union officers ride up to the notch to check on Coulter and his men:

Within that defile, barely broad enough for a single gun, were piled the wrecks of no fewer than four. They had noted the silencing of only the last one disabled—there had been a lack of men to replace it quickly with another. The debris lay on both sides of the road; the men had managed to keep an open way between, through which the fifth piece was now firing. The men?—they looked like demons of the pit! All were hatless, all stripped to the waist, their reeking skins black with blotches of powder and spattered with gouts of blood. They worked like madmen, with rammer and cartridge, lever and lanyard. They set their swollen shoulders and bleeding hands against the wheels at each recoil and heaved the heavy gun back to its place. There were no commands; in that awful environment of whooping shot, exploding shells, shrieking fragments of iron, and flying splinters of wood, none could have been heard. Officers, if officers there were, were indistinguishable; all worked together—each while he lasted—governed by the eye. When the gun was sponged, it was loaded; when loaded, aimed and fired. The colonel observed something new to his military experience—something horrible and unnatural: the gun was bleeding at the mouth! In temporary default of water, the man sponging had dipped his sponge into a pool of comrade's blood.

This kind of prose is what Bierce rattles off on the regular, and even his weakest stories contain some pungent moment, even just an aside. A belch across the table at probability. An assertion that sometimes fiction's job is to conceive the inconceivable.

In light of such writing, Bierce's disdain for "mere reporting" becomes clearer. While it's true his work often made use of personal experiences—particularly as a soldier in the Civil War—a reader would be hard-pressed to call it straight journalism. The journalistic endeavor—at least theoretically—is grounded in objectivity. The goal is to get you to understand what happened, when and to whom. But Bierce is a beast of subjectivity. He means for the reader to experience these events as fully as the written word allows. He doesn't just want to tell you what happened. He wants you to understand how it felt.

In another piece, "Chickamauga," Bierce fictionalizes one of the most hellacious battles of the Civil War, one in which he fought. In the story a child wanders into the woods near his home, away from his mother, and comes across a mass of wounded soldiers fleeing the titular battlefield:

They were men. They crept upon their hands and knees. They used their hands only, dragging their legs. They used their knees only, their arms hanging idle at their sides. They strove to rise to their feet, but fell prone in the attempt. They did nothing naturally, and nothing alike, save only to advance foot by foot in the same direction. Singly, in pairs and in little groups, they came on through the gloom, some halting now and again while others crept slowly past them, then resuming their movement. They came by dozens and by hundreds; as far on either hand as one could see in the deepening gloom they extended and the black wood behind them appeared to be inexhaustible. The very ground seemed in motion toward the creek. Occasionally one who had paused did not again go on, but lay motionless. He was dead. Some, pausing, made strange gestures with their hands, erected their arms and lowered them again, clasped their heads; spread their palms upward, as men are sometimes seen to do in public prayer.

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