And so I return to America’s legendary curmudgeon.
Yes, I did find things to write about after polishing off the rest of the stories and autobiographical bits in S. T. Joshi’s volume Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs. Yes, details on Bierce pivot points (i.e. spoilers) follow.
Who knew Bitter Bierce could write a story of lost love with a mega-happy ending? “A Lady from Redhorse” has a poor rich girl, Mary Jane Dement, possessing a million dollars courtesy of a father who really did strike it rich in a mining camp. However, she fears her intellect, education, and family make her unworthy of the man she pines for, the erudite and handsome Jack Raynor. At story’s end, Raynor turns out to be “Dumps”, a very poor childhood friend when they both lived in a mining camp.
I’m going to take it as a Bierce morality tale on loyalty and kindness being more important than money. Not very convincing though.
Completeness compels me to catalog another, more typical, Bierce story of romance — gone wrong of course. “The Man Out of the Nose” has adultery, imprisonment chosen over scandal, riches to rags, and yet another coincidental and lethal reunion of old lovers.
It’s ending was at least surprising, but a rare failure of Bierce to swing the familiar to unfamiliar is “The Applicant”. It’s pretty obvious upfront that the old destitute bachelor that ends up freezing to death in the snow is going to be the same man who, in better days, founded a charity to take care of what he has become. No unknown, too-proud-for-charity case signing his death warrant either. The charity knows who he is. At least, it’s Bierce being bitter.
And the Civil War is the backdrop to more Bierce pivots, more unhappy reunions. “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch” has a Union artillery captain firing on his own home. As a sentry, a Union soldier kills a long lost brother in “The Mocking-Bird”.
Generally all of Bierce’s stories set in the Civil War are worth reading and often studies of personality quirks stressed, often fatally, by war or the peculiarities of military culture. Two are especially interesting.
“One of the Missing” (1888) is kind of a variant to Bierce’s most famous work, “The Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890). Both are centered on hallucinations of dying men. Here a man believes himself trapped in a building after a cannon shell collapses it. Immobile in the rubble and separated from the rest of the army, he finds a cocked rifle pointed at his head. Actually, he died immediately when the building collapsed.
“The Story of a Conscience” combines a study in the application of military honor and Bierce’s common plot of an unfortunate reunion. A captured Confederate spy has a conversation with a Union captain. They are old acquaintances, it turns out. By morning, one will be executed, the other dead at his own hand.
“The Boarded Window” (1891) shares some similarity with 1897’s “The Eyes of the Panther”. Both are tales of strange events in solitary cabins in the forest that once spread across Ohio. And both involve panthers. This one, though, has a panther attacking, in the night, the body of a man’s dead wife, bound and dressed for burial. After chasing the panther off, he finds a fragment of an animal’s ear between her teeth. I sense Bierce playing off Poe’s theme of premature burial.
All of Bierce’s Civil War memoirs are worth reading, notable for their detail, black humor, and lack of any idealogical cheerleading. No talk of saving the republic, freeing slaves, etc. (Though I suspect Bierce, who hated anarchists, regarded the Confederacy as anarchy writ large.)
Usually Bierce’s Civil War memoirs center on his personal observations and common soldiers. But Bierce, in two memoirs, seems to be interested in setting the historical record straight and taking down some reputations.
The very title “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill” hints at the purpose of the piece. It covers the disastrous assault of General Hazen’s brigade on a Confederate position on May 27, 1864. About half of the assaulting force of 1,400 men were killed or wounded. General Sherman, who ordered the assault, doesn’t mention it in his memoir. General Howard, who planned it, gives it one sentence in his. Hazen, Bierce’s commander, patron, and friend is described as “aggressive, arrogant, tyrannical, honorable, truthful, courageous – a skillful soldier, a faithful friend and one of the most exasperating of men.” I suspect that may have been a self-portrait of Bierce too.
Bierce isn’t afraid to speak ill of the dead in when he criticizes the lackluster performance, as he saw it, of James Garfield, future president of the United States and then a general, in “A Little of Chickamauga”.
The whole business of politicians being made military commanders gets sent up in “Jupiter Doke, Brigadier-General”. The hero of this one succeeds spectacularly and accidentally (a fortuitous tornado) all the while cluelessly describing war in the terms of a political campaign.
“Mrs. Dennison’s Head” is a nice, short joke story about a man widowed by a decapitation and his co-workers struggling to get the whole story.
An “Oil of Dog” was a black humored short story that I liked a lot. It’s one of Bierce’s grotesque narrator stories complete with horrible family. Dad uses dead dogs (made or found) to make patent medicine. Mom does abortions. The narrator accidentally combines the businesses. Success and several homocides follow.