Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Quote of the Day (Ambrose Bierce, on Death in Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign)

“Successive scores of rifles spat at him [Lieutenant Herman Brayle of the Union Army] viciously as he came within range, and our line in the edge of the timber broke out in visible and audible defense. No longer regardful of themselves or their orders, our fellows sprang to their feet, and swarming into the open sent broad sheets of bullets against the blazing crest of the offending works, which poured an answering fire into their unprotected groups with deadly effect. The artillery on both sides joined the battle, punctuating the rattle and roar with deep, earth-shaking explosions and tearing the air with storms of screaming grape, which from the enemy's side splintered the trees and spattered them with blood, and from ours defiled the smoke of his arms with banks and clouds of dust from his parapet.”—Ambrose Bierce, “Killed at Resaca,” in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891)

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the opening battle in Union General William T. Sherman’s campaign for Atlanta: the Battle of Resaca, Ga. The clash between Federal and Confederate forces mirrored what was happening hundreds of miles north in Virginia, where Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee’s game of probing, parry, and continual maneuver was yielding startling losses. The duel between Sherman and rebel commander Joseph E. Johnston was not quite as deadly, but at least initially, it seemed just as dispiriting to Federal troops, with seemingly little appreciable ground gained. Ambrose Bierce, a Union veteran of this Western theater of operations, is best known to readers for his cynical Devil's Dictionary and his mysterious disappearance in 1914. But he recorded decidedly modern, disillusioned impressions of the madness of the Atlanta campaign in particular and all wars in general, in this classic war story.

When the butcher’s bill came due from the 48 hours of fighting, the Union and Confederate armies had lost about 2,800 men each, with the latter showing that they could slow, but not stop, their foes’ advance upon the Rebel industrial center of the Deep South. The fighting was marked by the usual incompetence and folly even on this first day of battle, when the Federals lost precious time coordinating assaults because a commander was drunk.

The results of the battle might have been inconclusive for Sherman and Johnston, but they confirmed Bierce in what critic Edmund Wilson has called his “obsession with death.” The young man saw all the war he could ever want at Shiloh, Corinth, Stones River, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Franklin. Like the narrator of “Killed at Resaca,” Bierce was a topographical engineer who knew better than to make insinuations about any spots that afforded protection.

Not so with the force behind “the best soldier of our staff”: Lieutenant Herman Brayle, who takes constant chances with his life in the face of the enemy: “He would sit his horse like an equestrian statue, in a storm of bullets and grape, in the most exposed places--wherever, in fact, duty, requiring him to go, permitted him to remain--when, without trouble and with distinct advantage to his reputation for common sense, he might have been in such security as is possible on a battlefield in the brief intervals of personal inaction.”

Inevitably, Brayle is shot by the enemy. In going through the effects of the bravest man he ever knew, the narrator discovers a motive for his complete disregard for safety: a letter from the dead man’s sweetheart, advising him of a “rumor” she had heard that “at some battle in Virginia…you were seen crouching behind a tree….I could bear to hear of my soldier lover's death, but not of his cowardice."

In the story’s stunning conclusion, Bierce—a decorated veteran himself, forced out of the fighting because of a head wound—vents his frustration with the vast incomprehension of soldiers’ experiences, as well as his pronounced misogyny. His narrator visits Brayle’s girlfriend, a remarkable beauty who, upon receiving her stained letter to the dead man, tosses it on the fire because she can’t stand the sight of blood. Then, trying to overcome this impression of her callousness, she asks how Brayle died.

The short, bitter reply that ends the story evokes far more than it can begin to suggest: “Bitten by a snake.” It implies everything about the faithlessness of women—something in which Bierce believed in wholeheartedly in his personal life. (His marriage collapsed because he wrongly believed his wife was guilty of adultery. Then, as if to confirm that he was not completely crazy about female perfidy, his son Day’s fiancée left him for another man, leading Day to shoot both before his own suicide.)

The story’s ending brings the reader up short, in the same manner as Ernest Hemingway’s famous final line of The Sun Also Rises: “Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?” In fact, the relation between the two authors’ war fiction and lives is instructive.

As Roy Morris notes in his biography of Bierce, both men (Bierce, of course, in the Civil War, and Hemingway, as an ambulance driver, in WWI) carried wounded soldiers, at enormous risk to their own safety, back to their own lines, only to see the men die anyway. It only seemed to confirm their belief in war’s absurdity.

I don’t know why Hemingway praised Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage as "the first great American war story" while ignoring Bierce’s contribution. Crane had not witnessed a minute of combat before he wrote his masterpiece; in fact, he was born six years after the Civil War ended, so he had no firsthand knowledge of the conflict. In contrast, Bierce’s work was informed by what he saw, and he made no attempt to make it less ugly for readers.

If Bierce’s work was every bit as realistic as Crane’s, then how could Hemingway have ignored it? I think it has to do with two factors: Bierce’s frequent resort to supernatural or fantastic fiction, and his lack of a consistent, compelling single figure.

Whether it’s called horror, supernatural or fantastic fiction, this genre deals overwhelmingly with altered interior states, the breakdown of the self. And few phenomena on earth accelerate such psychic disorientation and disintegration as much as war.

Thus, the experience of battle might have confirmed Bierce’s disbelief in a rational God, the increasingly thin line between life and death in war led him to write eerie pieces in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, including the much-anthologized “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” In contrast, Hemingway might have felt haunted by a world without God, but he desperately tried to believe in a deity—just as tenaciously, in fact, as Lt. Frederic Henry struggles to hold onto reality after his convulsive wound gives him what feels like an out-of-body experience in A Farewell to Arms. He felt greater affinity for Crane’s naturalistic style than for Bierce’s occasional resort to ghosts and vague life-after-life in his stories.

Second, with Henry Fleming, Crane found a single youthful figure whose struggles would parallel the novel and short-story characters who served as stand-ins for himself: Lt. Henry, Jake Barnes of The Sun Also Rises, Robert Jordan of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Paul Krebs of “Soldier’s Home” and Nick Adams in a whole slew of stories. Lt. Brayle and other characters in Bierce’s stories might be easy to visualize, but the author offers little about their thinking. The greatness of his short fiction rests not on psychological exploration, but on unsparing, exact descriptions of “the rattle and roar” of war.

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