Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ambrose Bierce: Death and Transcendence

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature, in which I read through The Norton Anthology of American Literature, and report on what I learn.

Ambrose Bierce (born in 1842) led a fascinating life.  Born in Ohio to devoutly religious parents, he had only one year of formal schooling at a Kentucky military academy.  At age 19, he enlisted in the Union Army and fought for the north during the Civil War, surviving such bloody battles as Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Franklin (He was wounded twice and captured once).  His civil war experiences would have a profound effect on his later literary career.

Ambrose Bierce, American author.

After the war, he worked for the Treasury Department confiscating rebel property, a job that gave him great sympathy for his “enemy.”  In 1866, he moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a journalist for over 20 years.  In California, Bierce befriended other western literary talents like Mark Twain and Bret Harte.  His column (“The Prattler”) in William Randloph Hearst’s newspaper The San Francisco Sunday Examiner allowed him to develop his unique writing style, which combined gallows humor and bitter satire.  In 1913, late in life, he disappeared into Revolutionary Mexico, and his death remains a mystery.

Bierce never wrote a novel.  His preferred literary medium was the short story, for which he is regarded as a master.  His most famous published book is Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, which deals mainly with his Civil War experiences.  Recurring themes in his stories are war, death, horror, madness, ghosts, and fear—all shot through with profound irony.  Bierce was a pioneer of “gallows humor,” and his best short stories, according to The Norton Anthology of American Literarture, “like Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway after him, converted the disordered experience of war into resonant and dramatic fictional revelations.”

Bierce’s most well-known story is called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.”  It’s a story told from the point of view of a southern planter and slaveowner named Peyton Farquhar, who is captured by northern troops during the Civil War, and is set to be hanged from Owl Creek bridge in Alabama.  Just before he is hanged, Peyton’s senses become heightened.  He hears “a sharp, distinct, metallic percussion like the stroke of a blacksmith’s hammer upon the anvil.”  It is the ticking of his watch.

When he is pushed from the bridge, the rope breaks and Peyton falls into the water below.  As he struggles for air and swims desperately to safety, dodging his captors’ bullets, he experiences profound moments of transcendence, as if his proximity to death has given him a newfound appreciation for life.  This beautiful passage describes his sensations:

“He was in full possession of his physical senses.  They were, indeed, preternaturally keen and alert.  Something in the awful disturbance of his organic system had so exalted and refined them that they made record of things never before perceived.  He felt the ripples upon his face and heard their separate sounds as they struck.  He looked at the forest on the bank of the stream, saw the individual trees, the leaves and the veining of each leaf—saw the very insects upon them: the locusts, the brilliant-bodied flies, the gray spiders stretching their webs from twig to twig.  He noted the prismatic colors in all the dewdrops upon a million blades of grass.  The humming of the gnats that danced above the eddies of the stream, the beating of the dragon-flies’ wings, the strokes of the water-spiders’ legs, like oars which had lifted their boat—all these made audible music.”

 As Peyton finds his way to the shore of the creek, away from his executioners’ bullets, he is like a man reborn:

“He wept with delight.  He dug his fingers into the sand, threw it over himself in handfuls and audibly blessed it.  It looked like diamonds, rubies, emeralds; he could think of nothing beautiful which it did not resemble.  The trees upon the bank were giant garden plants; he noted a definite order in their arrangement, inhaled the fragrance of their blooms.  A strange, roseate light shone through the spaces among their trunks and the wind made in their branches the music of aeolian harps.”

He runs through the forest, all the way back home, where he sees his wife.  Just before embracing her, “he feels a stunning blow upon the back of the neck; a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon—then all is darkness and silence!”  As it turns out, this whole experience of escape happened in the split second before his death.  Time and space were slowed and amplified.  The story ends, “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge.”

This shock ending is typical of Bierce, and gives the story an added intensity—something about the thin line between life and death, and the moment of illumination, like a religious experience, between these two states.  It’s also significant that Bierce portrays a sympathetic southern character.  This story, like many others he wrote, is not about politics.  It is about human experiences that transcend the mundane and artificial constructions of society.


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