Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)
Contributing Editor: Cathy N. Davidson
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Two primary issues present themselves in teaching "Chickamauga." First the details are grotesque. The procession of bloody, dying men and the macabre humor of the small child mounting one as he would a pony (or his father's slaves "playing horsey") often disturbs students very much. This, of course, is exactly Bierce's intention. Second, the ending seems like a gratuitous trick. Is it necessary that the child be deaf and dumb? Realistically, this is necessary since the child does not hear the great battle--we are told so explicitly. But it's also important symbolically: the temptation to war is so great in male culture that even this small child learns it, even though there is so much he does not understand.
To address these issues, first I read some conventional war accounts and war stories--or even the lyrics to war songs. I then read aloud the most grotesque parts of Bierce. I next ask my students which is, in its consequence, the more violent. We then discuss protest literature and Bierce's disgust that several prominent generals of the Civil War were rewriting the incomparably brutal history of that war. Second, we go through the story isolating how the child learns, what he knows and doesn't. The picture book lesson at the beginning makes the point that a child is already learning values at the earliest age, prelinguistically. These are powerful messages, calls to violence.
Try reading some definitions from the Devil's Dictionary. "War, n. A by-product of the arts of peace. War loves to come like a thief in the night; professions of eternal amity provide the night." "Peace, n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting."
I usually give a full biographical lecture on Bierce because he was such a character and such a successful muckraker. Students are always fascinated by his disappearance--no skeleton was ever found. (Several expeditions were mounted and, since he was over 6 feet tall and had a full head of pure white hair, the rumors of his every move were rampant: but there has never been confirmation of his death.) Brigid Brophy insists he did not die but merely came back again when the world was more ready for his wild, stylistic experiments. According to Brophy, he now writes under the nom de plume of "Jorge Luis Borges." (Actually, since Borges died recently, I suppose that must mean Bierce finally did, too.)
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
War, the tendency toward violence, the idea that we fear what we do not know but perhaps should most fear what we know (i.e., ourselves, our fellow humans, those people we love who nonetheless perpetuate the values of violence). The child sees nothing wrong with war until it literally comes home--the burned house, the dead and probably raped body of the mother. Note, too, the rampant animal imagery throughout the story. Early critics called it an "allegory" and it is.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Unlike most so-called naturalists, Bierce blamed humans, not Fate, for determining the course of human existence. However, he was a naturalist in his use of macabre and even lurid details that force the reader to see the full implications of war. Stylistically, he brilliantly mimics the actions of the boy (as well as his perceptions, devoid of sound and often sense, since, as a small child, he lacks the experience to know what is harmful, what not: bears are cute in the picture books, so is war) and of the dying soldiers. The famous passage of the ground in motion and the creek relies on repetition to heighten the sense of relentless violence. Allegory is another important genre to discuss and elucidate here.
I always discuss the memoirs of the Civil War veterans as well as the beginning of America's full-fledged attempt at imperialism in Latin America, the Spanish-American War. Bierce, in his other capacity as a journalist, vociferously denounced the war that William Randolph Hearst bragged he started (saying people buy newspapers during wars). Bierce was fired from that job but went on to other newspapers where he was equally adamant in his opposition to the war. He died (or rather disappeared) sometime in 1914, over 70 years old, when he went to Mexico to see Pancho Villa firsthand. Carlos Fuentes's The Old Gringo is a retelling of Bierce's journey into Mexico where peasants still insist Bierce wanders the Sierra Madres.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Stephen Crane learned his craft from Bierce. Hemingway later borrowed some of his techniques. Bierce is highly regarded by postmodernists such as Fuentes as well as Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. He is said to be similar to Guy de Maupassant or O. Henry. But while both of those authors use trick endings, most of Bierce's "tricks" have some larger metaphysical purpose.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. I let students be surprised by the ending and horrified by the language. I try not to give anything away before they get to the story.
2. I sometimes have them do historical research on the Spanish-American War.
I have a long section on "Chickamauga" in my Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce.