Ambrose Bierce, “Bits of Autobiography” and “Selected Stories”: Tocqueville in the Year 4930

Rounding out the Library of America volume collecting the majors works of Ambrose Bierce is his Bits of Autobiography and eight additional stories not published in Can Such Things Be? or In the Midst of LifeBits of Autobiography was not a focused effort by Bierce to tell his life story.  Instead, it is a collection of fragments written between 1881 and 1906.  The eight additional stories were published over the same period of time.  The most significant of these short stories is Ashes of the Beacon,” which is essnetially a political tract summarizing Bierce’s position on democracy, revolution, anarchism, and class conflict, although it is framed in the structure of a historical monograph from the distant future.  (In this way, it is not unlike Jack London’s The Iron Hell, published at a simliar time, emerging from a simliar context, although with a very differnet interpretation.)

bierce

When I was reading Bits of Autobiography last night, I was thinking of my younthful fascination with military history.  I had a small library, now mostly all liquidated, on the American Civil War and the Second World War.  Thinking back, I was reading some quite scholarly works at the time, but the vast majority of what I read came from my local cow country library and local bookstores, neither of which maintained a large selection of academic history.  What I was interested in were the battles and the generals and the brilliant tactics and massive blunders.  In short, I was training to become an armchair general.  This interest quickly died out when I attended local cow country community college.  I suppose I simply found more things of interest in my classes.  Maybe this is something many young males go through.  Bits of Autobiography like In the Midst of Life proves how utterly vapid this type of historical writing is.  What Bierce teaches us is that the violence on the battlefield is not controlled by a god on the battlefield.  Generals did not command troops movements like on a board game.  Perhaps it is the tendency to assume hierarchical structures that give the privledged perspective to the generals in so much popular military history.

This is how I must have really thought battles were fought.  The arrows are so precise and clean.

This is how I must have really thought battles were fought. The arrows are so precise and clean.

On one event in the savage mess that was the battle of Chikamauga: “A good deal of nonsense used to be talked about hte herorism of General Garfield, who, caught in the rout of hte right, nevertheless went back and joined the undefeated left under General Thomas.  There was no great heroism in it; that is what every man should have done, including the commander of the army.  We could hear Thomas’ guns going–those of us who had ears for them–and all that was needful was to make a sufficiently wide detour and then move toward the sound.”  (681)

Maybe the alternative is to horrible to face.  Armies are institutions, contructed by men of course, designed to take away ones autonomy.  Much of Bits of Autobiogaphy considers the dreadful marching, the long miserable days at camp, and the blistered feet.  But as well as people are trained for war, the line between bravery and cowardice is a thin one.  On the defeated men after the first day of the battle of Shiloh: “These men were defeated, beaten, cowed.  They were deaf to duty and dead to shame.  A more demented crew never drifted to th rear of broken battalions.  They would have stood in their tracks and been shot down to a man by the proveost-marshall’s guard, but they could not have been urged up that bank.  An army’s bravest men are its cowards.  The death which they would not meet at hte hands of the enemy they will meet at the hands of their officers, with never a flinching.” (665)

So we replace this reality with valor, great heroes, and a belief that brilliance, effort, courage, the right cause, or “strategy” will win the battle for us.  Unfortunantly, when you combine the complexity of human psychology and the known and unknown unknowns battle, like life, is just a game of chance.  Better to believe in the brilliant god on the battlefield than to believe in fate.

There are a few chapters on Bierce’s post-war occupations and his enterance into the field of journalism as well.

Of the final eight stories, I will only introduce one “Ashes of the Beacon.”  This is actually worth reading as a political essay as it makes a rather good case for the ultimate failure of republicanism.  Two thousand years after the fall of the “Conneted States of America” a historian from a time when government is much more honest about its role (“To us of to-day it is clear that the word “self-government” involves a contradiction, for government means control by something other than the thing to be controlled.”) documents the causes of the decline of that republican civilization, much like how contemporary historinas might look back to the fall of the Roman Republic.  Mostly, however, I was reminded of Tocqueville’s warning that democracy will tend to lead to the promotion of self-interest.  This next bit is from Bierce, not Tocqueville: “When men or nations devote all the powers of their minds and bodies to the heaping up of wealth, wealth is heaped up.  But what avails it? . . . The result might easily have been forrseen and doubtless was predicted by patriots whose admonitations have not come down to us.  Denied protection of the law, neither property nor life was safe.  Greed filled his coffers from teh meafer hoarsds of Thift, private vengeance took the place of legal redress, mad multitudes rioted and slew ith virtual immunity form punishment or blame, and the land was red with crime.” (811, 814)

Bierce wrote this account during one of several visible peaks in the perpetual conflict between American labor and capital.  In the early 20th century, massive strikes challenged the power of capital and new labor organiations such as the Industrial Workers of the World.  As I have been arguing in this blog, there is a basic anarchism in the American political and literarcy traditions and it is not the difficult to see. That said, Bierce is correct that much of the most visible anarchist agitation of the turn of the last century was centered in immigrant communities and rooted in traditions of European anarchism, even as the U.S. was forming its own indigenous overtly anarchist tradition with the writings of Volatirine de Cleyre, Emma Goldman, and Alexander Berkman.  Bierce looked at events like the assassination of President McKinley as evidence that anarchism was the direct result of the self-interest and disrespect for heritage that is characteristic of democracies.  “The field of the anrchist’s greatest activity was always a republic, not only to emphasize his impartial hatred of al government, but beacuse of the inherent feebleness of that form of government, its inability to protect itself against any kind of aggression by any considerable number of its people having a common malevolent purpose.  In a republic the crust that confined hte fires of violence and desition was thinnest.” (808)

I am not going to blame Bierce for failing to see anarchism as a solution to the problems of a democratic republic, because he poses the question in the correct terms.  Self-government does seem to be a contradiction in a republic (actually in all state structures).

 

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