Ambrose Bierce, “In the Midst of Life” (1887-1897): “Civilians”

The second half of In the Midst of Life is a bit more difficult to come to terms with because its themes are more opaque.  The first fifteen stories considered the lives of soldiers in the Civil War and suggested Bierce’s quite modern (almost 20th century) view of warfare as indiscriminate and fundamentally at odds with a republic based on the elevation of individuals due to talent.  The second half – “Civilians” – puts people in no less extraordinary situations.  We get the same feeling that there is a thin line between the extraordinary and the banal.  Criminals are hung, marriages are strained, wills are enforced, and people go mad.  This is all the everyday happenings in a society, but Bierce masterfully presents these events are bizarre, almost supernatural happenings.  It almost makes us wonder how extraordinary our own lives are.


We also find men and women capable of transcending existing reality.  A writer in “The Suitable Surroundings” suggests the ability of literature of doing this.  The writer justifies his demand for the reader’s absolute attention as follows.  “To deny him this is immoral.  to make him share your attention with the rattle of a street car, the moving panorama of the crowds on the sidewalks, and the buildings beyond — with any of the thousands of distractions which make our customary environment — is to treat him with gross injustice.” (184)  The eleven stories that make up the second half of In the Midst of Life are full of characters who actively refuse to accept the world as it is.  Yes, their situations are often banal but as we learned in the stories about soldiers, we do not experience grand events.  Even when part of what will be larger remembered grandly (a Civil War battle for instance) our experiences are downright commonplace.  The ability to refuse existing reality is an important skill as we search for alternatives, but we do not need to be imagining alternative systems.  Often shaking our mundane lives by refusing to accept the hand we have been dealt is enough.  For instance, in “The Famous Gilson Bequest” a condemned thief leaves in his will a provision that his fortune (which turned out to be sizable) will go to the man that can provide his guilt, otherwise the wealth will go to his lawyer.  Through this simple act – a poorly-written will – a simple criminal challenged the legal system and in effect controlled the future destiny of his lawyer.  In “A Holy Terror” the protagonist goes West to hunt for gold, which he believes exists in a liquid state.  In the process he abandons his family and eventually resorts to grave robbing.


More troubling is the many characters in these stories who are bound or trapped by their situations.  The most extreme example of this is in “The Man and the Snake,” where a bookish fellow is horrified at the presence of a snake in his room.  He dies of fright, but as it turns out the snake was merely a stuffed specimen, “its eyes were two shoe buttons.” (166)  In more run of the mill examples, people are trapped by the state, marriage, or their own personalities.  In “The Boarded Window” an Ohio frontiersman is unable to save his wife from a fever but is also unable to grieve.  “He had had no experience in grief, his capacity had not been enlarged by use.  his heart could not contain it all, nor his imagination rightly conceive it.” (191)  Another man, incapable of admitting his adultery spends years in prison for burglary.  When he later meets his former lover, she falls out of her window in a mad effort to reach out to him.  The narrator reminds us that although she was capable of breaking the divine law of God against adultery she could not break the natural law of gravity. (“The Man out of the Nose”)  In the same way that the line between the extraordinary and the banal is subtle and depends on your perspective, the line between freedom and confinement is vague at best.

Perhaps due to his 1888 separation from his wife over concerns about her infidelity, Bierce’s stories from this 1890s seems to suggest a profound ambivalence about marriage.  The relationships we see in these stories are often shallow, existing in name only, shattered by adultery, or simply bizarre.  He even used one character’s lack of knowledge about snake species to throw out “a man who ascertains after marriage that his wife does not know Greek, is entitled to a divorce.”  (165)  More brutal is “An Adventure of Brownville” which involves the narrator observing the violence within another family after overhearing a conversation.  In attempts to intervene to the wife after her sister died under suspicious circumstances.  The wife eventually finds escape only in suicide, which had no affect on her husband who treated her death with legalistic abstraction.  He strolled from his wife’s body singing “La donna e mobile.”

Bierce is decidedly misanthropic and often pessimistic, but there are brief windows of optimism in his work.  Not only does he embrace characters who are capable of acts of goodness and conscious in the face of systems or individuals that are clearly psychopathic.  More importantly, he sometimes shows that is possible to transcend the traps fate lays for us.  As with prisoners, escape may be all but impossible but that does not relieve of us the obligation to attempt escape.  Our first step, and the one Bierce embraces, is to step away from the gigantism of the era.  Compared to the soldiers, the civilians had options to escape the indiscriminate violence and enforced indifference.

Ambrose Bierce, “In the Midst of Life (Tales of Soldiers and Civilians) Part 1 (1892): Jeffersonian Democracy at War

The stories in In the Midst of Life were published individually in the 1880s and 1890s, when the United States was undergoing a re-imagining of the Civil War as a conflict between brothers, rather than the libretory revolution.  Of course, this shift in historical memory took place at the same time that racial boundaries hardened through disfranchisement and Jim Crow.  This moral distance from the issues of economic exploitation, racism, and slavery is striking in Ambrose Bierce.  We can perhaps forgive him because he is so strikingly modern in his interpreation of warfare.  The first half of In the Midst of Life is made up of 15 stories of the experiences of soldiers during the American Civil War.  None touch on the profound issues of the war.  Bierce is interested in the mundane, the ironic, and the banal happenings of military life.  That is not to say that these are not tragic events.  From the perspective of the grand military writers, these everyday hanging of spies, shooting at scouts, or the slow death of wounded soldiers are banal.  Bierce makes them the heart of his stories.  In this way, he foreshadows how war will be understood in the 20th century: indifferent and egalitarian. This is the dilemma of warfare in a democratic era.  If we are all equal before the law and before our creator, how do we prove our quality.  Our failures are a measure of something lacking in ourselves, not in an system of structured inequalities.  We want to believe that training, skill, gallantry, honor, or strength translated into martial victory.  In an era of democracy, we have only ourselves to blame for our failings, including our defeat on the battlefield.  The realities of war, however, are also democratizing.  A cannonball or bullet is just as likely to hit my neighbor as me.  His death, or mine own, is just as likely.  Warfare becomes brutish mathematics.  However, one need only watch a late 20th century war film to see examples of honor, valor, or skill winning out.  It is this tension that Bierce powerfully explores in In the Midst of Life.


David Simon talked about Paths of Glory and made the interesting point that even books and films that try to be anti-war often tend to praise warriors and suggest their nobility.  This, he suggests, undermines the anti-war spirit.

There is some of this spirit in Bierce, but as he believes that the indiscriminate nature of the violence in the American Civil War was still running oddly against a people eager to show their valor whenever possible.  In “A Horseman in the Sky” a private for the Union Army meets his father on the opposing side as a Scout.  He kills his father, but not before taking in the beauty, actually the divinity, of the equestrian scene.  In “A Son of the Gods” a brave scout doomed to die, exhibits a suicidal bravado.  “He stands erect, motionless, holding his sabre in his right have straight above his head.  His face is toward us.  Now he lowers his hand to a level with his face and moves it outward, the blade of the sabre describing a downward curve.  It is a sign to us, to the world, to posterity.  It is a hero’s salute to death and history.” (32)  In “Killed at Resaca” we learn that women played no small role in encouraging this reckless valor.  In this story, one of the bravest and most reckless men in the unit dies.  With his death the narrator finds a letter from his girlfriend saying “I could bear to hear of my soldier lover’s death, but not of his cowardice.” (51)

Bierce puts us in the realm of total war and machine war, where killing is indiscriminate, executions are everyday events (In the famous “Occurance at the Owl Creek Bridge” the murdered Confederate sympathizer was entrapped.), and women and children experience war first hand.  The story “Chickamauga” gives us a deaf-mute child walking through the battlefield, finding his idealistic, boyhood concept of war shattered by finding a dead woman near the battle.  “There, conspicuous in the light of the conflagration, lay the dead body of a woman–the white face turned upward, the hands thrown out and clutched full of grass, the clothing deranged, the long dark hair in tangles and full of clotted blood.  The greater part of the forehead was torn away, and from the jagged hole the brain protruded, overflowing the temple, a frothy mass of gray, crowned with clusters of crimson bubbles–the work of a shell.” (25)  In the similarly themed “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch”, a young officer is horrified to find he is expected to shell guns located near his home.  After the “affair” he finds his wife and child dead in the basement.

Notice with me that none of the stories describe battles.  They only describe “occurrences,” “affairs, and “events.”  They are objectively extraordinary.  Men put in a position where they need to shoot their father or risk the lives of their children, men sent on one-way trips to “scout” the enemy lines and wounded men desperate for the means to kill themselves populate these stories.  In the context of mechanized and indifferent warfare, these occurrences are horrifyingly commonplace.

Bierce reminds us that war has no business being romanticized.  I might add that the barricade or the revolution is no less brutal and indiscriminate.  Where I want to part ways with Bierce is in his moral indifference.  Although war has become brutally egalitarian (at least before the age drones, when a technologically superior foe can murder his enemies without any risk of recompense – and still get medals for valor), struggle is not without purpose.  I wonder how former slaves who served in the war read accounts like Bierce’s.  I suspect they would have felt familiar with the natural equality modern war creates, but wondered why Bierce extended that equality to the divergent purposes of the two armies.

In our memory of the war, valor was possible.  In a democracy where the myth is that we succeed or fail based on our skills we cannot remember war properly, without rejecting a basic principle of our identity.

In our memory of the war, valor was possible. In a democracy where the myth is that we succeed or fail based on our skills we cannot remember war properly, without rejecting a basic principle of our identity.

What has been our response to modern war?  No longer can our heroes be drawn at the human level.  In medieval romance, a knight could be presented heroically.  The longbow and musket put an end to that.  The general, hitherto, seen as running the battle like a god, has become a bureaucrat measuring death and destruction with mathematical precision.  Without these heroes we have created superheroes.  They are difficult to kill, reviving the possibility of valor.  Often they are deinstitutionalized as well.  Unfortunately, these models are perfectly useless for our really existing struggles.