- 1 M.E. Grenander notes that, although the American edition [entitled Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (...)
- 2 For a response to those readers who view Bierce as a writer of anti-war stories, see also Mariani, (...)
1Ambrose Bierce's Civil War stories of In the Midst of Life have intrigued readers since their publication in 18921. These stories have been considered from any number of views: as expressions of biography, as explorations of genre, as fractured narrative structures, as pre-modern texts, and, perhaps most commonly but least convincingly, as anti-war statements2. The weakness of this last view is revealed through the legal themes that inform Bierce's plots. Although readers have not sufficiently considered these themes, that the law was a vital interest to Bierce is reflected in the comment of editor Brian St. Pierre, who puzzles in his 1987 collection, The Devil's Advocate: An Ambrose Bierce Reader, "It's not entirely clear why Bierce had such a profound contempt for lawyers; certainly he had a profound sense of justice..." (119). The answer to St. Pierre's puzzle lies in Bierce's frustration that human ignorance and corruption subvert the connection of law (a defined social system of principles and rules) to justice (an abstract product of the law).
2Any discussion of Bierce's Civil War stories quickly draws to Bierce's sense of human society. Simply stated, Bierce felt that war was a natural outcome of human nature and that peace was a hypocritical charade. In The Devil's Dictionary (1906), Bierce comments that "the soil of peace is thickly sown with seeds of war and singularly suited to their germination and growth" (7: 361). In light of Bierce's position, Larzer Ziff comments In The American 1890s (1966), "Through following the arbitrary military code they [Bierce's soldiers] respond cleanly to the violence of life, whereas those who view life as essentially tranquil and given into feelings which they regard as natural are only deluded" (17). More recently, Giorgio Mariani even concludes in his 1991 essay on Bierce's "Martial Spirit" that Bierce finally offers no viable alternative to war, for it "is a given, a second nature, an inescapable self-sufficient reality that provides Bierce's characters with all the knowledge they need to have" (225).
3In the reality of war, Bierce did not romanticize bloodshed. Rather, Bierce explains in his essay The Nature of War that bloodshed is incidental to the "effective and... humane policy" (10: 341) of devastation. When bloodshed serves this policy, no tears need be shed: in A War in the Orient, Bierce's Bald Campaigner, a man of "superior intelligence", argues, "As to the loss of life, I submit that civilians mostly die some time... and the kind of death inflicted by war-weapons is distinctly less objectionable than that resulting from disease" (10: 351). However, this is not to say that needless bloodshed did not frustrate Bierce; indeed, more often than not he ends his stories with graphic pictures of those who die as symbolic victims to human ignorance and corruption.
- 3 As a starting point, see Paul E. Treusch's 1938 essay "The Syllogism". For a recent critique of su (...)
- 4 Human misperception glaringly surfaces in the non-legal stories of In the Midst of Life. In Chicka (...)
4In the majority of war stories of In the Midst of Life, the law's presence is felt in categorical principles and rules3. To define, principles are statements of substantive objectives, and rules are directives that mandate a consequence to an action. When a principle generates a rule and a rule validates that principle, the abstract product is a given society's justice. Justice, however, is not simply a mechanical product of the law, for it must be publicly understood and universally applied: if the head is ignorant or the heart is corrupt, in other words, justice is precluded. And, because Bierce saw these faults as central to all matters of human existence, justice was impossible in his world4.
- 5 For a discussion of legal obligation through the lense of legal positivism, see H.L.A. Hart's 1961 (...)
- 6 For a view of the dynamic relationship between rules and principles (also called standards), see M (...)
5Despite the law's futility, without it chaos comes again. With it, judges and individuals assume the fundamental roles, and each relies on deductive reasoning in considering how specific situations meet the terms of categorical principles or rules. In war, judges typically assume the role of commanders who must make decisions based on the principles either of strategic advantage or of expedient discipline. Individuals typically assume the role of subordinates who must act according to the orders (i.e., rules) of judges. In their reasoning; judges emphasize principles while individuals emphasize rules. By this, judges primarily consider whether the results of individual actions validate corresponding legal principles, while individuals primarily consider how they are obligated to act given the constraints of legal rules5. Common sense dictates as much, for judges must emphasize principles lest all law should become subjective. However, emphasis is not exclusion, and therein lies the basis of legal ambiguity6.
6When the law is ambiguous, the way is opened to those who would assume a false sense of privilege (literally, "private law"). In that falseness, judges and individuals may be either ignorant or corrupt. Briefly stated, they create, or attempt to create, exceptions to the law. When they do, the law becomes unstable. In the wartime universe of Bierce's stories, military law is the most moral and stable of all legal systems, but, again, human ignorance and corruption subvert it. In examining that subversion, one may divide the stories of In the Midst of Life into those that focus on judges, those that focus on exchanges between judges and individuals, and those that focus on individuals.
- 7 For a discussion of Bierce's use of ravines as symbols of death, see William Conlogue's 1991 essay (...)
7 Bierce's wartime judges are generally corrupt, and the corpses of those individuals whom judges exploit gruesomely symbolize the subversion of justice. In The Affair at Coulter's Notch, the Union general places Captain Coulter, a southerner who chose the Union cause, near Coulter's own home and in the highly irregular strategy of engaging a retreating enemy. Previously, the general has been spurned by a confederate lady who is none other than Coulter's wife, and so his orders, rather than producing justice, now only serve the principle of his private spite. According to the general's orders, Coulter must solely engage twelve surrounding guns from a single notch in a hill7. Because the only visible Confederate gun is located on his own home's front lawn, Coulter knows that his home's doom from random fire is inevitable. He asks the colonel, who must also follow the general's orders, "And it is--necessary--to engage them? The order is imperative?" (2: 109). Presented a more immediate and less dangerous possibility of simply firing at the enemy's other guns, the colonel, grinding his heel in categorical obedience, can only say "that the general's orders for the infantry not to fire are still in force" (2: 113). However, when the colonel is told the general's history and so realizes the legal corruption of the situation, he attempts to stop the action. There is already great damage, and, as he rides, "A fiend seven times damned sprang out of the smoke...but paused and gazed up at the mounted officer with unearthly regard.... The colonel made an authoritative gesture and pointed to the rear. The fiend bowed in token of obedience. It was Captain Coulter" (2: 117, emphasis added). The story ends as the colonel finds Coulter holding his dead wife and dead baby, their corpses symbolizing the law's failure.
8A second story that focuses on the role of judges is An Affair of Outposts. In it the cuckolded Armisted is a southerner who approves of the Union cause. As he applies to a Union Governor for enlistment, he explains that he has no reason to live and desires to die in a legally-sanctioned gesture. The Governor, who coincidentally is the lover of Armisted's wife, Julia, replies that there are simpler but illicit ways--suicide or the "unwritten law" of revenge (2: 148). Because Armisted then notes that he knows not the identity of his wife's lover, the Governor captains Armisted and sends him to Tennessee, resigning to himself, "This is bad business" (2: 149). Armisted leaves, and Bierce emphasizes the theme of legal corruption when the Governor sits by the fire and reads a not-so-random passage from a not-so-random book about adultery. The narrator continues, "He looked at the title of the book; it was, His Excellency the Fool. He flung the volume into the fire" (2: 149).
9While the Governor's choice of books indicates his corruption in captaining Armisted (he rids himself of a rival), his burning of it indicates his willful ignorance of life--which in Bierce's world may be equated to war. Eventually, the Governor visits a battlefield, and the narrator observes in a moment that reflects both Bierce's frustration with war and his disdain for peacetime :
In all this was none of the pomp of war-no hint of glory. Even in his distress and peril the helpless civilian could not forbear to contrast it with the gorgeous parades and reviews held in honor of himself.... It was an ugly and sickening business: to all that was artistic in his nature, revolting, brutal, in bad taste. (2: 157-58)
10In a typically Biercian twist, the battle-scarred Armisted, who has since received a letter from his wife that likely tells of the Governor's part in her infidelity, saves the Governor's life but dies in the process. The story ends as the Governor recovers and asks "not altogether carelessly" (2: 164) about Armisted. The ambiguity in this double negative is underscored by the proximity of Armisted's corpse--it is so close to the Governor, in fact, that the Governor might touch it except "that it would bleed" (2: 164). It would seem that the law, again symbolized in a corpse, will not tolerate further human contact.
11 The story of a Conscience is one of the stories of In the Midst of life that provides a useful transition from those that focus on judges to those that focus on the exchanges between judges and individuals. In it, Captain Parrol Hartroy is essentially early an individual under the law and later a judge over it. As an individual, he once fell asleep while guarding the Confederate spy Dramer Brune, but was spared from his legal fate when Brune chose not to escape. Unbeknownst to Hartroy, Brune later did escape, and so Hartroy's fault was concealed. Years later, Hartroy assumes the role of a judge when he recaptures Brune. Brune comments that the matter can be settled without the law:
My life is fairly yours, but if you wish it taken in a more formal way than by your hand, and if you are willing to spare me the indignity of marching into camp at the muzzle of your pistol, I promise you that I will neither resist, escape, nor remonstrate, but submit to whatever penalty may be imposed. (2: 171).
12Before Hartroy does, in fact, follow the law and have Brune executed, he relates to his captive: "I ought to have confessed my fault in order to relate the story of your magnanimity.... A hundred times I resolved to do so, but shame prevented. Besides, your sentence was just and righteous" (2: 175). In the end, though, Hartroy knows that there is nothing "just and righteous" about executing a man who had once saved his life, and his decision only leads him to such overwhelming guilt that he commits suicide.
13A more ambiguous story that illustrates the exchanges between judges and individuals is The Coup de Grace. The story involves two brothers, Major Creede Halcrow and Sergeant Caffal Halcrow. As it happens, Creede is a foe and Caffal a friend of Captain Downing Madwell. In fact, Caffal had followed Madwell into the army in loyalty to their long-standing friendship. Creede orders Madwell on a dangerous mission, and Caffal follows Madwell in loyalty to his friend. After the particularly violent battle, Madwell finds what remains of his friend's bloody body: "Consciously or unconsciously, this writhing fragment of humanity...was imploring everything, all, the whole non-ego, for the boon of oblivion" (2: 129). Meanwhile, a mortally wounded horse stumbles and Madwell kills it. Given the unlikelihood of getting caught and bolstered by the principle suggested by the horse's humane death, Madwell turns to his friend and tries to shoot, but he finds that he has no bullets. The story ends as he strikes his scabbard through Caffal's heart. However two hospital attendants and Creede arrive just in time to witness Madwell's act. In her 1984 book, The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce Cathy N. Davidson well frames Creede's impending decision :
Is this the cynical major's sorriest or his happiest moment? Has he witnessed a kindness done to his dying brother or a "murder" that will at last enable him to do in his personal enemy? Who is responsible for the sergeant's death? Is it the captain who just killed him or the captain who much earlier allowed his friend to accompany him into the army? (97)
14Bierce's typically abrupt ending precludes answering Davidson's questions, for the law neither has validated Madwell's actions nor will generate Creede's decision. Whatever ensues, the reader is certain, justice is simply impossible given the crudely categorical machinery of the law.
15In the exchanges of judges and individuals, justice, one might say, is only produced in the cessation of human ignorance and corruption--in other words, in the death of the law's participants. Parker Adderson, Philosopher is perhaps Bierce's most compelling demonstration of this theme. The story begins as the title character, a captured Union spy, is brought before General Clavering. Adderson assumes that he faces the punishment meted to all captured spies: "Among spies captured by night that [to hang the following morning] is the custom. It's one of the nice observances of the profession" (2: 133). Clavering undermines Adderson's equation of these "nice observances" with "rights under military law" (2: 141) by telling Adderson that his written order for the affair "is a memorandum...to be read to the troops at reveille" (2: 136). After Adderson realizes that Clavering has ordered his immediate execution by a firing squad and it is the announcement of Adderson's death that will occur in the morning, Clavering notes "coldly", "I have said nothing of morning[:] that was an assumption of your own" (2: 141). By resorting to trickery, however, Clavering subverts justice. A scuffle follows, and Adderson kills a captain and fatally wounds Clavering.
16In attempting to subvert the law's connection to justice, both Adderson and Clavering ironically produce a fateful justice. Adderson, who had been flippant in discussing death with Clavering, now is executed "begging incoherently for his life" (2: 144). Adderson's incoherence articulates, as it were, that the public and universal demands of justice exclude no individual. Clavering, who had been terrified of death, now dies with a "face suffused with a smile of ineffable sweetness..." (2: 15). Such peace can only come from accepting his guilt in the affair. Only in their deaths, it seems, may judges and individuals fully connect law to justice.
- 8 Clifford R. Ames argues against this perspective in his 1987 article. Ames contends that "To reduc (...)
17Those stories from In the Midst of Life that focus on individuals demonstrate Bierce's final frustration that the law does not produce justice. Of course, individuals may be ignorant of the law, as is Peyton Farquhar in An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Farquhar is a civilian planter who has not joined the army due to unexplained "Circumstances of an imperious nature..." (2: 32). In Bierce's world of war, civilians are by defition removed from reality, and so Farquhar's "imperious[ness]" marks him as ignorantly romantic. As Farquhar stands ready to hang, he imagines a series of romantically improbable events, events which lead F.J. Logan to characterize in his 1977 essay that Farquhar is a blend of "timidity, triteness, and inanity..." (105)8. Indeed, the narrator smirks, "The liberal military code makes provision for hanging many kinds of persons, and gentlemen are not excluded" (2: 29). However, the reader's increasing sympathy with Farquhar's hallucination suggests that justice may not be the product of the hanging; the narrative misdirection, in effect, questions the connection of law to justice. How, one might ask, does the hanging of an ignorant romanticist answer the public and universal terms of justice? As it is with all Bierce's stories, there are no answers, and the story ends as Farquhar's hanged body inscrutably swings "gently from side to side..." (2:45).
18While individuals may be ignorant of the law, they also may be ignorant under it. In this condition, they are left stranded with barren rules that are disconnected from any production of justice. Despair and death follow. In The Mocking Bird, the twin brothers William and John Grayrock were separated by kinsmen after the death of their widowed mother. William was taken to a northern city and John to a southern region. Long-lost to each other, William joined the Union and John the Confederacy. Now, posted at night on a picket-guard, William becomes disoriented and instinctively fires on a man. His response alerts the army, and William holds his ground only because he does not know which way to retreat. The next morning, his company congratulates William for his attention and resolve, but William knows that his actions are born of personal desperation and ignorance: "That is not just; I knew myself courageous, but this praise is for specific acts which I did not perform..." (2:224, emphasis added). When he finds that he has shot his long-lost brother John, William probably follows his twin in death, for William is announced absent from the roll-call that evening.
19Individuals are not always ignorant of or under the law; they also may corrupt it. In their corruption, they act in the half-light of privilege. For instance, Captain Morris Ransome corruptly exploits the function of rules in One Kind of Officer. The story begins as General Cameron addresses Ransome: "it is not permitted to you to know anything .... If you perceive any movement of troops in your front you are to open fire, and if attacked hold this position as long as you can" (2: 178). The hostile tone of Cameron's directive remains unexplained, for "apparently too much had already been said" (2: 178), and Cameron later comments that his antagonist is "too fond of his [own] opinion" (2:187). After Cameron leaves and Ransome turns to command his battery of six guns, the narrator portentously observes, "One acquainted with the niceties of military etiquette would have said that by his [Ransome's] manner he attested a sense of the rebuke that he had incurred. It is one of the important uses of civility to signify resentment" (2: 179). When the ensuing battle shifts and his fellow Union troops are in his line of fire, Ransome perversely obeys the letter of Cameron's order and, despite the protest of Lieutenant Price, has his men continue firing. In such confusion the narrator comments, "It seemed that everybody was looking for his immediate superior--an ominous circumstance" (2: 186). After the battle, Ransome faces General Masterson, "the judge on horseback" (2: 194). In this "most informal of courts-martial" (2: 194), Ransome acknowledges his full consciousness of the situation, but he also believes that he can subvert the law's connection to justice by pleading that he was strictly obeying orders. However, because Price, who had witnessed the initial exchange between Cameron and Ransome, lies about his knowledge of the orders, and Cameron himself has been killed in the battle, Ransome finds himself with no means of legal recourse.
20Ransome's legal subversion--his corruption through a false sense of privilege--is itself subverted, but it is only through human ignorance (Cameron's silence in death) and corruption (Price's lie). Indeed, Ransome's resigned dignity before his execution signals that the law only chances to produce something resembling justice: "Quietly detaching his sabre from its supports, he handed it up to the provost-marshal" (2: 196). This legal approach to the story reveals that it has been misread: Mariani underestimates that Ransome is "chronically incapable of reasoning beyond the letter of military codes" (224); Davidson overestimates Ransome as a figure of "rudimentary self-deception..." (19). Ransome is neither incapable of reasoning nor self-deceived; rather, his conscious attempt to subvert justice shows just how susceptible the law is to individual corruption.
21While Ransome's actions are clearly unjust, less clear are cases in which corrupt individuals seem to produce justice. The results are a sort of legal sham. For instance, in George Thurston, the title character is unusually intrepid in battle. Whether in battle or in facing capture, Thurston calmly responds by habitually folding his "arms across his breast..." (2: 213). His fellow soldiers esteem his heroic obedience to orders, but the quartermaster explains that Thurston's obedience is really a psychological ploy to suppress his cowardice. Thurston improbably dies from playing on a rope swing, and the fact that in death he strikes his habitual pose ironically confirms the quartermaster's opinion. In his false sense of privilege, Thurston thus subverts the public and universal connection of law to justice, and the narrator even labels Thurston's "an ignoble death" (2: 214).
22Killed at Resaca is a slightly more complex story of an individual's corruption through a false sense of privilege. In it, the six-foot-tall Lieutenant Herman Brayle dresses in "full uniform, especially in action, when most officers are content to be less flamboyantly attired..." (2: 94). The whole company admires him, except that "he was vain of his courage", in battle sitting "like an equestrian statue" (2: 94). At Resaca, Georgia, Brayle must deliver a message by traversing a field that is parallel to the enemy. Shots sound, but Brayle somehow survives until he reaches a "deep and sinuous gully" (2: 101). When he pauses, the enemy shoots him. The firing stops, but Bierce knows that the connection of the law to justice demands more from individuals than this momentary cease fire: "It was as if both sides had suddenly repented of their profitless crime" (2: 101, emphasis added).
- 9 Bierce was inflexible in all sorts of relationships, including those with women. For instance, in (...)
23Like Thurston, Brayle's intentions are wrongly motivated from the start; the narrator receives Brayle's effects, and he later opens a blood-stained letter from one Marian Mendenhall that shows the falsely sentimental principles upon which Brayle had in fact acted. The letter concludes: "I could bear to hear of my soldier lover's death, but not of his cowardice" (2: 103). When Mendenhall asks how he died, the narrator lies, "He was bitten by a snake..." (2: 103). The word play here--Mendenhall is robbed of her ignorantly romantic vision as a martyr's survivor and she is, figuratively speaking, a snake in Bierce's legal Eden--shows that something so private and trivial as a woman's demands are obscene in a wartime universe9.
24The reductive end to stories like George Thurston and Killed at Resaca is A Son of the Gods: A Study in the Present Tense. The scene is a country field, edged on either side by troops, and at issue is the opposition's strength and position. In view of this stagnate scene, a young officer in full uniform, riding a white horse with a scarlet blanket, volunteers to ride as a single scout. If a forward line of skirmishers had done the job, the narrator explains, "At the first volley a half of the questioning line will fall, the other half before it can accomplish the predestined retreat. What a price to pay for gratified curiosity!" (2: 65). This "military Christ" (2: 65) is, one might say, the very embodiment of perfect justice in his selfless practice of the law; however, while he is neither ignorant nor corrupt, he is so magnificent that the soldiers on the line are inspired, they charge and the enemy predictably kills many of them. The soldiers' momentary ignorance destroys the production of justice, and the narrator laments :
Ah, those many, many needless dead! That great soul whose beautiful body is lying over yonder, so conspicuous against the sere hillside--could it not have been spared the bitter consciousness of a vain devotion? Would an exception have marred too much the pitiless perfection of the divine, eternal plan? (2: 70)
25The rhetorically negative answers, of course, only emphasize Bierce's frustration with war.
26Last, the story of In the Midst of Life in which the law comes closest to producing justice is A Horseman in the Sky. It begins as Carter Druse, who has chosen the Union despite the fact that he is the son of a wealthy Virginian, is asleep while on guard. His legal situation is precarious: "if detected he would be dead shortly afterward, death being the just and legal penalty of his crime" (2: 15). However, "some invisible messenger of fate" (2: 19) arouses Gruse to the sight of a man on horseback high on a ledge--a man who appears of an "heroic, almost colossal, size" (2: 20). The narrator explains just how public and universal is the law: "The duty of the soldier was plain: the man must be shot dead from ambush--without warning, without a moment's spiritual preparation, with never so much as an unspoken prayer, he must be sent to his account" (2: 22). Druse also remembers his father's parting words: "Whatever may occur, do what you conceive to be your duty" (2: 23). Although he recognizes the man as his father, Druse shoots the horse, which in its last breath carries its rider to death at the foot of the cliff.
- 10 Grenander clarifies that her opinion is based on the final edition in the Collected Works. She exp (...)
27One may argue, as M.E. Grenander does in her 1971 Twayne study, that Druse makes the correct decision, for he obeys the rules that are validated by principles associated with endangering his unit's position. The result, says Grenander, is a "tragic tale of moral choice" (123) that shows Bierce's philosophy in "the necessity of right thinking for right feeling" (129)10. Given Druse's "moral choice", society would seem to produce justice. In coming to this conclusion, Grenander exonerates Druse's criminal inattention: Druse's father would be mortified to live with the shame of his son's eventual execution and, besides, a son killing a father is a punishment "out of all proportion" to the crime of falling asleep while on guard (130). Grenander's second reason is fallacious, though, for punishment "out of all proportion" only subverts the connection of law to justice. Indeed, the fact that Druse does not directly shoot his father indicates this disconnection, and the magnificence of Druse's father as the flying horseman symbolizes it. After Druse tells the sergeant who the horseman was, the sergeant replies--and so the story ends--"Good God!" (2: 26). The sergeant's utter shock shows that even the best legal system fails. "Right thinking" may be the best possible human response, but justice remains impossible because the law simply cannot encompass the endless variety of human situations.
28Of course, the war stories of In the Midst of Life comprise only the first half of the collection. Not surprisingly, the civilian stories also focus on how human ignorance and corruption subvert the goals of all social systems. One example will suffice here, for The Famous Gilson Bequest gives an explicit view of the internecine legal relationship between judges and individuals. The story involves the rascally Milton Gilson, who, before he hangs, takes revenge on his captor and chief persecutor Henry Brentshaw by appointing Brentshaw as the executor of his surprisingly large estate. Gilson's will states that for five years Brentshaw must pay any people whom Gilson had robbed. Because the subsequent proceedings involve "the best legal talent" and plenty of "mendacious witnesses" (2: 274-75), not only is Gilson's entire estate consumed, but "the sun went down upon a region in which the moral sense was dead, the social conscience callous, the intellectual capacity dwarfed, enfeebled, and confused!" (2: 275). The corrupt Brentshaw is ruefully "victorious" in this legal climate, and the story ends as he sits in a flooded cemetery, envisioning Gilson's ghost robbing other caskets. The five years have been very hard on him, streaking his hair gray and "debas[ing] his walk to a doddering shuffle" (2: 276). He dies that night, completely consumed by his corruption of the law.
29In the wake of In the Midst of Life, Bierce wrote stories in which individuals and judges are even more ignorant or corrupt as they assume their roles within social systems. Indeed, Bierce meaningfully entitled his 1893 collection Can Such Things Be ? In the main, these are tall tales or supernatural stories. These genres suggest Bierce's increasing pessimism toward human potential, for both transcend issues of social organization. In light of the social chaos that permeates these stories, it is safe to say that Bierce's point of view moved from pessimism to cynicism. Such, perhaps, was the final act of a man who had despaired that the law could ever produce Justice.