September 4, 2011

Bierce: Its author's main and best ambition

Despite already publishing several prose works and even poetry, Ambrose Bierce had difficulty finding a publisher for his book Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. So, he turned to a San Francisco merchant named E. L. G. Steele. In his preface, dated September 4, 1891, Bierce explained:

Denied existence by the chief publishing houses of the country, this book owes itself to Mr. E. L. G. Steele, merchant, of this city. In attesting Mr. Steele's faith in his judgment and his friend, it will serve its author's main and best ambition.

The book of 19 short tales was nearly evenly divided between "Soldiers" and "Civilians." It was soon compared to Stephen Crane's Civil War novel Red Badge of Courage though, unlike Crane, Bierce was actually a veteran. Further, Bierce's stories are often ironic, if not sardonic. California poet George Sterling noted that, "His heroes, or rather victims, are lonely men, passing to unpredictable dooms, and hearing, from inaccessible crypts of space, the voices of unseen malevolencies." A review in the New York Tribune claimed the book was "so original as to defy comparison... weird and curious... There's nothing like it in fiction."

The most famous in the collection, number two under "Soldiers," had already been published about a year earlier. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" features a man named Peyton Farquhar, a Confederate sympathizer who seeks to sabotage the Union army in Alabama. Caught in the act, he is to be executed by hanging. With the noose around his neck, his mind wanders:

He unclosed his eyes and saw again the water below him. "If I could free my hands," he thought, "I might throw off the noose and spring into the stream. By diving I could evade the bullets and, swimming vigorously, reach the bank, take to the woods and get away home. My home, thank God, is as yet outside their lines; my wife and little ones are still beyond the invader's farthest advance."

Sure enough, the rope snaps, and he attempts a daring escape with an entire battalion at his back, narrowly avoiding bullets and even cannon fire. Miraculously, he finally finds his way home to his wife, when...

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