Sunday, June 18, 2017

Ambrose Bierce, "Chickamauga"

Once a week, the Library of America sends subscribers to its website a “Story of the Week.”  This week, the story is Ambrose Bierce’s “Chickamauga,” a tightly controlled fiction with a meaningful trick at the end.  I discussed the story with my students many times over the years and included it in my textbook Fiction’s Many Worlds.  Here are some of the discoveries I made about the story with the help of my students.
This is the Library of America’s headnote for the story:
Armed with a toy sword, a little boy treks through the forest and fights off imaginary enemies—not realizing that, nearby, a very real battle was being waged.”

Ambrose Bierce, Chickamauga
The anti-war theme of Bierce's story depends on the basic tensions between child world and adult world and between fantasy and reality.  The boy's fantasy world of playing at war is his only reality; consequently, when he encounters the genuine external reality of war it seems curiously fantastic to him; thus he is able to integrate it effortlessly into his fantasy play world.  Bierce develops the story on the ironic realization that the adult view of war often springs from child-like views in which men glorify battle, only to find out too late that the reality of it is horror and death.   The primary communicators of this fantasy image of war in Bierce's story are books and pictures which glorify war, for the boy has been taught "postures of aggression and defense" by the "engraver's art."  Thus when he encounters the actuality of war, the boy responds to it as if it were merely the fantasy pictures he has seen or the world of play-reality he has known.
As is typical of many Bierce stories, style and technique are practically everything in "Chickamauga."  Although Bierce was writing during a period of American Literature characterized by realistic depictions of external reality, Bierce maintained his allegiance to romanticism.  Often compared with Edgar Allan Poe, Bierce focuses not so much on external reality but rather on the strange dream-like world that lies somewhere in between fantasy and reality.  Thus, the genius of his stories depends not so much on the theme, which is often fairly obvious, but on the delicate and tightly controlled way that Bierce tells the story and creates a nightmarish world that involves the reader emotionally.    
The fact that the boy is a deaf mute emphasizes his childish fantasy world detached from external reality and makes more plausible the primary device of contrasting the child's view of war as a game with the adult's view of it as a horrifying actuality.  It enables Bierce to set up a strange dreamlike effect as we see the events primarily from the boy's point of view.  However, even as the story depends on Bierce's developing the perspective of the child, in which the reader is made to see the maimed and bleeding soldiers as circus clowns and child-like playmates, this point of view is counterpointed by that of an adult teller--sometimes in a developed background exposition, sometimes in a flat declarative statement.  For example, when the boy seems to see some strange animals crawling through the forest, the narrator simply says: "They were men." When the boy sees men lying in the water as if without heads, the narrator simply says: "They were drowned."
This narrator is not named in the story, but is presented as a disembodied presence who not only sees what the boy sees, but also sees the boy and draws conclusions about the boy's responses. The boy's mind is as inaccessible to him as it is to the reader.  This technique enables the reader to respond both to the boy's point of view and to the adult teller. As the narrator says about the scene witnessed by the boy, "not all of this did the child note; it is what would have been noted by an elder observer." And indeed it is the elder observer who establishes the ironic tone at the beginning of the story which mocks the warrior-fire, the heroic race, and the notion of a spirit of battle in the boy which make him born to "war and dominion as a heritage."
It is indeed the subtle tension between this adult point of view and the childish perception of the boy that creates the story's impact and reflects its theme.  At one point in the story when the boy (because of his deafness) sleeps through the battle that rages nearby, the adult narrator says he was as "heedless of the grandeur of the struggle as the dead who had died to make the glory." Because of this structural counterpoint the narrator has no need to make any more explicit comment on the action.  For the juxtaposition of the two perspectives creates a tragic irony of war as something more than an heroic and childish game, even as it makes us see how war depends on just such a childish point of view to persist. 

A film version of this story, part of a trilogy of Bierce stories by French director Robert Enrico, begins with pictures of fighters behind the opening credits. The film is eerily silent, with grotesque images of men crawling across the ground as the camera pans the area disclosing more and more wounded and silent soldiers.  Visual images in the film are not as violent and graphic as those described in Bierce's story; however, the anti-war theme is stronger in the film than in the story because of the stark juxtaposition of images of childlike "playing at war" and adult reality.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Short Story Month: 2017—Part 13: The Short Story as a Literary Form

Short Story Month: 2017—Part 13: The Short Story as a Literary Form

Lorrie More:  “The commercial slick story has largely died out.  The stories we are left with are almost always all serious art.”

William Boyd:  “The well-written short story is not suited to the sound bite culture: it's too dense, its effects are too complex for easy digestion.”

Joyce Carol Oates:  She has said she doubts the 21st century will be as hospitable to the short story as the 19th and 20th, since the short story, unlike the novel, is "invariably literary."

Bret Anthony Johnson: “I think the reason short story collections don’t sell as well as novels is because they’re much more difficult to read.  Novels might require a longer commitment, but stories demand a deeper concentration and a more intense focus, and a lot of people would rather not exert themselves in that way”

Robert Stone:  “The short story is like a pitch in baseball.  It’s one continuous movement that ideally has to, like a pitch, break and then with a kind of retrospective inevitability end up in a catch’s mitt.  It’s a beautiful form when it works, but it’s very difficult.”

Claire Keegan: “ It’s very difficult. It’s very challenging. The level of intensity is very high. You’ve got to leave most of what could be said, out. It’s a discipline of omission. .. One of the things that is most difficult about the short story is that it seems easy. People think because it’s short, it’s minor, but if you take up your pen and try to write one you will find that it is otherwise. It is not a comforting genre. It’s not a comforting read. Often it can be quite a disturbing read. So, as Frank O’Connor said, there is something train-journey-ish about a novel, you can sit back and get into it, but the short story is more about holding your breath than breathing.”

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Short Story Month-2017 part 12: The Unified Writing and Reading Experience

Writing the Story in One Sitting

Lorrie Moore:  To write a short story, you have to be able to stay up all night. To read it all in one sitting and at some point see the whole thing through in a rush is part of the process. There’s urgency and wholeness in stories.

Hemingway said he wrote “the Killers” in one day.  Katherine Anne Porter said she always writes a story in one sitting, “one single burst of energy.”  Kafka wrote “The Judgment in one night.

         V. S. Pritchett says a good short story writer knows he is putting on a personal individual act, catching a piece of life as it flies and making “his personal performance out of it.”  Katherine Mansfield said that what is essential for the short story writer is to “penetrate one’s subject ..feelings, and objects as well, must be contemplated—or rather-submitted to—until one is truly lost in them.”

 Reading One Story at a Time

George Saunders: When I get the stories together, I wish I could put a disclaimer at the front: Please read no more than one or two a day.  Otherwise it feels to me like the contours that I put in there when I was working on just that story get lost in the reading process.

Short-story readers are a special kind of reader, like readers of poetry. Many novel readers don’t like collections of stories—I think that they dislike the frequent change of time, place and people. Of course, stories should not be read one after the other.

Lorrie Moore:  There’s a lot of yak about how short stories are perfect for the declining public attention span. But we know that’s not true. Stories require concentration and seriousness. The busier people get, the less time they have to read a story. (Though they may have a narcotizing paperback novel in their purse. This is not their fault.) Shockingly, people often don’t have a straight half hour of time to read at all. But they have fifteen minutes. And that is often how novels are read, fifteen minutes at a time. You can’t read stories that way.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Short Story Month 2017-Part 11: Dream and Desire in the Short Story

Short Story Month 2017-Part 11: Dream and Desire in the Short Story

Jarrell, Randall:  “Reading stories, we cannot help remembering that ‘We have to reckon with what exists, and dreams, daydreams, too, are also facts; if anyone really wants to investigate realities, he cannot do better than to start with such as these.  If he neglects them he will learn little or nothing of the world of life.”

Joyce Carol Oates:  “The short story is a dream verbalized, arranged in space and presented to the world, imagined as a sympathetic audience: the dream is said to be some kind of manifestation of desire, so the short story must also represent a desire, perhaps only partly expressed, but the most interesting thing about it is its mystery.”

Christina Stead:  "The belief that life is a dream and we the dreamers only dreams, which comes to us at strange, romantic, and tragic moments, what is it but a desire for the great legend, the powerful story rooted in all things which explains life to us and, understanding which, the meaning of things can be threaded through all that happens."

Alice Munro: “We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving or entertaining stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of.

Robert Olen Butler: “Fiction is the art form of human yearning.” Butler cites Joyce’s famous theory of epiphany--that moment in the story when something about the human condition shines forth in its essence.  Butler says this is the result of the yearning present in all the separate organically resonant moments in the fiction accumulating to a critical mass.  It is just that because of its brevity, these two moments typically occur at the same time in the short story. “The final epiphany of a literary short story is also the shining forth of the character’s yearning.”  

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Short Story Month 2017-part 10: Short Story Writers on Thematic Significance

Short Story Month 2017-part 10: Short Story Writers on Thematic Significance

V. S. Pritchett: The short story wakes the reader up. "It answers the primitive craving for art, the wit, paradox and beauty of shape, the longing to see a dramatic pattern and significance in our experience, the desire for the electric shock."

Sherwood Anderson: “The life of reality is confused, disorderly, almost always without apparent purpose, whereas in the artist’s imaginative life…there is determination to give the tale form—to make it real to the theme, not to life.  Often the better the job is done, the greater the confusion.

C., S. Lewis:  To be stories at all they must be series of events: but it must be understood that this series…s only really a net whereby to catch something else.  The real theme may be and perhaps usually is, something that has no sequence in it, something other than a process and much more like a state of quality… It may be asked why anyone should be encouraged to write a form in which the means are apparently so often at war with the end…. I suggest that the internal tension in the heart of every story between the theme and the plot constitutes, after all, its chief resemblance to life. . In real life, as in a story, something must happen.  That is just the trouble.  We grasp at a state and fond only a succession of events in which the state is never quite embodied.

Frank O’Connor:  The greatest essential of a short story is a theme, a story to tell.  A theme is something that is worth something to everybody. You grab somebody and say, “Look, an extraordinary thing happened to me yesterday—I met a man—he said this to me—”and that, to me, is a theme. The moment you grab somebody by the lapels and you've got something to tell, that's a real story.  The moment you say this, you're committed

Raymond Carver:  It is possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring--with immense, even startling power.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Short Story Month 2017—part 9: Short Story Writers on Unity of Impression

Short Story Month 2017—part 9:  Short Story Writers on Unity of Impression
Ambrose Bierce: The only way to get unity of impression from a novel is to shut it up and look at the covers.

Chekhov: "The short story, like the stage, has its conventions.  My instinct tells me that at the end of a story I must artfully concentrate for the reader an impression of the entire work, and therefore must casually mention something about those whom I have already presented.  Perhaps I am in error."

Edgar Allan Poe:  A skillful literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents--he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect... In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design."

          Edith Wharton:  The least touch of irrelevance, the least chill of inattention, will instantly undo the spell, and it will take as long to weave again as to get Humpty Dumpty back on his wall.

Wells Tower: It's very easy to write a terrible short story: you just write something and then stop.

John Wain:  There are perfectly successful short stories, and there are totally unsuccessful ones, and there’s nothing in between.

Richard Ford:  If stories fail, then they don’t make a short story.  It’s like bread.  Either it’s a loaf of bread or it’s doughy goo.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Short Story Month 2017—Part 8: Short Story Writers on Mystery in the Story

Short Story Month 2017—Part 8: Short Story Writers on Mystery in the Story

Joy Williams:  “A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the dark.  The writer doesn’t want to disclose or instruct of advocate, he wants to transmute and disturb. He cherishes the mystery…. he wants to escape his time, the obligations of his time, and, by writing, transcend them.”

Flannery O’Connor:  "The particular problem of the short story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible...The type of mind that can understand [the short story] is the kind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery."

Flannery O’Connor:  “The short story is] a form in which the writer makes alive some experience which we are not accustomed to observe everyday, or which the ordinary man may never experience in his ordinary life.... Their fictional qualities lean away from typical social patterns, toward mystery and the unexpected."

Catherine Brady: “Every good story has to risk being obscure, aimless, about nothing if it is to sustain that ‘something wild’ not within reach, not enclosed in the story because it cannot be named or identified in any single passage.”

Alice Munro:” I write because I want to get a feeling of mystery or surprise. Not a mystery that finishes you off, but something that makes the character or reader wonder. I don’t really like interpretations. I don’t want to make definite explanations.”

Amy Hempel: “I  don’t like having anything spelled out. Of course, mystery is not vagueness. Mystery is controlled. It involves information meted out only as needed. I not only don’t want the explanation, I want the mystery.”

Eudora Welty:   "The first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own. It is wrapped in an atmosphere. This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initially obscures its plain, real shape.”