While I don’t think either-or dichotomies can ever do any kind of justice to the complex and messy realities of, well, anything (and certainly of history and literature and culture and identity), I do believe that it’s possible to see much of American literary history as falling into a couple main camps: the pessimists and the hopers. The best example I’ve been able to find to highlight the difference would be two of the most significant and successful American modernist poems, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All,” and more exactly their respective visions of spring: Eliot sets the tone for his poem in its opening lines, “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring/ Dull roots with spring rain”; while Williams acknowledges all the difficulties that accompany birth and life but ends (as I have written elsewhere in this space) with hope, “Still, the profound change / has come upon them: rooted, they / grip down and begin to awaken”. Eliot’s poem is certainly full of life in all its messy and at times hopeful qualities, and Williams’ again doesn’t shy away from the pain or darkness, but nonetheless the two can in many ways exemplify a pessimistic and a hopeful perspective and literary tradition (one that extends back for example to the divisions between a Poe and an Emerson, a Melville and a Thoreau, a Hawthorne and a Whitman, and so on).
It will come as little surprise to anyone who has read even a few other entries here to note that I tend by and large to find myself drawn to the hopers, although I would add that those who can ground their hope in an awareness and engagement with the darkness are a lot more convincing than those for whom the hope feels more free-floating (as, I confess, Emerson’s often does to me). But the best of the pessimists, which would include those three above among many others, provide both crucial correctives to the sunniest and most simplistic of our national narratives and equally significant investigations of the human condition, remind us of precisely how fully we (as Americans, as individuals, as humans in every sense) can fail and fall and become the worst versions of our selves. And I don’t think any American author has better represented that pessimistic perspective than Ambrose Bierce. This is the journalist and critic, after all, whose central philosophy he once summed up in the phrase, “nothing matters.” This is the writer whose best-known short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” centers on an extended depiction of the meaningless fantasies contained in the mind of a man being hung (spoiled alert, sorry). And this is the satirist whose collection The Devil’s Dictionary, compiled over many years of journalistic columns and published in 1911, contains definitions such as “Achievement: The death of endeavor and the birth of disgust.”
All of those texts, from Bierce’s many critical reviews of fellow writers to his hundreds of short stories, and perhaps most especially to his biting and thoroughly perceptive (not to mention funny as hell) work throughout Dictionary, are well worth our continued attention. But I think Bierce might be most important for the pessimistic perspective he provided on the Civil War. Unlike the best-known author of fiction about the war, Stephen Crane, Bierce was old enough to have served in it, and at a very young and formative age: he enlisted in the Union Army at the war’s outset when he was only 19, saw action in numerous campaigns and battles (including Shiloh, one of the couple most brutal and violent Civil War battles), and was gravely wounded late in the war (a head wound from the effects of which, combined with the trauma of experiences like those at Shiloh, he suffered for the rest of his life). He wrote in multiple genres about those experiences, including poetry and a fascinating memoir entitled “What I Saw of Shiloh”; but mostly and most impressively he wrote dark and pessimistic stories, such as those collected in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891). Each such story is distinctive and well worth reading on its own terms, but I think their cumulative identity can be nicely encapsulated in “Chickamauga” (available at the link below), with its portrait of a young boy brought face to face with the most meaningless and brutal realities of war and its effects.
The heroism of a Joshua Chamberlain isn’t nullified by those meaningless and brutal realities, of course. But a reading of Bierce does serve, among many other vital benefits, to temper my own celebration of Chamberlain and of the possibilities of heroism in war (or any other time). My own hopefulness, that is, is well served by consistent encounters with our most talented and interesting pessimists. More tomorrow, on one of the most heartbreaking and powerful American stories of parenthood.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) The full text of The Devil’s Dictionary: http://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper/Bierce/bierce.html#top
2) The full text of “Chickamauga”: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Chickamauga
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