The ABP Journal
Fall 2008, Vol. 4 No. 1

ISSN 1939-4578

Paul Juhasz is Instructor of English at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. He has presented scholarship covering a wide range of American and British authors, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joseph Conrad, Nathaniel Hawthorne, T.C. Boyle, and Katherine Mansfield. His writing has been published by the CEA Critic.

[journal table of contents]






Our recognition of how Bierce anticipates the temporal manipulation of Modernism may offer a lens through which his significance can be more permanently fixed.





weathered bronze sundial


no matter what the actual hour may be

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IT IS NOT MY INTENTION HERE to offer explanations as to why time is such a compelling force in Bierce’s fiction. As I’ve suggested in footnote 51, horology and concerns over mechanized time were in the air during the high point of Bierce’s fictional production, but ultimately any direct connection is speculative at best. Bierce himself probably offers the best explanation in “The Man Overboard.” The story is the third narrated by Claude Reginald Gump, “writer of sea stories” (492). “A Shipwreckollection,” [60] chronicles his experiences on board the Mudlark under Captain Abersouth. The story ends with the narrator thrown overboard and sinking to the bottom of the ocean; the ship itself is lost at sea. Despite this ending, Gump and Abersouth return in a sequel (not a prequel) tale, “Captain of the Camel.” [61] At the end of “Captain of the Camel” the ship is frozen in ice and all on board (including Captain Abersouth but excepting the narrator) is dead. Despite the fact that Gump has seemingly died twice (since the ending of “Captain of the Camel” offers little hope of rescue) and Abersouth definitively once, both are back in “The Man Overboard.” [62] Near the end of this third installment, the captain complains to Gump over how he, as author/narrator, has been treating Abersouth, his character. Gump replies “it was true. Being usually the hero of my own stories, I commonly do manage to live through one, in order to figure to advantage in the next. It is from artistic necessity: no reader would take much interest in a hero who was dead before the beginning of the tale” (493). In other words, conventions, traditions, expectations, even inevitabilities like death, all can and should be overthrown when “artistic necessity” dictates. Gump’s humorous response to Abersouth also serves as meta-textual commentary on Bierce’s fiction, particularly his repeated distortions of standard conventions of narrative time. [63]

David Leon Higdon has argued that “recognition of time as a significant aspect of fiction has been slow in coming” (1). A full recognition of Bierce’s innovations with fictional time has been likewise slow. In none of the seminal treatments of time in fiction is Ambrose Bierce featured. Hans Meyerhoff does not included him in Time in Literature; Bierce is not mentioned in Frank Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction; despite having a entire section dedicated to the examination of Time and American Writers, Georges Poulet devotes nary a word to the fiction of Ambrose Bierce. This, despite the fact that in his fictional treatment of time, Bierce “anticipates the writers of the next century” (Solomon 187); much of the temporal exploration we now associate with Modernism was a hallmark of Bierce’s short fiction.

The cyclical critical attention placed on his work—what Cathy Davidson characterizes as a critical game of “lost and found”—certainly contributes to the consistent omission of Bierce from a comprehensive study on time and fiction (2). [64] A further contributing factor stems from the fact that Bierce’s work resists easy categorization within typical boundaries of literary classification. [65] While elements of his work are consistent with what we now call realism, Bierce is hardly a traditional realist; he himself had nothing but contempt for the contemporary standard-bearer for realism, William Dean Howells, [66] and in The Devil’s Dictionary he defines realism as “the art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads. The charm suffusing a landscape painted by a mole, or a story written by a measuring-worm” (194). Yet with his reliance on the supernatural, Bierce also cannot be contained within a classification as a naturalist writer despite some features of naturalism in his work. [67]

This rush to classify (and the resulting inability to do so) often overshadows a full appreciation of what I suggest is Bierce’s true position as a transitory figure bridging contemporary realist and naturalist writing and the looming modernist writing that would dominate the early twentieth century. As such, Bierce is a figure much like William Blake or Joseph Conrad. Is Conrad a Victorian or a modernist? Is Blake a Romantic or does he prefigure many of the topical and stylistic conventions one associates with the Romantics? These are open-ended questions, and one’s perspective is in large part determined by which Conrad or Blake work one is discussing. Yet the literary significance of Blake and of Conrad is without question. Our recognition of how Bierce anticipates the temporal manipulation of Modernism may offer a lens through which Bierce’s significance can be more permanently fixed. end

next Notes

Essay Table of Contents

1. "No Matter What the Actual Hour May Be:" Time Manipulation in the Works of Ambrose Bierce

2. Disjointed Chronology: Bierce's Temporal Shell Game

3. Lives on Hold: Paused Timelines

4. Time Manipulation: Expansion, Compression, and Irrelevance of Time

5. Time Hubs: Intersections of Time and Space

6. Security in a Second Hand: The False Comforts of Time

> 7. Final Thoughts: Bierce's Place in Time

8. Notes

9. Works Cited

Copyright © 2008 The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights reserved.