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]


no matter what the actual hour may be

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1. In addition to the definition of “Past” that serves as one of the epigraphs for this study, the remaining terms Bierce includes are: “Year” defined as “a period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments” (242); “Day: a period of twenty-four hours, mostly misspent” (49); “Clock: A machine of great moral value to man, allaying his concerns for the future by reminding him what a lot of time remains to him” (36); and “Future: The period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured” (92). arrow

2. To Clara Wright, dated June 8, 1864. arrow

3. “The Late Dowling, Senior” in The Fiend’s Delight, published in 1873. By earliest published works, I of course mean fictional works, as opposed to his already lengthy journalistic writings. arrow

4. Bierce does use a similar narrative structure in “The Middle Toe of the Right Foot,” but in this case, it seems that its use is simply a clever method to build suspense by withholding full disclosure until later in the story. Since ultimately everything in the story is explained and the disjointed chronology is not used to mask or hide key elements of plot, a full discussion of the story has been omitted here. arrow

5. Bierce further parodies the traditional view by christening the commission that commits Colston as “the Commissioners of Lunacy,” not the Commissioners on Lunacy. The parody is completed with the ironic last line of the story: “Most of our esteemed contemporary’s other writers are still at large” (227). arrow

6. First published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1893. arrow

7. Disjointed chronology is used in much the same way in “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” but since that story also illustrates some of the more complex experimentation with temporal narrative structuring discussed later in the paper, it will be more effective to discuss this story further on. arrow

8. When Lieutenant Price pleaded with Ransome to stop firing on Union soldiers, he in turn was told “it is not permitted to you to know anything. It is sufficient that you obey my orders” (295). arrow

9. The word choice here is quite telling; she is characterized as “blighted,” which implies frustration, which invokes the idea of an obstruction or impediment, of something that prevents things from moving forward, which reinforces the idea that for her, time has become stuck. When one considers the intensity with which Bierce insisted, in both his personal correspondence and in his Write It Right: A Little Book of Literary Faults, that writers meticulously control word choice when writing, it is reasonable to assume that this word choice was not haphazard, arbitrary, or merely convenient. arrow

10. First published in Cosmopolitan in 1905. arrow

11. Bierce seems to evidence his well-established disregard for religious conviction, particularly the fundamentalism of his parents, by placing Duck’s re-emergence (resurrection?) on the morning of the third day. arrow

12. In The Complete Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce, compiler Ernest Jerome Hopkins lists “A Man With Two Lives” under “The World of War” rather than “The World of Horror,” where it would seem to fit if this in fact was a ghost story. arrow

13. Making time issues even more murky, one should note that Duck’s death occurs in the subjective time of William Briscoe. arrow

14. First published in Cosmopolitan in 1908. arrow

15. This was Bierce’s own rank and position, and he saw action at this battle. Ray Morris (Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company) and others have convincingly argued for a heavily autobiographical reading of this story. The autobiographical element becomes even more compelling in light of David M. Owens’s noting in The Devil’s Topographer: Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story that Bierce himself revisited the battlefield at Stone’s River a few months before “A Resumed Identity” was first published. arrow

16. The story is also included under “The World of War” in Hopkins’s anthology. arrow

17. The following line, “It is so, perhaps, that we shall act when, risen from the dead, we await the call of judgment” further situates this as chronological confusion: Judgment Day is not a place (389). arrow

18. Critics such as Robert A. Wiggins have labeled Bierce as a “misanthrope pessimistically at odds with all mankind” (3). Yet, I think this over-simplifies the issue. The entry for “Man” in The Devil’s Dictionary is quite telling: “an animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be” (161). The problem Bierce continuously explores and mocks in his fiction, personal letters, and journalism is the overweening pride of man both as a species and in individuals. In A Cynic Looks at Life, he writes “persons who are horrified by what they believe to be Darwin’s theory of the descent of Man from the Ape may find hope in his return” (63). Reading past the sarcasm, one sees that the Ape, by avoiding the dangerous combination of naiveté and arrogance, is in many respects the more noble creature. arrow

19. First published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1893. arrow

20. In a similar reversal of traditional chronology, Mrs. Creede offers a prophecy that “lagged a bit, awaiting the event” after the event she prophecies takes place (148). arrow

21. A further challenge to the notion that Deemer is a ghost is presented by the fact that the jug of syrup which Alvan Creede brings home three weeks after Deemer has been buried is very real. As Creede’s wife suggests, the idea of a ghost jug is rather difficult to believe.arrow

22. Creede’s explanation of how he came by the jug is also paused: “‘I bought that sirup [sic] at Deemer’s as I was passing. Deemer himself drew it and lent me the jug, and I’—The sentence remains to this day unfinished” (148). The wording here is quite interesting. Rather than “He didn’t finish” (for example) which would suggest incompletion, Bierce presents the statement as “unfinished,” which reinforces the idea of pausing time, as it suggests that the statement may be finished at some indeterminate time in the future. arrow

23. The insignificance of human subjective time is also indicated during Creede’s story of the jug of syrup. After recalling that Deemer is dead, “there were long moments of silence broken by nothing but the measured ticking of the clock, which seemed somewhat slower than usual, as if it were civilly granting them an extension of time in which to recover their wits” (148). The image constructed here is Time itself, represented by the clock, indulgently slowing subjective time to allow the Creedes to catch up to the temporal significance of his illusion.arrow

24. First published in Cosmopolitan in March, 1906. arrow

25. Jane claims they have no son, to which Isaac asks what is the point of being married then, and the vignette ends. arrow

26. First published in the San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser in 1886. arrow

27. The narrator is identified in the final sentence of the story as the spirit of Hoseib Alar Robardin. This is the only character development offered in the story. arrow

28. This frame, however, seems undercut by the fact that the medium, Bayrolles (also cited as a historical reference in Bierce’s “The Moonlit Road,”) is not a real historical figure. Bierce uses other seemingly “real” authorities to offer transparent verisimilitude to other works: see for example, his use of Denneker’s “Meditations” in “Staley Fleming’s Hallucinations” and “A Psychological Shipwreck” as well as the Persian historian Hali in “The Death of Halpin Frayser” and “An Inhabitant of Carcosa.” Such devices have led William Bysshe Stein to characterize Bierce as “a connoisseur of red herrings” (218). arrow

29. First published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1890. arrow

30. First published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1893. arrow

31. Musing on the overlap of the individual chronologies of John Bartine and his great grandfather, the narrator speculates whether “if, indeed, they are two souls” (206). The implication is that at least in this case time trumps identity. arrow

32. These are distinct from Bierce’s use of time hubs in “John Bartine’s Watch,” which, as stated above, offer a far more complex treatment of time. arrow

33. First published in Cosmopolitan in 1907. arrow

34. A name that suggests manipulation or leverage. arrow

35. As mentioned in footnote 18, this echoes the wound Bierce himself suffered during the war, the understated “altercation” Levering mentions. arrow

36. A similar compression occurs with the night clerk of the Breathitt House, who at various moments during the history of the building was the night-clerk in the hotel, was responsible for booking the dead patients into the room Levering stayed in, and is a ghost, since the night watchman tells Levering the clerk “has been dead for a few weeks” (397). In his one night stay in the building, Levering encounters all three manifestations, overlapped into the same moment. arrow

37. First published in Wave in 1891. arrow

38. Elderson’s surprise manifests itself in the spilling of his wine glass, by his distracted placing of his chicken bones into his finger bowl, and by the accidental peppering of his coffee during Morgan’s story. arrow

39. First published in Wave in 1891. arrow

40. Following the standard Bierce pattern of time dislocation, the main narrative thrust of sections 1 and 3 is interrupted by a second section offering background on the central character. There is a non-discussed interval between the third and the concluding sections as well. arrow

41. Other indications that non-linear time will be a key component to this story are offered by the role of prophecy, manifested in Katy Frayser’s dream that presages her son’s death by strangulation, and by the expansion of subjective time in a fashion akin to the discussion of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” and “John Bartine’s Watch” above. As Halpin confronts the reanimated corpse of his mother “time, which seemed so long that the world grew gray with age and sin . . . vanished out of his consciousness” (emphasis added, 65). Moreover, the struggle with his mother’s corpse is presented as a temporal möbius strip, as the “combat’s result is the combat’s cause”(65). arrow

42. The story opens with a scene strikingly similar to “The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch.” Halpin Frayser awakes from sleep and utters the name Catherine Larue, a “name, he knew not whose” (59). Since the content of the moment preceding this utterance occurs off-stage, so to speak, it is unclear if this represents a first overlapped moment of experiential time. arrow

43. In addition to a near identical physical resemblance to Bayne, Halpin, we are told, has inherited the “mental and moral character” of his great-grandfather. Thus, when Katy Frayser tracks down Halpin in his dream as a “body without a soul” and kills him, it is entirely possible, particularly in light of the blended temporal moment the dream represents, that it is a crime that Bayne has committed for which Halpin is punished. While there is no clear indication of what that crime may be, the heavily incestuous overtones in the relationship between Halpin and his mother, in both of whose “romantic natures was manifest in a signal way that neglected phenomenon, the dominance of the sexual element in all the relations of life, strengthening, softening, and beautifying even those of consanguinity,”(it is also important to note that they “were not infrequently mistaken for lovers”) together with Halpin’s striking resemblance to his great-grandfather and the narrative declaration that Catherine was “secretly . . . a devout disciple of the late and great Myron Bayne” strongly suggest Catherine’s incestuous relation with her grandfather (62). arrow

44. First published in the Argonaut in 1879. arrow

45. There are several indications that Harford may in fact be kin to Jarrett. Doyle reveals that she was adopted by her English parents after her parents, the father being the aforementioned William Jarrett, died while visiting them. Jarrett himself has vague recollections of a branch of the family that moved to South Carolina, and the recurring passage from Denneker’s Meditations focuses on the intersection of souls between kin. While Bierce tends to use pseudo-historical figures as red herrings in his work (see footnote 31), whether this suggested relationship is credible or not is not pertinent to this study. arrow

46.The entire passage reads:

To sundry it is given to be drawn away, and to be apart from the body for a season; for, as concerning rills which would flow across each other the weaker is borne along by the stronger, so there be certain kin whose paths intersecting, their souls do bear company, the while their bodies go fore-appointed ways, unknowing. (190, 191-2) arrow

47. First published in 1905. arrow

48. The narrator also refers to “the predestined telegram” at the end of the account, suggesting that from his point of view, the story is too neat, perhaps either staged or more likely retrospectively crafted. arrow

49. Bierce also makes use of a time hub to provide John May with an iron-clad alibi in “The Thing at Nolan”(first published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1891). At trial, much is made over the seeming contradiction of Charles May allegedly being killed by his son near the family home at the same time Charles May was witnessed by four individuals walking through a store in the town of Nolan, eight miles away. There is little doubt that John did in fact kill his father, but the co-incident experiences of May’s post-murder moments at two separate locales is far enough outside a typical understanding of time and place that the community concludes someone else must have committed the crime. While this story offers another example of the type of time manipulation I’ve styled a time hub, unlike “The Other Lodgers,” “The Secret of Macarger’s Gulch,” “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” “A Psychological Shipwreck,” and “A Wireless Message,” there is no specific discussion of the moment of temporal overlap. Therefore, I have decided to omit a detailed discussion of this story here. arrow

50. In other words, of being the “incorrigible peacock” described by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “To teach us the first lesson of humility, God set down man in these two vastitudes of Space and Time, yet is he such an incorrigible peacock that he thinks them only a perch to show his dirty feathers on.” arrow

51. Horology was an international concern during the latter decades of the nineteenth-century, culminating in the creation of World Standard Time in 1884. While World Standard Time certainly simplified many aspects of daily life, there was a significant negative response. The very institutions which benefited the most—the military and the railroads—made many dubious, if not gravely concerned. David Landes, in Revolutions in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World, chronicles the “considerable psychological and social resistance” (286) to the imposition of human-created controls and definitions of time, including charges of a “violation of identity and self-esteem” (287). Clark Blaise notes that World Standard Time legitimized a public association of time “with business and industry, with schedules, with commercial entombment, with depression and anxiety”(37).Various critics attacked the creation of time zones, seeing it either as Icarus-like hubris or as an attempt to sublimate individual identity within a mechanized technological environment. The Greenwich Observatory, popularly regarded as a symbol of World Standard Time, was even the target of a botched suicide-bombing in 1894 (an event Joseph Conrad would use in his novel The Secret Agent). Conrad scholar Mark Hana connects the attack on the observatory to the “oppressive effects resulting from the imposition of a monolithic World Standard Time” (124).Nor was the enterprise without its petty international intrigue. French delegations to the Prime Meridian Conference chafed at the selection of Greenwich, England as the site of zero meridian, championing Paris instead. It was not until 1911 that France, the lone holdout, relented, legally establishing World Standard Time, but petulantly defining it as “Paris Mean Time, retarded by 9 minutes, 21 seconds—a subtraction that results in Greenwich Mean Time” (Landes 286).

  It is not too hard to imagine Bierce would find all of this wonderfully amusing and rich material for his usual vicious satire. However, it is difficult to accurately gauge Bierce’s response to this debate; he does not broach temporal concerns in his Prattle columns. He does not comment on the Prime Meridian Conference held in Washington in 1884 in his capacity as editor-in-chief of The Wasp nor does he examine related issues as a journalist for William Randolph Heart’s The Examiner. However, we do have his fiction, and given the significant focus issues of subjective and objective time has received in his stories, it seems unlikely Bierce would not have been intrigued and amused by the world-wide debate over issues of time. There is one textual clue, however, that may link his work with these international concerns. The ending of “A Wireless Message” establishes the death of William Holt’s wife and son as “eleven o’clock and twenty-five minutes, standard time” (135). The specific inclusion of “standard time” is unique to this story; Bierce uses no such convention when establishing time in any other story. However, “A Wireless Message” was published in 1905, when much of the debate and social anxiety had seemingly resolved itself, so a direct claim of contemporary historical and social events influencing Bierce’s treatment of time—beyond merely noting that such things were in the air—cannot be asserted. arrow

52. First published in Overland Monthly in 1871. arrow

53. First published in the San Francisco Examiner in 1888. arrow

54. In a letter to George Sterling dated August 14, 1908, Bierce repeats this sense of time as a concept that far outpaces human perspective. He urges Sterling to study humanity “not from the viewpoint of time, but from the viewpoint of eternity” (Joshi, Schultz 188). arrow

55. In this context, it is important to note that Searing cannot use his hands to extricate himself from the ruins of the collapsed building. He quite literally is unable to manipulate anything. arrow

56. Lieutenant Searing glances at his watch “mechanically,” underscoring the routine nature of his assumption that the watch is an accurate gauge of time. arrow

57. First published in Cosmopolitan in 1905. arrow

58. This time corresponds to that of his lover’s fatal fall from a window. Hardshaw’s wanderings take him past the window from which she fell. arrow

59. The image invoked in the story is of a grotesque Swiss clock, with Hardshaw the cuckoo bird. arrow

60. First published in Fun in 1874. arrow

61. First published in Tom Hood’s Comic Annual in 1875. Captain Abersouth is identified in this story as “formerly of the Mudlark” establishing that these events occur after those of “A Shipwreckollection” (480). arrow

62. First published in Tom Hood’s Comic Annual in 1876. arrow

63. In what is either an intriguing bit of historical coincidence or a bold attempt at self-definition, Bierce left California in 1913 at the age of 71, to reputedly join Poncho Villa’s rebels in Mexico. No one ever heard from him again. Anthologies today list his dates as 1842-1914?; fitting for an author who used his fiction to challenge the notion that human life could be compartmentalized and confined in time. arrow

64. In her introduction to Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce, she makes the claim that Bierce is “certainly the most rediscovered writer in American literary history (1). Bierce himself seems to presage this, asking in a letter to George Sterling “How many times, and covering a period of how many years, must one’s unexplainable obscurity be pointed out to constitute fame? Not knowing, I am almost disposed to consider myself the most famous of authors. I have pretty nearly ceased to be ‘discovered’ but my notoriety as an obscurian may be said to be worldwide and apparently everlasting” (Joshi, Schultz 187). arrow

65. Davidson notes that Bierce “does not fit our contemporary retrospective categories” (2). Howard Bahr, in “Ambrose Bierce and Literary Realism” argues that the only way to place Bierce as a realist writer is to alter the definition of realism to include the psychological. arrow

66. Howells was almost without exception referred to as Nancy Howells by Bierce. arrow

67. Bierce also publicly expressed his disdain for the work of Stephen Crane, famously indicating to literary critic Percival Pollard that “there could be only two worse writers than Stephen Crane, namely two Stephen Cranes” (qtd in Morris, 224). arrow

next Works Cited

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.