The ABP Journal
Fall 2005, Vol. 1 No. 1

Scott D. Emmert teaches at the University of Wisconsin -- Fox Valley. His research interests include American literary realism and naturalism, the short story, and regionalist fiction. He is the co-editor of Upon Further Review: Sports in American Literature (2004) and the author of Loaded Fictions: Social Critique in the Twentieth-Century Western (1996).

[journal table of contents]

  Body of a soldier at Spotsylvania (VA), 1864    
Bierce's stories often present a naturalistic view of war, one in which individuality means little because personal control over events is nonexistent.
To emphasize the theme of determinism, Bierce’s stories often enact, in imagery, symbolism, and structure, the sense that individuals are circumscribed by both external conditions and the inner mechanisms of their minds.
As an individual, Jerome Searing has been erased; as was foretold in the first sentence, he has disappeared. His loss is predetermined and absolute.

Ambrose Bierce, Literary Naturalism, and "One of the Missing"

EASILY BRANDED IN HIS TIME (e.g., “Bitter Bierce,” “The Devil’s Lexicographer”), Ambrose Bierce today does not fit comfortably into any single literary category. Conceding this point while arguing that Bierce’s short stories are best explained as experimental and postmodern, Cathy N. Davidson nonetheless grants that Bierce may in part be seen as a literary naturalist in that he represents human beings at the mercy of forces beyond their control, namely their “nonrational impulses, fears, and superstition." [1] Along with an interest in determinism, Bierce shared with other naturalist writers (e.g., Stephen Crane, Jack London, and Frank Norris) a preference for the extraordinary as the dramatic basis for fiction. Scholars have linked naturalist fiction and its reliance on unusual events and experience to the romance tradition in American literature. [2] Helping to define this tradition were debates among authors in nineteenth-century America over the respective merits of literary romanticism (the “Romance”) and literary realism (the “Novel”). Prominent in this debate was Nathaniel Hawthorne, who defined the romance in “The Custom-House” sketch by staking his literary claim on “a neutral territory, somewhere between the real world and fairy-land, where the Actual and the Imaginary may meet, and each imbue itself with the nature of the other." More acerbically, Bierce also declared his preference for romance, denigrating “Realism” in The Devil’s Dictionary (1911) as “[t]he 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." In contrast, Bierce defined “Romance” as "[f]iction that owes no allegiance to the God of Things as They Are. In the novel the writer’s thought is tethered to probability, as a domestic horse to the hitching-post, but in romance it ranges at will over the entire region of the imagination – free, lawless, immune to bit and rein." [3]

At least one critic has found similarities between Bierce’s claims for the superiority of romance and those advanced by Frank Norris, an avowed practitioner and avid theorist of literary naturalism. Both writers privileged the romance as literature capable of expressing universal, as opposed to socially limited, truths; and both valued the exceptional in fiction. Norris often stresses that latter value in his essays devoted to defining naturalism. Most famously, in “Zola as a Romantic Writer” he argues that "the characters of a naturalist tale . . . must be twisted from the ordinary." For writers like Hawthorne, however, the extraordinary was often located in a neutral territory distant in time or place. Naturalists, in contrast, created fiction out of extraordinary experience found in recent memory or contemporary American life. They chose to write about what may be called familiar uncommon events, the stuff of sensational headlines: shipwrecks, gold field adventures, murders, war. War is, of course, an abiding subject for literature, and treatment of it may transcend specific social conditions. It is also one of the most extraordinary lived experiences. In his Civil War stories, furthermore, Bierce consistently depicts the most unusual experiences. He is not interested, as a realistic writer might be, in the mundane details of camp life or military training. Instead, his stories dramatize incredible events that nonetheless seem plausible within the gruesome vicissitudes of warfare. [4]

Although often extraordinary in subject matter and plot, Bierce’s war stories bear much firsthand authority and grimly realistic detail. [5] In theme, however, these stories often present a naturalistic view of war, one in which individuality means little because personal control over events is nonexistent. His war stories insist that we are fools to think of ourselves as free agents in a world in which death is the ultimate aim of life. Indeed, to address the elemental and universal in human existence, Bierce chooses to make death an abiding subject, for death belies aspiration and agency. Often, naturalist stories portray a stripping away of a character’s sense of control. One thinks of the protagonist in Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” (1908) who has brazened forth upon an arctic environment only to become the victim of his own inexperience and hubris. Or of the Swede in Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” (1898) whose unfounded self-confidence gets him knifed in a saloon. Like these and other naturalist tales, Bierce’s stories frequently offer sudden reversals that create compressed plots of decline, plots that typically structure naturalist novels. In many of his stories, characters begin with the illusion of self-control and intellectual poise, only to have events deprive them of that illusion, leaving them quivering in abject fear before the prospect of death. The story “One of the Missing” (1888), for example, presents the psychological decline of an ordinarily brave soldier suddenly confronted by a fear he cannot physically avoid. [6]

The protagonist of “One of the Missing” vanishes briefly in the story’s first sentence: "Jerome Searing, a private soldier of General Sherman’s army, then confronting the enemy at and about Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia, turned his back upon a small group of officers with whom he had been talking in low tones, stepped across a light line of earthworks, and disappeared in a forest." [7] To Davidson, this opening sentence is typical of Bierce’s “symbolic” setting of scene, one that “foreshadow[s] the theme." [8] In part to achieve unity but also to emphasize the theme of determinism, Bierce’s stories often enact, in imagery, symbolism, and structure, the sense that individuals are circumscribed by both external conditions and the inner mechanisms of their minds. As the title suggests, Jerome Searing will disappear from “One of the Missing” and by the end will lose his very identity.

A scout in the Union Army charged with reconnoitering the enemy’s positions, Searing is distinguished early in the story by his courage. He is described in the first paragraph as a "brave man,” one who is “insensible to fear” and possesses "extraordinary daring" (264). His bravery and skill as a soldier allow him to discern the Confederates’ empty trenches, signaling their withdrawal. Yet Searing continues his scouting expedition, going beyond his duty. Coming upon a farm’s outbuilding, he enters in order to conceal himself while surveying the countryside.

Searing’s lack of perception, his “habit” as a soldier, and fate now conspire against him. He does not consider the ramifications of the dilapidated condition of the building he enters. Furthermore, being a good soldier and perhaps a bit proud of his shooting skill, he chooses not “to return to his command with all possible speed and report his discovery.” Instead, finding the retreating Confederates to be a “tempting” target, he decides to use his sniper’s rifle – because “it is the business of a soldier to kill [and] . . . his habit if he is a good soldier" (266). “But,” the narrative continues, “it was decreed from the beginning of time that Private Searing was not to murder anybody that bright summer morning, nor was the Confederate retreat to be announced by him. For countless ages events had been so matching themselves together in that wondrous mosaic to some parts of which, dimly discernible, we give the name history, that the acts which he had in will would have marred the harmony of the pattern" (266). One of the clearest statements of Bierce’s determinism, this passage posits the primary cause of Searing’s death: Fate has willed it.

Like most naturalists, however, Bierce concerns himself more with effects in his fiction than with causes. Causes are often givens in naturalist stories, and in Bierce’s war stories, along with accident and sheer fate, the characters are governed by a small number of factors – basic emotions like fear or hatred, ineradicable flaws like pride or greed, excessive trust in one’s ability to reason, an overconfident dependence on one’s limited senses and power to foresee the future. Jerome Searing becomes interesting for Bierce not because he is fated to be killed, but because of the effect his impending death has on him.

After a sudden cannon shot brings the outbuilding down upon Searing, he finds himself pinned by fallen timbers. The story becomes, at this point, a study of the psychological reactions of a man facing his death. In a number of his stories, Bierce describes claustrophobic scenes to serve dramatic and thematic purposes; here Searing suffers a confinement that challenges his self-control. [9] When Bierce writes of Searing’s “recovered consciousness” after the building’s collapse, the story begins to focus on its protagonist’s subjective state of mind. Among his first thoughts are “the articulate words: ‘Jerome Searing, you are caught like a rat in a trap – in a trap, trap, trap’” (268). Searing’s claustrophobic predicament functions as a source of terror while metaphorically suggesting the inescapable trap of human existence.

In a terrific irony, Searing is trapped like a rat while real rats come out to roam free. Searing hopes they will at least wait until he is dead before they eat his face (271). That grisly prospect forms only part of Searing’s situation, for his rifle has also been jarred from his hands and is wedged among the debris, pointing right at him and presumably ready to fire. Although Searing has been a brave soldier in the past, his bravery manifested itself in physical activity. He had once charged a cannon, only to step aside before a fatal blast. His present circumstances, however, allow severely limited movement. Because his eyes are still free to move, he tries to look away from the bore of his rifle, but he cannot completely ignore it. It seems to move nearer while a pain in his forehead at the spot where the rifle is pointed rivets his attention on the muzzle. Eventually, this brave soldier, who had previously vowed to “die ‘game’” (271), begins to “scream . . . in fear. He was not insane – he was terrified” (272). Regaining his calm, Searing deliberately seeks to discharge the rifle and end his life. The reader is matter-of-factly informed that the rifle was no longer loaded, that it had been fired in the explosion. Still, “it did its work” (273) – Searing becomes the victim of his own unbearable fear.

The story concludes with Lieutenant Adrian Searing coming upon his brother’s body, and we learn that only twenty-two minutes have elapsed between the time of the cannon shot and the discovery of Jerome Searing’s corpse. Bierce has slowed the narrative to give the impression of subjective time, making the reader feel as if Jerome has spent hours pinned beneath his own rifle, grappling with terror. If time is a trap, subjectively it is an elastic one. Jerome’s body, furthermore, cannot be identified. Gray dust makes the uniform appear Confederate and the body looks to have been, as one soldier says, “‘[d]ead a week’” (274). As an individual, Jerome Searing has been erased; as was foretold in the first sentence, he has disappeared. His loss is predetermined and absolute. A carefully constructed story, “One of the Missing” resonates like nails driven in a coffin lid, insisting on the ultimate limit of individual existence.

Determinism pervades Bierce’s Civil War stories, for they consistently depict characters at the mercy of forces beyond their control. [10] The strongest of these forces, of course, is death. This unrelenting focus on death led Edmund Wilson to dismiss Bierce’s characters as “trapped animals." [11] Yet, when read as a naturalist writer, Bierce can be seen to dramatize traps not to diminish his characters but to expose elemental emotions. Like other naturalists, Bierce writes stories about hopeless struggle to reveal what for him is most compelling and truthful about human life.


1. Cathy N.Davidson, The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 14. Philosophically, Bierce was also a naturalist. In the essay “Natura Benigna,” for example, he writes: “In all the world there is no city of refuge – no temple in which to take sanctuary, clinging to the horns of the altar – no ‘place apart’ where, like hunted deer, we can hope to elude the baying pack of Nature’s malevolences. The dead-line is drawn at the gate of life; Man crosses it at birth. His advent is a challenge to the entire pack – earthquake, storm, fire, flood, drought, heat, cold, wild beasts, venomous reptiles, noxious insects, bacilli, spectacular plague and velvet-footed household disease – all are fierce and tireless in pursuit. Dodge, turn and double how he can, there’s no eluding them.” See “Natura Benigna,” The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, 12 vols. (New York: Neale Publishing Company, 1912), Vol. XI, Antepenultimata, 147.

2. Richard Chase, for instance, considered American naturalism, particularly in the work of Frank Norris, to be “a new form of romance.” See Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), 187. More recent critics have elaborated on naturalism’s debt to the Romance. See Eric Carl Link, The Vast and Terrible Drama: American Literary Naturalism in the Late Nineteenth Century (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004), particularly chapter two on “The Naturalist Aesthetic.”

3. Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Custom-House," The Scarlet Letter, ed. Ross C. Murfin (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1991), 46; Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (New York: Dover, 1993), 101, 109. Hawthorne's
distinction between realism and romance is similar to the one advanced in the preface to The House of the Seven Gables; there Hawthorne also defines the “Novel” or realism as beholden to “a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience.” See Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables, ed. Seymour L. Gross (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1967), 1.

4. Stuart C. Woodruff, The Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce: A Study in Polarity (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964), 97; Frank Norris, “Zola as a Romantic Writer,” The Literary Criticism of Frank Norris, ed. Donald Pizer (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1964), 72. Bierce insisted that the novelist or realist “writes in the shifting sand; the only age that understands his work is that which has not forgotten the social conditions environing his characters – namely, their own period.” By contrast, the “roman[ti]cist has cut his work into the living rock” because “[t]he vitality of his art is eternal; it is perpetually young. He taps the great permanent mother-lode of human interest.” See Bierce, "The Novel," The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Vol. X, 22, 23.

5. Bierce was a veteran of the Civil War, serving bravely and rising through the ranks. For an example of realistic description, see Bierce’s depiction of the aftermath of battle in the story “One Kind of Officer,” The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, ed. Ernest J. Hopkins (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 290.

6. Jack London, "To Build a Fire," The Century Magazine 76 (August 1908); Stephen Crane, "The Blue Hotel," The Monster and Other Stories (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1899).

7. Ambrose Bierce, “One of the Missing,” The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, 264. All citations hereafter cited parenthetically within the text.

8. Davidson, The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce, 27. Like Edgar Allan Poe, a writer of romances with whom he is often compared, Bierce insisted upon unity of effect in fiction. Bierce’s main objection to the novel, for instance, resulted from his belief that it could never achieve “[u]nity, totality of effect." See Bierce, "The Novel," 19.

9. For example, Ransome near the end of “One Kind of Officer” is enclosed by the fog and the men who will judge him; Brayton in “The Man and the Snake” meets his death in a “chamber” and while partly wedged under his own bed; and Adderson in “Parker Adderson, Philosopher” pulls a tent down upon himself in terror. See The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce.

10. This statement certainly applies to probably the best known of Bierce’s war stories, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” as well as to lesser-known ones, such as “A Tough Tussle” and “Killed at Resaca.” See The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce.

11. Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 623.

Copyright © 2005 The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights reserved.