The ABP Journal
Fall 2006, Vol. 2 No. 1

Steven K. Johnson holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Washington and has taught as an Assistant Professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy. His research interests include post-Civil War literature and culture, theories of genre, and theories of cultural memory. He is currently preparing a book-length manuscript entitled Re-enacting the Civil War: Genre and American Memory.

[journal table of contents]

Ruined arsenal in Richmond, VA (1865
). The postwar Southern landscape reflected the cultural and psychic devastation wrought upon the nation
by the Civil War.


African-American laborers on the James River (VA) during the Civil War. By the 1890s, most white Americans were content to forget the role that emancipation played in the conflict.

Memories of the war and its traumatized and destroyed objects—its detritus—became the resources for popular literary imaginings of America as a modern nation.
In Chopin's “A Wizard From Gettysburg,” uncanny details unearth disavowed memories long ago buried alive, never meant to surface again.

Sigmund Freud argued that the
unheimlich, or the "uncanny," did not
stand entirely apart from the rational
world.  The unheimlich and the heimlich
could share common ground.


Image of the Slaughter Pen,
Stones River National Battlefield
(Tennessee). The battlefield, where
Bierce had fought during the winter of 1862-1863, serves as the setting of
"A Resumed Identity."
Is it possible that the war
might not have been worth
fighting?  That it had not
reconstructed a better
nation?  While there are no
absolute answers, the
uncanny occurrences in
these stories reflect anxieties
that most white Americans
had suppressed by the turn
of the century.


THE WAKE OF THE CIVIL WAR found a nation in ruins, both materially and ideationally.  It is no surprise that just as the passing of time altered the physical landscape on which the Civil War had been fought, so too did it affect what Lauren Berlant has called “the National Symbolic,” that culturescape made up of a vast accumulation of cultural practices as representative of national identity. [1]  But how does a nation recover from an internal trauma that shakes the foundations of its governing body of beliefs and practices, and what is the role of remembering (and forgetting) in such a reconstruction of national identity?  While much has been made of what Americans have remembered/forgotten about the Civil War in their literary and cultural texts, there is still much work to do in understanding how post-Civil War cultural memory is functionally reconstructed.  This article maintains that short fictions published in the fifty years following the war are precisely the sources to help us initially understand some of the processes of remembering and forgetting in post-Civil War America. [2]  In Benjaminian fashion, memories of the war and its traumatized and destroyed objects—its detritus—become the resources for popular literary imaginings of America as a modern nation.

To be sure, the sectional reconciliation of post-Civil War America asked North and South to “bury the hatchet,” to intentionally forget aspects of past division in order to proceed amicably into a unified and prosperous national future.  Such intentional repression endeavored to put particular aspects of the past war away for good—arguably the history of slavery in America, and the emancipated slave among them—as buried objects, often unmarked and unmourned; indeed, disavowed.  In the years following the war, markers of these shallow burials nonetheless found their way into American cultural memory.  In particular, popular short fiction contained traces of those memories that most Americans wished to forget: particularly those stories published 30-40 years after the war, at a time when national post-war reconciliation weighed heavy in the politics of the prospering white America of the Gilded Age.  This article will thus consider two representative short stories of the period that exhibit such buried memories: Kate Chopin’s “A Wizard from Gettysburg” (1892) and Ambrose Bierce’s “A Resumed Identity” (1908). [3]  Bearing Freud’s essay on the uncanny and Michel de Certeau’s work with metis on these stories will help to reveal a discursive ideological seam existing within collective memories of the Civil War.

Other scholars have already considered the 1890s as a decade notable for reconsolidating post-war American white male power under a national rhetoric of sectional reconciliation.  For instance, David Blight has argued that during the decades following the Civil War, national cultural memory of the war shifted more and more away from its causes and almost entirely focused on the concern of unifying past sectional differences between Northern and Southern whites as “the dominant mode of Civil War memory.”  This desire for reunification grew to a national level of discourse during the 1890s and the decades following, best exemplified through the reconciliation of Northern and Southern veterans at commemorative reunions: “That the emancipationist legacy of the Civil War was lost amidst the celebration of a soldiers’ faith and that racism never emerged as an enemy of society...tell us much about that epoch’s memory.”
[4]  Northern and Southern veterans felt that their shared battlefield sacrifices and devotion to duty overshadowed the causes of the past war, and allowed male subjects to reconstruct their past disagreements as negligible, succumbing to the fraternal bonds constructed by the rites of battle. [5]

The discursive practice of the short story during these times, however, was just as important in inscribing cultural memory of the past conflict as were veteran’s reunions.  Whether published first in popular literary journals or bound collections, short fiction remained an influential venue of Civil War memory among white, literate classes.  Alice Fahs notes that in the 1880s and 1890s, Civil War publications “not only responded to revived interest in the war but helped to increase that interest,” as evidenced in the proliferation of articles published by veterans, along with “a new veteran-oriented war literature [that] asserted that the central meaning of the war was the shared bravery of white Union and Confederate veterans.” [6]
 But what facets of the emancipationist ideology is the short story particularly good at burying when crafting a white male memory of the war?  Certainly concerns about the role of freed slaves in post-war America are repressed, held subject to the symbolic mastery of the historical trauma—a mastery that advocates an aggressive white male as the ideal subject of power.  More interesting might be to consider how post-Civil War short stories are optimal for such burials, and how such repressed memories uncannily haunt the narratives in spite of their intentioned forgetting.


Before carefully reading Chopin’s and Bierce’s short stories, then, we must more closely consider the theoretical problems and functions of narrated cultural memory.  One way to approach cultural memory is as a kind of practiced knowledge; the short story is one of many such memorial practices.  And Michel de Certeau offers metis as a means to conceive of such a practiced knowledge in stories, for metis is a tacit know-how, literally a cunning intelligence buried within discourse.  Metis is “characterized more by a way of exercising itself than by the thing it indicates," producing "effects, not objects.” [7]  It is a knowledge that can be comprehended only in its action:

It is a memory, whose attainments are indissociable from the time of their acquisition and bear the marks of its particularities […] But its memory remains hidden (it has no determinable place) up to the instant in which it reveals itself, at the “right point in time” in a way that is still connected with time even though it contradicts its usual concealment in a temporal duration.  The flashes of this memory illuminate the occasion. [8]  

Metis is practiced memory, burying itself even as it surfaces, and thus eluding definitive discourse.  At exactly the right time, in the kairos of recognition, the minimum force of a memory exhumed in practice renders maximum effects: all is upended and reconstructed in a moment too quick to measure; the cunning of the mind defeats the strength of brute force.  For de Certeau, it is in the practice of telling stories that metis most acts on and with memory, not just in the acts of trickery committed by the practices of characters within a story.  As a subversive knowledge, the metis of the other continually haunts the practices of dominant discourse, quietly and weakly remembering what was intended to be forgotten.

Freud’s explication of the uncanny, the unheimlich, intersects with this aspect of metis, for as a tactic buried in a dominant narrative, the uncanny can exhume old or repressed knowledge within a narrative.  It is the uncanny moment in a narrative that seeks to subvert its own intentional forgetting, while simultaneously serving as the haunting voice of the other, resurrecting the memory of what has been repressed as emotional anxiety. [9] Theoretically, the source of the uncanny “is in reality nothing new or alien, but something which is familiar...which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression.” [10]  Thus, a sort of metic memory generates anxiety and fear because, as Kathy Justice Gentile explains it, “The uncanny recalls repressed fear and anxiety associated with an event or perception that was never resolved or assimilated into an ideological or philosophical understanding of the universe.” [11]  The uncanny moment—whether as a frightening revelation of the supernatural or as an impossible coincidence—thus functions in varied practices as an often inexplicable and fragmented memory of the past. 

In post-Civil War America, the discursive reconstruction of white dominance required a disavowal of emancipation, or at least of the ideal of racial equality that emancipation meant to enact.  Uncanny moments thus could often reconstruct and elicit the anxieties about race.  As metis then, the uncanny moment in literary discourse simultaneously speaks for the other even as it tries to forget the other, a minimum force that nonetheless can stir great discursive effects. [12]

As metis, the fleeting memory of the unheimlich reveals itself in the heimlich: the forgotten in the remembered, the repressed in the conscious. [13]  Both stories by Chopin and Bierce remember from the place of the other in their uncanny moments. Specifically, in these two post-Civil War short stories, the metic uncanny deploys a fragmented and buried racist discourse that both responds to and constructs the rhetoric of reconciliation, along with the memory of a rhetoric it seeks to buryWhile it is certainly no surprise to find such discursive racism in the dominant discourses of late-nineteenth century America, the metic uncanny assists in understanding the complexity of cultural memory.  Memories intended to be forgotten can and do return, especially in stories.


The white, middle-class authors of the two short stories examined here share little in common in terms of region, gender, politics, and even literary style.  As a result, an examination of uncanny occurrences in their writing can assist in making a broader argument about the dominant racist discourse each narrative exhibits.  The metic uncanny offers an interesting reading of each story, but more importantly, a better sense of how these stories relate to each other as practiced cultural memories of turn-of-the-century America.

Kate Chopin’s “A Wizard From Gettysburg” was published in an 1892 issue of the Youth’s Companion, and set “not long ago” on the Louisiana plantation Bon-Accueil, where the teen-aged Bertrand Delmande brings home a tramp with an injured foot that he meets on the road. [14]  Chopin foregrounds issues of memory early in the story as the “old and feeble” tramp—an amnesiac whose beard is “long, and white as new-ginned cotton”—reveals in conversation that he sustained a head wound at Gettysburg: “with that bullet in my head—you don’t remember?  No, you don’t remember Gettysburg.”  While the Bertrand is certainly too young to have participated in the battle and directly remember it, we can be sure by his familiarity with the battle’s name that he nonetheless shares in the dominant cultural memory of its meaning.  Trying to sleep that night, the young Bertrand contemplates the tramp’s plight of constant amnesia: on the battlefield at Gettysburg “this man had received a new and tragic birth.  For all his existence that went before was a blank to him.” [15]  And yet, he soon finds that the tramp has some amount of memory left, for the following morning, after overhearing Bertrand Delmande’s father, St. Ange, discuss the family’s dire financial woes with Bertrand’s grandmother, Madame Delmande, the tramp leads the boy to the Bon-Accueil’s peach orchard where together they dig up the lost and forgotten family fortune, buried at the beginning of the war.  Upon their return to the plantation house with the chest of treasure, Madame Delmande recognizes that the tramp is her lost husband, who was thought to have been killed at the battle of Gettysburg, and whose name is also Bertrand.  While at story’s end it does not appear that the returned and restored patriarch will entirely overcome his amnesia, his arrival unleashes countless memories in the other characters, serving a traditional metic role that triggers maximum effects with minimum force, reversing the narrative’s situation entirely. 

The elder Bertrand Delmande’s homecoming heavily parallels one of the classic scenes of character metis in Western literature: Odysseus’s disguised return to Ithaca, his destruction of the large group of suitors who have contemptuously occupied his house in his absence, and his subsequent recognition and acceptance by Penelope upon removing his disguise. [16]  The metis practiced by the returning veteran in Chopin’s story mimics that of the returning veteran in Homer’s epic, but in its own disguise.  Just as Odysseus slips into his home unnoticed, mocked by the residents and servants, cloaked in the dirty rags of a beggar, so too the young Bertrand Delmande cannot help but wonder about his elder namesake: “Who could this wizard be that had come to him in the guise of a tramp?” [17]

Metis functions differently for the two heroes, though.  Odysseus uses his disguise and cunning intelligence, “seeing without being seen,” to plot the right time in which to destroy the suitors who have been plaguing his house and squandering his wealth during his absence.  However, Bertrand’s disguise and return have little to do with his metic actions, for his metis acted before the war, foreseeing the potential to lose his fortune during the conflict.   After years of delay in returning home, metis allows him to destroy the apparently insurmountable financial obstacles (presumably caused by the Federal Government’s policies of reconstruction) that keep his own home from being fully restored and hospitable.  Both heroes bring metis to bear through a trick, a knowledge that when unleashed at the right time (kairos) reverses the entire situation of the narrative and then disappears into itself.  The metis of Odysseus’s character lies in his efficient destruction of the suitors, first assessing his enemy through his own disguise, then locking up their armor and deceiving them into allowing him his own bow.  By contrast, the trick of the senior Delmande is enacted by his sudden recollection of the buried treasure’s location, and by his heroically overcoming his amnesia and upending the story’s situation. [18]  At the end of Chopin’s tale, presumably the plantation will recover its antebellum glory as a hospitable residence, and Bertrand Delmande will resume his patriarchal seat of authority, just as Odysseus did in Ithaca.  While the intensity of the reversal is certainly greater in the epic than in the derivative short story, in each the trick of metis has ordered and reconstructed the returning veteran’s disrupted home into an ordered and hospitable one (from unheimlich to heimlich).  Indeed, the resolution of "A Wizard From Gettysburg" is tantamount to a reconstruction of southern antebellum dominance in the post-war nation.
The resemblance between the two tales can be difficult to see, though, for Bertrand’s amnesia throws us off the scent.  In other words, Bertrand’s amnesia has buried his resemblance to heroic Odysseus, disguising the relationship to readers, rendering it more difficult to anticipate what is to come.  As an elderly amnesiac, he bears no physical relation to the Greek hero, and the heroic strength of his mind is hard to recognize beneath the ragged state of his mental condition.  However, it is the shared trick of disguise that most solidly connects the two characters.  Where Odysseus’s cunning enables him to destroy the group of suitors abusing the hospitality of his house, Bertrand’s memory overcomes his war-inflicted amnesia—no small feat.  Indeed, the wizard’s amnesia serves as a coat of rags that cloaks his heroic status.

While the metis practiced by characters in the narrative is of a classical sort, observing metis in characters is not the same as understanding the discursive practice of the metic uncanny.  The cunning of this metis is less an intentioned trick and more of a memory that “comes from somewhere else [and] is outside of itself.” [19]  I warrant that the metic uncanny is one practice that can activate this fluid sort of memory, where the forgotten resonates through the details of what is remembered.  Foremost in the story, the elder Bertrand, “The Wizard from Gettysburg,” is figuratively a ghost from the past, a haunting memory long thought to be dead.  On recognizing his identity near the end of the story, Madame Delmande’s response displays horror appropriate to the presence of the uncanny.  She gives “a sharp cry, such as might follow the plunge of a knife,” then exclaims, “Your father, St. Ange,—come back from the dead—your father!” [20]  Young Bertrand also characterizes the uncanniness of his elder namesake, the wizard, “a white-haired old man” who causes “something of childish superstition [to creep] back into Bertrand’s heart.  It was the same feeling with which he had often sat, long ago, in the weird firelight of some negro’s cabin, listening to tales of witches who came in the night to work uncanny spells at their will.”  To the younger Bertrand, exhuming the buried treasure is likewise nothing short of magical: a mysterious wizard arrives by chance and strangely resurrects the family fortune, walking “in cabalistic paces upon his [the boy’s] own father’s ground, and point[ing] his finger like a divining-rod to the spot where boxes—maybe treasures—lay.” [21]  

Beyond serving the atmosphere of the story, these uncanny details unearth the disavowed memories long ago buried alive, never meant to surface again.  Most notably, in exhuming the family fortune, producing it almost magically as if from thin air, the "wizard"—in a clever double move of illusion—simultaneously buries memories of the slave labor that produced the fortune before the war even as he exhumes the treasure to overcome his family’s postbellum financial troubles and thereby reestablish its social dominance.  The money that the elder Bertrand recovers has no named origin in the story outside of the Delmande’s possession of it prior to the war.  However, it certainly was not magic at Bon-Accueil plantation that first placed the gold in the box, but rather hoarded surplus value earned through the plantation’s system of slave labor.  Indeed, the servant characters in this story—set long after the war’s end and emancipation—are complicit in such amnesia, appearing to function yet as slaves and still living in a cabin in close proximity to the plantation house.  Presumably these are the old slave quarters, indicating that the former slaves were not seriously interested in capitalizing on their freedom by leaving plantation life in order to exercise their autonomy. [22]  Likewise, the young Bertrand still treats the servants as inferior, notably ignoring the woman who directly and earnestly addresses him as he and the tramp pass by early in the story.  And even the servant ‘Cindy still refers to “Ma’ame Bertrand” and “Marse St. Ange” as if they still own her.  While still a vernacular practice in the Louisiana of the 1890s held over from slavery—I do not mean to dispute that—the use of the titles, whether by story characters or actual persons, is nonetheless complicit in rhetorically reconstructing and re-enacting the antebellum social hierarchy.  Indeed, that the locale is still even called “a plantation” similarly indicates a symbolic place where the emancipatory effects of the war have been stifled as much as possible, even disavowed; the term strongly recalls the topography at the heart of the institution of slavery.  Aside from the home’s grave financial situation, the voice of the other remembers that very little has changed in the social structures from which the elder Bertrand departed at the beginning of the war.

These instances certainly might appear coincidental through my own filtering of the story.  However, the uncanny exhumation of the Delmande’s buried treasure remembers this repressed discourse, one that threatens at every turn the 1890s mainstream fiction of reconciled white dominance.   As a final consideration of my point, when young Bertrand arrives at Bon-Accueil with the tramp, the servant ‘Cindy greatly questions the wisdom of this knowledgeable and educated young man in bringing a vagrant onto the plantation premises, “a boy w’at goes to school like you does.”
[23]  Moreover, she expresses her fear of practiced racial injustice due to the tramp’s presence: “You want to listen to me; you gwine git shed o’ dat tramp settin’ dah naxt to de dinin’ –room!  W’en de silva be missin’, ‘tain’ you w’at gwine git blame, it’s me.” [24]  In this expression, the haunting cultural memory again makes itself apparent in the uncanny unearthing of the family fortune, for the tramp exists as an inversion of ‘Cindy’s fear: he does not steal silver as ‘Cindy charges he will; instead he finds gold.  Moreover, instead of receiving false and unjust blame for any theft of the home’s silver, the servants are absented from credit in their role in earning the gold.  This inversion between the former master and the former slaves (or their descendants) in relation to stealing and producing has its own air of an uncanny presence, akin to the involuntary repetition of the number “62” in Freud’s essay on the topic. [25]  The repeated details, when understood as the turnabout of the metic uncanny, draw out memories of a past intentionally forgotten. Moreover, these details question the adequacy of the dominant fictions.

First published in 1908, Ambrose Bierce’s short story “A Resumed Identity” reveals its own buried memories through a similar process conjoining metis and the uncanny.  The tale features another amnesiac veteran, lost and disoriented on a battlefield, trying to understand the situation that he sees but cannot rationalize.  As with “A Wizard,” the uncanny point of reversal—a narrative metis—that upends the main character’s situation also provides access to repressed cultural memories.  To begin with, the narrative is intentionally chronotopically disorienting; as the perceptions of the main character are confused in time/space relations, so are those of first-time readers.  From the story’s second paragraph, both the main character, an unnamed veteran, and reader search alike “as one who among familiar surroundings is unable to determine his exact place and part in the scheme of things.” [26]  The veteran grapples with this disorientation as he witnesses an uncannily silent army, one he soon identifies as the enemy, marching toward Nashville on a nearby road, coming “out of obscurity to south and [passing] into the obscurity to north, with never a sound of voice, nor hoof, nor wheel.” [27]  Indeed, the described topography is unheimlich and unfamiliar, at odds with the man’s heimlich feeling that he also knows where he is and where the phantom army is going.   As the narrative proceeds, the man begins to recall his own wartime history and realizes he is on the Stones River battlefield in Tennessee.  However, he remains perplexed by the hush over the land in spite of “the uncanny silence of that moonlight march” by an army that strangely disappears as soon as the man turns his back on it, though it should still be visible. [28]
The next section of the story begins to better situate readers as the veteran converses with a doctor he meets on the road.  He tells the doctor that he is a lieutenant who has suffered from a head wound and is seeking to rejoin his unit in the Federal Army.  The doctor, however, responds that he has seen no army in the vicinity.   During their conversation, the doctor’s own thoughts begin to indicate that the veteran is an amnesiac who is in the right place but the wrong time, “recalling much in the books of his profession—something about lost identity and the effect of familiar scenes in restoring it.” [29]  The doctor attempts to draw out the veteran’s memory and situational recognition, calling attention to his “unmilitary hat,” his lack of a uniform, and his aged appearance.  However, the veteran does not or cannot follow the doctor’s leading questions, and storms away confused and frustrated only to stumble inadvertently on a cemetery and war monument “brown with age, weather-worn at the angles.” The monument commemorates his unit, Hazen’s Brigade, and its soldiers who died during the battle of Stones River.  Reeling away from the monument in fear, “faint and sick,” the man seeks a drink from a nearby pool of rainwater. [30]  On seeing an aged and decrepit face reflected back at him, “as in a mirror,” he finally understands that his situation is fantastically different than he has imagined—he is on a battlefield, but not in the immediate aftermath of the battle.  Realizing the unaccounted passing of time, he “utter[s] a terrible cry,” and dies with his face in the pool, “yield[ing] up the life that had spanned another life.” [31]  The man has resumed the identity of his aged body and, in shock and horror, left the identity constructed from a faulty perception of time.

A classic use of metis functions just as strongly in this story as in Chopin’s, as the uncanny and fragmented memories that Bierce leaves littered about his narrative suddenly come to bear on the veteran’s situation, resulting in a pirouette of meaning due to an instantaneous and tremendous shift across time—a sudden memory of time lost and unaccounted for.  It is the metic uncanny of this moment that again provides access to buried memories, as they turn about the dominant discourse in which Bierce writes.  There are complications of memory here, however, and understanding cultural memory is no simple matter.  For instance, many of the veteran’s memories, it would appear, have strong ties to Bierce’s own life.  During his own Civil War history, Bierce served in Hazen’s brigade at Stones River, and like the character suffered from a head wound (though it was inflicted at Kennesaw Mountain, Georgia).  However, there is no indication that Bierce suffered from any amnesia of his own. [32]  Indeed, this overlap of biography and fiction leads to many questions about memory, and especially the relationship between individual memory and cultural memory in the story.  Which repressed memories in the story are those of Bierce alone, and which are those discursively constructed by a national cultural memory?  It would be near impossible to distinguish between the two.  And while the uncanny can provide access to repressed cultural memories, certainly those memories are harder to determine with an author like Bierce who typically allows little psychological insight into his own characters.

Along these lines, Adrian Hunter has characterized Bierce’s short stories as having a “complex evasiveness over the matter of his anxiety, his strategic conversions of the psychological into the physical.” [33]  Hunter argues that Bierce habitually represses the introspective acts of his male characters and refuses to deal with male interiority directly.  While Hunter does not consider “A Resumed Identity” in his writing, his premise holds true in this story, too.  We know, for instance, that the veteran “sought with a terrible earnestness a solution of the mystery, but sought in vain,” though Bierce never reveals how the man goes about his seeking, or exactly what he is thinking.  There is no glimpse into the interior world of his psyche.   While this does not derail our endeavor to better understand the functioning of cultural memory through short stories, it directly confronts such understanding with its most common complications.  I would argue that by focusing on the story itself, we can yet consider repressed memories belonging to both to Bierce and to his larger culture. 
To begin with, the key uncanny moment in the story—the veteran’s terror at seeing his unexpected reflection in a pool of water—presents a literary example of doubling par excellence, prefiguring Freud’s (1919) influential discussions of “the double” by eleven years and standing contemporaneously with the work of Ernst Jentsch (1906).  The doubled, mirror image of the self is always an uncanny source of anxiety because, as Gentile writes, the double is “a fearful emblem of one’s own mortality in the more repressed adult mind[.…Since] we are not the source of all being, the unexpected appearance of an alternate self is initially frightening and unrecognizable.” [34]  Indeed, Freud theorizes that the double, as an uncanny occurrence, represents a moment of self-criticism at a point where the subject fails to coincide with its own ego-ideal: “[The] subject identifies himself with someone else, so that he is in doubt as to which his self is, or substitutes the extraneous self for his own.” [35]  Hence, there is an uncanniness and associated terror, a fear that exists because of many possibilities, among them fearing the double as “the uncanny harbinger of death.” [36]  As the veteran sees his own reflection in the pool of water, a face that is nearly thirty years older than he imagined it was, the trauma is too much to bear: he succumbs to a stroke, heart attack, drowning, or some combination of the three.  As double, the reflection of the veteran’s own face clearly displays a frailty and a loss that has perplexed the ignorant amnesiac throughout the narrative, accounting for his chronic fatigue, the withering of his hand, and other aspects of his own body that continually confuse him. [37]  
The change in perspective strips away the fictively coherent image of the self to which the subject clings, readily revealing inadequacy instead.  Indeed, the reflection makes the veteran aware that his body has traveled a distance through time/space that his conscious mind has not; the body has lived experiences in its aging to which the mind has no access.  He is not himself.

The uncanny revelation of the man’s amnesia, however, gives voice to what has been buried.  I would contend that the man’s confrontation with his double most directly represents a confrontation with the inadequacy of the masculine ethos at the turn of the century: a masculinity that continues to imagine itself in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War instead of decades after.  In a United States where Jim Crow laws and white supremacy were dominating post-Civil War race relations and systematically disavowing the emancipationist vision of the North, and where the idealized male was given to physical action over intellectual reflection, the dominant fiction of the postbellum white male subject began to reveal its cracks.  

The quick glimpse into the mirror of the pool reveals that the once strapping young lieutenant of 23 years of age is not who he thinks he is.  Likewise, the representative veteran of the Civil War, socially and politically honored in ceremonies of reconciliation as representative of a dominant masculine ideal, whose memory has fixated on his courage in battles of the past war and not necessarily on his civil courage in subsequent years, is revealed to have untold and unknown flaws.  Moreover, the character’s proximity to his already buried comrades in the cemetery where the monument stands invokes the war’s futility combined with its extravagant and profligate waste—certainly consistent with Bierce’s perspective.  To look at his own decayed face in the pool is almost to look suddenly through a window beneath the ground at the material state of the corpses of his fallen comrades.  He must wonder what their deaths have ultimately affected.  Unfortunately, Bierce’s unwillingness to reveal the specifics of the veteran’s psychological state only allows us to speculate at the anxiety and inadequacy revealed in the mirror.

Another brief incident in the story engages with more literal applications of heimlich and unheimlich.  Earlier in the story, just before meeting the doctor on the road, the veteran carefully observes the land around him:

On every side lay cultivated fields showing no sign of war and war’s ravages.  From the chimneys of the farmhouses thin ascensions of blue smoke signaled preparations for a day’s peaceful toil.  Having stilled its immemorial allocution to the moon, [a] watchdog was assisting a Negro who, prefixing a team of mules to the plow, was flatting and sharping contentedly at his task. [38] 

Notably, the man stares “stupidly at the pastoral picture as if he had never seen such a thing in all his life.”  Immediately, he touches his head and examines his hand for blood, searching for his head wound and trying to assess the damage, “a singular thing to do.” [39]  The connection between this homey, pastoral scene and his head wound certainly draws our attention: what might he see that causes him to locate and assess his own injury?
In his careful examination of the battlefield, the veteran’s amnesia has rendered the pastoral scene before him unfamiliar and disorienting.  As he is unfamiliar with the reflection of his own face, so too is he unfamiliar with the postbellum American landscape that he carefully examines.  The man is baffled as he seeks the “sign of war and war’s ravages” and yet apparently finds none.  But are not the signs there?  Certainly, the amnesiac is confronted with one at the end of the story in the “solid monument of hewn stone” that he stumbles upon, though it is not the signs of strewn bodies of soldiers and horses, the trampled fields, nor the ruined and burning buildings for which he searches.  But as the doctor noted, in this familiar pastoral scene a forgotten aspect of his identity appears to be restored.  The heimlich presence of the Negro preparing his team to plow, a black laborer “contentedly” readying for a day of farming, imagines an important and yet unachieved effect of the fighting: emancipation and the subsequent reconstruction of an entirely free American society in which any man can labor contentedly.  In the distant aftermath of battle, the landscape discursively signifies peace.  What is particularly unheimlich in this pastoral scene, though, is in its acceptance of the idyllic agrarian vision of a content black farmer, belying both the state of sharecropping and the violence against blacks in the South of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Indeed, the pervasiveness of such violence was great, and is worth remembering.  Blight cites black Georgian J. M. Lee as complaining “that news of a lynching had become virtually a weekly occurrence in his state” in 1893. [40]  Frederick Douglass published two important addresses concerning the problem of lynching, both indicating the prevalence and frequency of the problem: “Lynch Law of the South” in 1892 and “Why is the Negro Lynched?” in 1894.  While engaging the pervasiveness of lynching in the latter, Douglass rebuked the sharecropping system: “The landlord keeps books; the Negro does not; hence, no matter how hard he may work or how hard saving he may be, he is, in most cases, brought in debt at the end of the year, and once in debt he is fastened to the land as by hooks of steel.” [41]
  Ominous threats of racist violence and abject poverty escape the veteran’s view; he can only see the black laborer contentedly “flatting and sharping.”

There is no way to know what ultimately terrifies the amnesiac veteran to death as he contemplates his double; Bierce provides no access to the man’s mind at that moment.  Was it merely the man’s decrepit state, combined with the knowledge that his life “had spanned another life” without memory, that caused him to cry out and then die? [42]  Or had it to do with an unheimlich realization of what the war had failed to accomplish, an epiphany that incited dread and anxiety?  Is it possible that the war might not have been worth fighting?  That it had not reconstructed a better nation?  While there are no absolute answers, the uncanny occurrences nonetheless reflect anxieties and traumas that most white Americans had clearly suppressed by the 1890s, if not entirely forgotten.


In his well-known chapter on memory and forgetting, Benedict Anderson remarks on the place of the American Civil War in the nation’s memory: “A vast pedagogical industry works ceaselessly to oblige young Americans to remember/forget the hostilities of 1861-1865 as a great ‘civil’ war between ‘brothers’ rather than between—as they briefly were—two sovereign nation-states.” [43]  
Likewise, Blight argues that the exact same industry also remembers/forgets emancipationist discourse of the war.  And yet, and in spite of such dominant memories and amnesias, the voice of the other always haunts the dominant discourse, attempting to speak its own memories aloud.  As a practice of metis, this voice functions as de Certeau claims, as a discursive tactic of the weak against strategies of dominance. 

This article has intended to show the existence of such a repressed and dissenting voice in post-Civil War short fiction. While the amnesiac veteran of the war, along with his own buried memories, is by no means a common aspect of short stories of the period, the direct encounter with a character’s own ability to remember/forget in these two stories provides an excellent opportunity to directly approach the subject of the war’s cultural remembrance.  Yet it is the recurrence of the uncanny that is more important, and certainly more prevalent, in short stories of post-Civil War memory.  Because they either stimulate or reduce anxiety in readers (an uncanny ghost can frighten while an uncanny coincidence can ease the complications of a plot), uncanny occurrences often reveal the repressed source of anxiety, as well as its continued presence in spite of popular disavowal.
To understand the burials that exist within our contemporary national discourse, there is a continued need to examine the discursive burials of the past and to trace if and how national traumas have been exhumed.  Likewise, there is the need for broader considerations of uncanny occurrences in narratives directly concerned with memory.  Certainly stories written by artists contemporary with Bierce and Chopin may also reflect anxieties at odds with the dominant national discourse of the day—one that appeared outwardly confident in the masculinity and stability of white America, and which cultivated glorious memories of the Civil War in order to help justify actions of national empire in the early 1900s.


Thanks to Mark Patterson at the University of Washington for his seminar “Reconstructing Reconstruction,” and for his thoughtful reading and comments during this article’s fledgling stages.

1. Lauren Berlant, The Anatomy of National Fantasy: Hawthorne, Utopia, and Everyday Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 20-30.  She defines the “National Symbolic” as “the order of discursive practices whose reign within a national space produces, and also refers to, the ‘law’ in which the accident of birth within a geographic/political boundary transforms individuals into subjects of a collectively-held history” (20).  In its concern for both “identity” and “dominant culture,” the National Symbolic conceptualizes an imagined and imaginary space where collective memory is discursively constructed.  It is also an imagined space whose analysis can reveal hegemony: “[The] National Symbolic is there for use, for exploitation, to construct a subjective dependency on what look like the a priori structures of power” (27).  Most importantly, though, the National Symbolic can create tremendous anxiety in subjects at the possibility of its own dissolution as an imagined entity (23).  Thus, the national subject is fiercely protective of its coherence against any revelation of inadequacy.

2. Short stories are particularly useful in this context due to their brevity, wide circulation, and temporal disposition in popular journals and magazines.  Of course, a comprehensive consideration of short fiction's role as a genre in generating national memory exceeds the scope of this article.  However, it is worth noting that as a discursive practice, short stories show readers more than just what a particular author remembers and forgets about a national historic trauma; story telling is culturally recurrent and exceeds the individual story teller/writer, linking singular memory into the cultural plural.  Indeed, it is important to ask how cultural memory is incorporated into the writing of short fiction, as well as to ask how short fiction is partially responsible for constructing that culture.

3. Ambrose Bierce, “A Resumed Identity,” Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War, ed. William McCann (New York: Wings Books, 1956), 239-258; Kate Chopin, “A Wizard From Gettysburg,” Bayou Folk in Complete Novels and Stories, ed. Sandra M. Gilbert (New York: The Library of America, 2002), 286-293.  For other period short stories topically concerning uncanny burials, amnesias, and forgotten objects see Sarah Orne Jewett’s “Decoration Day” (1892) and “A War Debt” (1895) in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, and Willa Cather’s “The Namesake” (1907) in McClure’s as excellent examples.

4. David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 209.  Some might claim that Blight overestimates the willingness of Americans to forget emancipation, and certainly the voices of many abolitionists, veterans, and former slaves attempted to maintain an emancipationist voice through literary remembrance of the causes and effects of slavery, among them Lydia Maria Child’s A Romance of the Republic (1867), Albion W. Tourgee’s A Fool’s Errand (1879), Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s Rebellion: Five Slave Revolts (1889), and Frances E. W. Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892).  While these works, along with many others like them, do arguably contend with the dominant memories of the war, their influence in genuinely impacting dominant discourse and the National Symbolic is negligible.  Certainly, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, as a reconciliationist work concerned not at all with the war’s causes, had a greater impact on the dominant national memory than all the previous works combined.  Incidentally, Tourgee is also known for his participation in the defense of Homer Plessy, and for his role in establishing the National Citizens’ Rights Association, the predecessor of the NAACP.  See also Nina Silber’s The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993).

5. Ibid., 190.

6. Alice Fahs, The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South, 1861-1865 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 314.

7. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984), 79.

8. Ibid., 82-83. 

9. Sigmund Freud, “The ‘Uncanny,’” Writings on Art and Literature, eds. Werner Hamacher and David E. Wellbery (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997), 193-233; 226.

10. Ibid., 217.   Unheimlich is German for “uncanny.”  With great effect, Freud closely analyzes the denotative and connotative definitions of the unheimlich (“unhomely”) and heimlich (“homely”) to show that they are not necessarily opposites, and that there are always elements of the familiar, the homely, in the unheimlich, and vice versa (195-201).  “Thus heimlich,” he writes, “is a word the meaning of which develops in the direction of ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich” (201).

11. Kathy Justice Gentile, “Anxious Supernaturalism: An Analytic of the Uncanny,” Gothic Studies, 2.1 (April 2000), 23-38; 30.

12. It is worth considering that recent literary and cultural studies that turn to the uncanny realize its broader cultural application, shifting from Freud’s strict attention to the individual psyche. See Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), 10-11; Kathleen Brogan, Cultural Haunting: Ghosts and Ethnicity in Recent American Literature (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 5; and Priscilla Wald, Constituting Americans: Cultural Anxiety and Narrative Form (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 10.  Bhabha offers that the uncanny moment as it appears in literary texts “relates the traumatic ambivalences of a personally, psychic history to the wider disjunctions of political existence.”  In his analysis of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Bhabha argues that the unheimlich presence of Sethe’s murdered daughter in the narrative disrupts the homely, domestically gendered spaces of civil society, disturbing “the symmetry of private and public which is now shadowed, or uncannily doubled, by the difference of genders which does not neatly map on to them.”  Brogan similarly argues of Beloved that repressed cultural memories are prone to haunt literary narratives in uncanny ways, for stories are “the hidden passageways not only of the individual psyche but also of a people’s historical consciousness.”  Wald correspondingly finds that the uncanny moment actually disrupts links between the private and the public, the individual and the community: what narratives intentionally bury or leave out resurfaces when lived experience fails to correspond to narrative definitions of personhood.  The ensuing anxiety disrupts official stories of personhood, forcing a reconstruction of those narratives of national identity.  With minimal force, uncanny narratives can exhume cultural memories of the other and induce great discursive effects.

13. Freud, “The ‘Uncanny’,” 200.  In exploring the odd definitional confluence of heimlich and unheimlich, Freud explicates an important connotation of the uncanny, recounting Schelling’s definition that “everything is unheimlich that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light.”

14. Chopin, 286.  “Bon-Accueil" literally means “good reception”: perhaps an allusion to the hospitality the plantation might have had before it fell into financial straits after the war.  Also, as a play on “hospitality,” the plantation is a sort of “hospital”—where Bertrand, the young physician in training, tends hospitably to the tramp’s wounded foot, and where the Delmandes try to heal from the war’s material and emotional damage.  Indeed, the closing lines of the story directly engage the issue: “‘Madame,’ he said, ‘an old soldier, wounded on the field of Gettysburg, craves for himself and his two little children your kind hospitality’” (293).  The indication is that, with the return of Bertrand Delmande from the war, the plantation is once again an hospitable place.

Ibid., 286-287; 289.

See Marcel and Jean-Pierre Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society, trans. Janet Lloyd (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 47.  Detienne and Vernant recognize Odysseus as “the human embodiment of metis in Homer.”  Preceding the work of de Certeau, they cite classic Greek literature for examples of metis instead of understanding literary practice as itself exemplary.

Chopin, 291.  See Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin, 1996), XVII, 219-221: “And so the servant led his master toward the city, / looking for all the world like an old and broken beggar / hunched on a stick, his body wrapped in shameful rags” (Homer XVII, 219-221).  The situation of Chopin’s wizard certainly resonates through these lines.

See books XXI and XXII of The Odyssey.

de Certeau, 87.

Chopin, 292.

Ibid., 291. 

Ibid., 287.  Such remembered living conditions run against the grain of historical research.  For instance, see Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper and Row, 1988), 129, where he writes extensively about “the conflict between former masters attempting to re-create a disciplined labor force and blacks seeking to infuse meaning into their freedom by carving out autonomy in every aspect of their lives."  Foner concludes that this conflict "profoundly affected the course of Reconstruction.”  While the former masters quickly developed means of transforming physical slavery into wage slavery, the system shifted to sharecropping where freed slaves did not live so directly under white supervision (i.e., the slave quarters near the plantation house).  He continues that “precisely because it seemed so far removed from ‘our former management,’ blacks came to prefer the sharecropping system” (174).  This would indicate that, with some exceptions, most emancipated slaves immediately moved off of the plantation, or at least out of the slave quarters as a means of exercising their autonomy.  See also his discussion on 108-109 about the desire for agricultural self-sufficiency.


Ibid., 288.

Freud, 213-214.  He defines one class of the uncanny as “an involuntary repetition which surrounds what would otherwise be innocent enough.”  His example is the uncanny feeling that occurs when the random number “62” begins to appear repetitiously in a single day: on a coatroom ticket, the cabin number of a ship, an address, a railway compartment.  He claims that such great recurrence that appears to exceed chance or coincidence tends to generate an uncanny anxiety.

Bierce, 238.

Ibid., 240.


Ibid., 243.

Ibid., 245.

Ibid., 246.  The actual cause of death is unspecified in the story: did the man intentionally drown himself, or die due to the stress of seeing himself for the first time as an old man in the pool of water?  The latter would appear the more likely reason.

Matthew C. O’Brien, “Ambrose Bierce and the Civil War: 1865,” American Literature 48.3 (November 1976), 377-381; 377, 379.  See also Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War (New York: W. W. Norton, 1962), 620.  Wilson notes that the wound caused fainting spells in Bierce, though he mentions no amnesia.

Adrian Hunter, “Obscured Hurts: The Civil War Writing of Henry James and Ambrose Bierce,” War, Literature, and the Arts, 14.1, 2 (2002): 280-292; 284.

Gentile, 23.

Freud, 210.

Ibid., 211.

Bierce, 244-245.

Ibid., 241-242.


Blight, 335.

41. Frederick Douglass, Selected Speeches and Writings, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: Lawrence Hill Books, 1999), 770.

42. Bierce, 246.

43. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Revised Edition (New York: Verso, 1991), 201. 

Copyright © 2006 The Ambrose Bierce Project and Penn State University. All rights reserved.