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Ambrose Bierce and the Dance of Death

Sharon Talley

Publication Year: 2009

“Sharon Talley draws on psychoanalytic theory to illuminate the connections between Bierce’s life and works, without ever losing sight of the historical contexts—especially his experience in the Civil War—that also shaped his creativity. This judicious and comprehensive book will give a major boost to the reassessment of Bierce’s place in American letters.”
—Peter L. Rudnytsky, author of Reading Psychoanalysis: Freud, Rank, Ferenczi, Groddeck

Ambrose Bierce and the Dance of Death uses psychoanalytic theory in combination with historical, cultural, and literary contexts to examine the complex motif of death in a full range of Bierce’s writings. Scholarly interest in Bierce, whose work has long been undervalued, has grown significantly in recent years. This new book contributes to the ongoing reassessment by providing new contexts for joining the texts in his canon in meaningful ways.

Previous attempts to consider Bierce from a psychological perspective have been superficial, often reductive Freudian readings of individual stories such as “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “The Death of Halpin Frayser.” This new volume not only updates these interpretations with insights from post-Freudian theorists but uses contemporary death theory as a framework to analyze the sources and expressions of Bierce’s attitudes about death and dying. This approach makes it possible to discern links among texts that resolve some of the still puzzling ambiguities that have—until now—precluded a fuller understanding of both the man and his writings.

Lively and engaging, Ambrose Bierce and the Dance of Death adds valuable new insights not only to the study of Bierce but to that of nineteenth-century American literature in general.

Sharon Talley is the author of the Student Companion to Herman Melville. Her articles have been published in Nineteenth-Century Prose, American Imago, and the Journal of Men’s Studies. She is associate professor of English at Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. ix-x

I gratefully acknowledge the support and assistance of those who have contributed to the completion of this book. In particular, I am grateful to Peter Rudnytsky and S. T. Joshi, who read the entire manuscript and gave thoughtful feedback to strengthen my argument and its presentation...


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. xiii-xviii

In one of his lesser-known short stories, Ambrose Bierce depicts the autobiographical figure of a “harmless skeleton” from the Civil War who refrains from his accustomed dance of death to fulfill his audience’s preference for a life affirming “peace-dance” (“The Major’s Tale” SF 709)...

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1. Childhood And The Fear Of Death In The Parenticide Club And “Visions Of The Night”

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pp. 1-16

Biographers have long puzzled over—and sensationalized—Ambrose Bierce’s alienation from his parents, and particularly his mother, as well as the apparent reflection of these tensions in the recurring theme of parricide that appears in his short fiction. Broadening previous psychoanalytic approaches that have been reductively biographical...

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2. The Failed Journey To Self-understanding In “the Death Of Halpin Frayser”

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pp. 17-28

In his gothic tales, as Philip M. Rubens observes, Ambrose Bierce often uses dreams “to create another world where some manifestation of man’s inner terrors and desires can be accorded objective reality” (29). Of all of his short stories, “The Death of Halpin Frayser” best demonstrates...

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3. Scared To Death: Tales Of Terror From In The Midst Of Life

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pp. 29-42

Although much evidence ties Bierce’s personal life with his use of the gothic and macabre, conscious manipulation of his readers is also at work in tales such as “The Death of Halpin Frayser”...

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4. Doubling Death: Seeking The Immortal Self In Stories From Can Such Things Be?

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pp. 43-52

Not only in “The Damned Thing,” but also in “Visions of the Night,” “The Death of Halpin Frayser,” and many other writings, Bierce uses a double motif to represent the fear of death associated with identity crisis. Dating back to classical mythology and drama, the literary construct of the double or...

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5. Courage And Cowardice: Facing Death In Bierce’s Early Civil War Writings

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pp. 53-68

A consideration of what is known of Bierce’s life in the years immediately following his decision to leave home at the age of fifteen indicates that he, like Henry Stevens in “One of Twins,” persisted in searching for parental role models that could validate his sense...

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6. Death Before Dishonor: Seasoned Soldiers And The Burden Of Heroism

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pp. 69-82

In the aftermath of the transition in which green recruits, if they survive without dying or deserting, are transformed into seasoned warriors, the dreamland imagery of enchantment disappears from Bierce’s Civil War writing. His fiction nevertheless remains focused on notions of courage...

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7. Collateral Damage: Civilians And The Human Cost Of War

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pp. 83-96

As Bierce reflects in stories such as “Killed at Resaca” and “Parker Adderson, Philosopher,” soldiers were the most obvious victims of Civil War society’s hero-system. Civilians, meanwhile, supported the war effort by fulfilling the gate-keeping and recruiting functions necessary...

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8. Seeking Death: Tales Of Suicidal War Heroes

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pp. 97-112

In experiencing trauma, humans evidence a wide range of reactions that reflects their different capacities and resources for handling the associated stress and anxiety. During war, soldiers are both the victims and the perpetrators of combat-related trauma, and these circumstances...

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9. Surviving War: “phantoms Of A Blood-stained Period” And Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

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pp. 113-126

Bierce's Civil War tales and memoirs depict soldiers on the battlefield who suffer both acute and chronic psychological effects of combat trauma. Some of these soldiers, like Private William Grayrock in “The Mocking- Bird,” either desert the battlefield or take the extreme measure...

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10. Bierce’s Final Dance Of Death

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pp. 127-134

In concluding his “Bits of Autobiography,” Bierce depicts himself as a “Sole Survivor,” sitting alone at the “feast of unreason” that the eleven memoirs grouped in this section of his Collected Works represent (CW 1: 401). Such an image reflects a candid recognition...


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pp. 135-142


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pp. 143-152


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pp. 153-160

E-ISBN-13: 9781572336902
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572336803

Page Count: 180
Publication Year: 2009