To move forward, try looking back: Book review, lessons on Tales of Soldiers and Civilians

Ambrose Bierce, Forgotten Books (2012), 300 pages

My stepfather gave me Tales of Soldiers and Civilians as a Christmas gift. Dan read my sci-fi novel, Rise of the Liberators, and I suspect he wanted to encourage me to write more military fiction by sharing the work of Ambrose Bierce, whose horrific stories take place during and beyond the Civil War.

Maybe there was something in Bierce’s writing I’d appreciate, and it kind of made sense. Ever since I was a boy and Dan took me to see movies like Star Wars and Indiana Jones, we seemed to both tacitly agree: There is richness in art that explores themes that are close to death. Our tastes in entertainment may or may not have improved with age, but you get my drift. For the holidays, it was Bierce or bust.

Dan, however, was unaware that I was already familiar with the author’s two most famous stories, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “A Horseman in the Sky,” which I taught to my eleventh-grade American Lit students.

Currently, I develop literacy intervention programs for my school district. We try to engage struggling students in reading. So, I thanked my stepfather for his timely present and figured I’d spend any dull moments over the winter break expanding my knowledge of Bierce by examining his reprinted collection, first published in 1892.

A lot seems to have changed in the 128 years since then, including what qualifies as tickling a reader’s ‘tale’ bone — my students didn’t think I was funny, either, so maybe it’s best I left the classroom – and as I delved into Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, a question burned in my mind: Would I value these stories for personal reading pleasure, as fodder for future lit lessons, both, or neither?

After all, war stories seem to have been perfected in the thousands of years they’ve been told. Just check out the latest Hollywood knock-off of the Trojan War. Perhaps the most respected writer of American violence, Cormac McCarthy, who ripped Western civilization to pieces with blood-drenched westerns like Blood Meridian, probably once leaned on the prototypes of failed machismo, traumatized heroism and valor lost on the battlefield early in his career that were originally championed by Bierce, but Bierce’s short stories are probably more accessible and appropriate for high school students with shorter attention spans than McCarthy’s epic novels.

Hard to say. Regarding my burning question, at least, I was certain and not disappointed. Tales of Soldiers and Civilians contains a few short but dense narratives filled with enough ethereal language, gallows humor, and twist endings that I think might pique just enough curiosity from struggling high school readers to provide them bite-sized helpings of literacy and learning.

Some critics say that the plot devices Bierce employs are predictable at times and trite by today’s standards, even if he was one of the first writers to fashion them. On this point, I agree. Nonetheless, there’s a richness to some narratives in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians that require a methodical lens to appreciate. A few gems stick out that can be mined for literary merit and worth reading for both pleasure AND instruction in an American Lit class.

“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “A Horseman in the Sky” remain for me the strongest samples of Bierce’s work as far as substance, entertainment and thematic value are concerned. A teacher looking to expand their classroom repertoire of short story readings might also consider “Chickamauga,” “The Coup de Grace,” and “A Watcher by the Dead,” available in the collection.

Because Bierce is difficult reading, I suggest using an audiobook so stories are read out loud to help struggling students with understanding. I would also focus learning activities around modeling metacognitive ‘think alouds’ that guide the brainstorming process as students grapple with story meanings. Graphic organizers and flow charts should support vocabulary development, paraphrase narration, contrast diction and tone, and help summarize key events. As a summative assessment, I would encourage students to express in a short narration through print, video or recording, a dramatization of an unnerving event and be prepared to explain to class what ‘cues’ were used in the assignment to signal its mood and meaning.

As the purveyors of the English language, English teachers must balance their instructional approach to classic literature with an eye for access, critical thinking and literacy skills students will develop from the exercise and that may help them one day navigate our magnificently strange modern world. Likewise, Bierce’s tales present a trove of learning opportunities, but in working with students in a high school classroom who often read below grade level, it is important to treat reading pedagogy as systemic, chunked and paced for them to best digest the material.

Nowadays, upper-grade teachers must be literary support-providers as well as content-delivery maestros, counselors and comedians, all unassigned duties that fall on them regardless of job description.

The payoff can still be worth it. Underlying the gothic charm and ironic events of Bierce’s tales are comments about the nature of war, life and ourselves, as applicable in a country divided then as now.

Thank you, Dan, for Tales of Soldiers and Civilians as well as its helpful writing reminder — don’t be afraid to let readers wonder where the text is going, because we’re all going to reach the end.

Ryan Hyatt, Feb. 25, 2020



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