Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General by Ambrose Bierce, 1885
The magic trick:
Using a series of letters to illustrate the absurd distance between perception and reality among military leadership
Ambrose Bierce had a story to tell. Actually, he had an entire Civil War’s worth and, in 1885, was just getting started with this one, but let’s focus at the moment on just “Jupiter Doke.”
Ambrose Bierce had the story of inept leadership and political paper tiger generals. He knew it all too well having served in the Union army for five years. The first two years of the Civil War almost did in the North, and a huge part of the problem was the appointment of political cronies and family friends into positions of military power. Lazy, selfish people not taking the war nearly seriously enough.
So what was the best way to tell this story? He opted for Twain-inspired humor, which I think was a good call. Angry humor is the best humor.
OK, but what about form? He needed a way to show the distance between perception and reality. He chose to tell the story in a series of letters from different people in the army. It’s a perfect option. This allows the reader to get several perspectives about the same situation with whatever might be the truth getting further and further lost in translation along the way. And that’s quite a trick on Bierce’s part.
From the Hon. Jupiter Doke to the Secretary of War.
HARDPAN, ILLINOIS, November 9, 1861.
It is the proudest moment of my life. The office is one which should be neither sought nor declined. In times that try men’s souls the patriot knows no North, no South, no East, no West. His motto should be: “My country, my whole country and nothing but my country.” I accept the great trust confided in me by a free and intelligent people, and with a firm reliance on the principles of constitutional liberty, and invoking the guidance of an all-wise Providence, Ruler of Nations, shall labor so to discharge it as to leave no blot upon my political escutcheon. Say to his Excellency, the successor of the immortal Washington in the Seat of Power, that the patronage of my office will be bestowed with an eye single to securing the greatest good to the greatest number, the stability of republican institutions and the triumph of the party in all elections; and to this I pledge my life, my fortune and my sacred honor. I shall at once prepare an appropriate response to the speech of the chairman of the committee deputed to inform me of my appointment, and I trust the sentiments therein expressed will strike a sympathetic chord in the public heart, as well as command the Executive approval.
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