62 Ambrose Bierce (1842–c1914)

Gesina A. Phillips

Introduction

Biography

Ambrose Bierce is best known for his short stories, many of which combine the experience of the Civil War with psychologically or supernaturally uncanny events. He was also a cutting newspaper columnist, and his satirical mode is evident in works such as The Devil’s Dictionary. His satirical political writings earned him attention and no small degree of notoriety in his time, as well as the nickname “Bitter Bierce.”

Bierce was born to Marcus Aurelius and Laura Sherwood Bierce on a farm in Horse Cave Creek, Meigs County, Ohio, and moved to northern Indiana at an early age. After some years spent at an abolitionist paper (1857-1859), printer’s devil at the Northern Indianan), enrolled at the Kentucky Military Institute (1859-60), and working on the family farm, he enlisted in the Union Army in 1861. Bierce served until 1965, after being involved in several of the major battles of the Civil War, and achieved the rank of first lieutenant by the end of his time in uniform. After the war, Bierce worked as a Treasury aide and engineering attaché, traveling to Panama and throughout the western territories. In 1967, Bierce moved to San Francisco where he began his journalistic and literary career.

Bierce began to publish poetry, essays, and stories in this early period, while simultaneously taking on different roles (usually editor and columnist positions) at a string of newspapers. This dual role began to solidify his legacy as an acerbic commentator and prolific author. It was during his years in England following his marriage to Mary Ellen (Mollie) Day that Bierce began to publish his writing; under the pseudonym Dod Grile, he published The Fiend’s Delight (1873), Nuggets and Dust (1873), and Cobwebs from an Empty Shelf (1874).

The years following his return to the United States in 1965 were marked by a period of literary stagnancy, until 1881 when he joined the San Francisco Wasp as an editor and columnist and began to write the political satire column “Prattle” (which contained snippets that would later be incorporated into The Devil’s Dictionary). Bierce continued this column when in 1887 he began to write for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. Despite a staunch anti-war position (both personally and in “Prattle”) during the Spanish-American War which clashed with Hearst’s own publicized view, the two saw eye-to-eye on the issue of diminishing the power of railroad monopolies, and Bierce led Hearst’s lobby in Washington on this issue during the late 1890s.

Despite several personal tragedies between 1888 and 1905—his separation and subsequent divorce from his wife Mollie, the deaths of his sons, and Mollie’s death within the year of their divorce—Bierce’s literary career flourished during this period. The short story collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (which includes “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”) was first published in 1891, with the satirical poetry collection Black Beetles in Amber (1892) and the short story collection Can Such Things Be? (1893) following in quick succession. Another volume of poetry, Shapes of Clay, was published in 1903.

The Devil’s Dictionary was first published in 1906 (titled The Cynic’s Word Book), after which Bierce prepared an edition of his Collected Works which was published in twelve volumes in 1912. After traveling in the American South, Bierce went to Mexico in 1913 intending to join the forces of the revolutionary leader Pancho Villa. Bierce disappeared in 1914 and is believed to have died in the Battle of Ojinaga that same year.

Historical and Literary Significance

Much of Bierce’s work is characterized by cynicism and satire, which takes on more literal and cutting forms in his journalistic work (as well as in his collection of satirical aphorisms, The Devil’s Dictionary) but is more abstractly expressed in much of his fiction. A number of his most-studied works (including “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” collected in this anthology) are striking in their use of surrealist elements. Ghosts, madness, and horror characterize much of Bierce’s fiction, leading to comparisons to Bierce’s literary predecessor Edgar Allan Poe.

Bierce’s ironic streak also comes to bear in his fiction about the Civil War, which captures a pessimistic view of a world replete with meaningless death and tragic twists of fate. This similarity prompts comparison to his literary contemporary Stephen Crane. Bierce’s writing falls within the American realist and naturalist period, and shares sympathies with the often brutal world depicted in naturalist writing; however, Bierce’s thematic use of a destabilized and experiential reality also fits with the impressionist movement[1]

Bierce was a figure with several particularly interesting historical connections. His affiliation with newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst played a role in his career as a columnist and political commentator. He was a contemporary of Mark Twain, contributing to Mark Twain’s Library of Humor in 1888; however, the two differed in their approach to humor and wit, with Twain’s disparaging review of Nuggets and Dust claiming that “for every laugh that is in his book there are five blushes, ten shudders and a vomit.”[2] Stephen Crane, whose Red Badge of Courage was published in 1895, praised “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” saying “that story contains everything.”[3] Contemporary journalist and critic H. L. Mencken was also an admirer of Bierce’s work. Bierce also sought to promote and mentor new literary talent, including recommending the work of Ezra Pound early in the poet’s career[4]

Bierce has typically been a polarizing figure, from his satirical and journalistic work during his life to his treatment by literary critics in the time since. With its deep connections to contemporary historical events such as the Civil War, Bierce’s career stands as an example of the melding of elements of satire and psychological fiction with the political and social climate of the late 19th century.

References

“Ambrose (Gwinett) Bierce.” In Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2003.

“Bierce, Ambrose.” In Gale Contextual Encyclopedia of American Literature, 147-151. Vol. 1. Detroit: Gale, 2009.

Solomon, Eric. “Bierce, Ambrose (Gwinnet).” In Reference Guide to Short Fiction, 2nd ed., edited by Thomas Riggs, 70-71. Detroit: St. James Press, 1999.


  1. M. E. Grenader, “Ambrose (Gwinett) Bierce,” in American Literary Critics and Scholars, 1880-1900, ed. John Wilbert Rathbun and Monica M. Grecu (Detroit: Gale, 1988), https://archive.org/details/americanliterary71rath.
  2. “Ambrose Bierce (1870),” in Mark Twain, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, an imprint of Infobase Publishing, 2009), 22.
  3. Lawrence I. Berkove, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”: Nothing Better Exists,” in A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2002), 113.
  4. Grenader.

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Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature by Gesina A. Phillips is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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