Study Guide

Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce Biography

Biography (History of the World: The 19th Century)

0111201183-Bierce.jpg(Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: A legendary cynic and social satirist, Bierce won local fame in San Francisco, California, as a newspaper and magazine columnist and secured a place in American literature with his nonrealist short stories, many of which are set against the backdrop of the American Civil War.

Early Life

Ambrose Gwinett Bierce was born in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio, the tenth of thirteen children born to Laura and Marcus Aurelius Bierce. When Bierce was four, the family moved to Indiana, where young Ambrose was raised among books and religion. At the age of fifteen, Bierce began work as a printer’s devil for a local newspaper, and at seventeen he entered the Kentucky Military Institute. Soon after he left the institute, the Civil War broke out, and Bierce enlisted in the Ninth Regiment of the Indiana Volunteers. During his three years with the volunteers, Bierce was wounded in the head, won numerous citations for bravery, and rose to the rank of lieutenant.

After the war, Bierce recovered confiscated Confederate cotton for the federal government and then participated in a mapping expedition in the far West. This trip took Bierce to San Francisco, California, where he would make his home for most of his adult life and earn his name as a writer. Bierce worked as a columnist for a newspaper called the News-Letter, where, as the “Town Crier,” he used biting satire and blatant sarcasm, as well as a strong dose of tall-tale humor, to attack public figures and institutions he considered guilty of hypocrisy. As he would throughout his career, Bierce angered many of those about whom he wrote and made numerous enemies, but his column quickly won a loyal following among readers. Bierce was not content with his local reputation in journalism, however. He sought literary respectability and national fame and began publishing poems, short stories, and essays in various publications. Literary success, however, was still far in the future.

Bierce married Molly Day in 1871, and a honeymoon trip took the couple to London, England, where Bierce wrote for the publications Fun and Figaro under the pen name Dod Grile. He also published three collections of columns, sketches, and fiction while in Look entitled The Devil’s Dictionary (1906), a collection of definitions published by Bierce in his columns over the years. It is Bierce the cynic at his very best, or worst, depending on one’s point of view. Bierce defines “happiness” as “an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.” A “dentist” is “a prestidigitator who, putting metal into your mouth, pulls coins out of your pocket,” while a “lawyer” is “one skilled in circumvention of the law.” “Alone” is an adjective meaning “in bad company,” and Bierce defines “once” as “enough.” Though The Devil’s Dictionary has not proved as popular as his short stories over the years, Bierce’s cynical definitions continue to delight many readers.

Bierce’s career as a short story-writer blossomed in 1891 with the publication of Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, better known as In the Midst of Life (the title of the London edition). The stories of this one collection, with their bizarre, frequently supernatural, violent, and ironic nature, are what has earned Bierce his place in American literature. They are stories that clearly do not fit in with the realist, local-color literature of their time.

This last point is key to understanding why Bierce did not earn great fame with his fiction during his lifetime. Though he wrote almost all of his fiction during the realist movement in American literature, Bierce was blatantly nonrealist. Bierce believed that fiction should be fiction, that it should make use of the author’s imagination and engage the reader’s imagination. It should take the improbable, perhaps even the impossible, and make it seem real, rather than simply document the social reality of the time. It was this belief, which Bierce stubbornly held, that placed Bierce clearly outside the mainstream of American literature during his lifetime. It was also this belief, however, that made many of the stories...

(The entire section is 1741 words.)

Ambrose Bierce Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bierce’s fiction never earned the fame that he believed he deserved. A nonrealist writing during the realist movement, he wrote in the shadows of more famous and more mainstream writers, such as Mark Twain and William Dean Howells. The lack of fame accorded Bierce, however, in no way detracts from the quality of his stories, some of which have appeared in numerous anthologies. While it is quite easy to find writers in American literature more celebrated than Bierce, it is difficult to find stories that can captivate and surprise the reader more than those of Bierce, whose works will be more appreciated, particularly for their portent of nonrealist, psychological fiction, as more readers discover this overlooked writer.

Ambrose Bierce Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Ambrose Gwinett Bierce was brought up on the farm in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio, where he was born in 1842. Although information about his early life is sparse, the evidence of his stories and the fact that he quarreled with and repudiated his large family with the exception of one brother indicate an unhappy childhood and an abnormal hatred of parental figures. His only formal education consisted of one year at a military academy. He fought with the Indiana infantry in the American Civil War, was wounded at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain, and ended the conflict as a brevet major. After the war, he settled in California, where, following a brief stint as a watchman at the San Francisco mint, he drifted into literary work. He wrote for the San Francisco Argonaut and News Letter and published his first story, “The Haunted Valley” (1871), in the Overland Monthly. He married and, on money received as a gift from his father-in-law, traveled abroad to England in 1872, returning to California in 1876 because of bad health. Upon his return he again became associated with the Argonaut. From 1879 to 1881 he took part in the Black Hills gold rush, returning in 1881 to San Francisco, having found no success as a miner. There he began, in association with the San Francisco Wap, his famous column “The Prattler,” transferred to William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner upon the Wap’s failure, and continued at the Examiner until 1896, when Hearst sent him to Washington as a correspondent for the New York American. Much of Bierce’s subsequently collected work appeared first in “The Prattler.” Divorced in 1904, Bierce resigned from the Hearst organization in 1909 and, in a final quixotic gesture, disappeared into Mexico in the thick of the Mexican Revolution. He was never heard from again.

Ambrose Bierce Biography (Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

The tenth of seventeen children, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born on June 24, 1842, on a small farm in Horse Cave Creek in southeastern Ohio. To escape life on the frontier (his family soon pushed farther west to Indiana), the boy began to devour every scrap of literature he could obtain on the homestead of his parents. After an uneventful youth, Bierce saw a chance for adventure at the outbreak of the Civil War. He enlisted with the Ninth Indiana Infantry shortly before his twentieth birthday, on April 19, 1861. Serving the Union until the end of the war, Bierce earned a reputation for courage on some of the major battlefields of the Western theater and participated in General William Tecumseh Sherman’s devastating drive through the Carolinas.

After the war, Bierce settled in San Francisco, taught himself writing, and began work as an editor with a regular gossip column in the city’s News Letter. On Christmas Day, 1871, he married well-to-do Mollie Day. Bierce’s in-laws made it possible for the young couple to leave for England, where Bierce wrote for magazines and saw the publication of his first three books, all under the pen name of Dod Grile. Mollie’s return to the United States and the birth of their third child there forced Bierce to return in 1875. The next years saw the death of his parents and an abortive attempt to become the manager of a mining company in the Dakota Territory. Back in San Francisco, Bierce began writing a regular column for William...

(The entire section is 612 words.)

Ambrose Bierce Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201183-Bierce.jpgAmbrose Bierce. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Ambrose Gwinett Bierce (bihrs), journalist, short-story writer, and cynical wit, was born in Horse Cave Creek near Chester, Ohio, on June 24, 1842, on the site of a camp meeting. He later would label his parents, characteristically, as being “unwashed savages.” He disappeared into even greater obscurity at the age of seventy-two, having crossed into Mexico during the revolution; one legend is that he was attached for a time to Pancho Villa’s staff.

Bierce was educated in a country school with no later university training, although much of his literary fame rests upon a severely impeccable style that depends upon grammatical succinctness for effect. In 1861, he entered the Union army as a volunteer private but...

(The entire section is 699 words.)

Ambrose Bierce Biography (Short Stories for Students)

Ambrose Bierce was born in 1842 in Meigs County, Ohio. His parents were farmers, and he was the tenth of thirteen children, all of whom were...

(The entire section is 390 words.)

Ambrose Bierce Biography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

ph_0111201183-Bierce.jpgAmbrose Bierce. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Ambrose Bierce was born in Horse Cave Creek, in Meigs County, Ohio, on June 24, 1842, to Laura and Marcus Aurelius Bierce. When Bierce was four years old, the family moved to northern Indiana, and it was there that the writer grew up. He inherited an interest in books from his father and was instructed in religion by his mother.

A career in journalism and an involvement and interest in things military began early for Bierce. He left home at fifteen and worked as a printer’s devil for two years for a local newspaper. At seventeen he entered the Kentucky Military Institute. Shortly after he left the institute, the Civil War broke out, and Bierce was one of the first to enlist in the Ninth Regiment of the Indiana...

(The entire section is 739 words.)

Ambrose Bierce Biography (Short Stories for Students)

Ambrose Bierce was born in Ohio in 1842. He lived in the Midwest during his childhood, but he attended the Kentucky Military Institute in...

(The entire section is 488 words.)