A Sole Survivor Essay - Critical Essays

A Sole Survivor

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?) is remembered for the haunting story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and for the mordant definitions that make up The Devil’s Dictionary. Editors S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz have performed the heroic task of combing through Bierce’s vast output of journalism and correspondence to compile an autobiography of sorts. The resulting volume is short on the actual circumstances of the author’s life but long on his vivid accounts of the venal but eventful times through which he lived.

Joshi and Schultz begin A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography with Bierce’s writings about the Civil War. Bierce himself received a head wound that plagued him for the rest of his life, and the bloody conflict served as the basis for his best short stories. Subsequent sections draw upon Bierce’s decades with various San Francisco newspapers (to which he contributed famously combative columns), his brief literary career in England, and his involvement in an ill-advised mining scheme in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory.

The body of A Sole Survivor concludes, as any volume about Bierce must, with his disappearance. Although Bierce’s last years saw the publication of a collected edition of his works, he exhibited an ever-increasing bitterness; he was clearly tired of life. At the end he was planning a trip to South America, one that would take him through a Mexico ravaged by civil war. He fantasized repeatedly of “being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags,” and was last heard from in late 1913. His disappearance constitutes the most mysterious dead end in American literature.