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.
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...
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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.
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