Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1741
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.
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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 of In the Midst of Life seem ahead of their time and therefore more appealing to later readers than to readers of Bierce’s own time.
In the Midst of Life contains the author’s most popular stories, two of which, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “Chickamauga,” rank among the most anthologized stories in American literature. Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, as are so many of Bierce’s stories, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” relates the apparently bungled execution of a Southern conspirator who escapes the hangman’s noose, flees downriver, and eventually makes it home to his waiting wife. Just as he is about to reach her, he feels a blow to the back of his neck. He is not home, but instead hangs dead below the Owl Creek bridge. His escape has been nothing more than an illusion played out in the mind of the about-to-be executed spy. Also set during the Civil War, “Chickamauga” tells of a small boy playing soldier with a wooden sword by himself in the woods. He gets lost and falls asleep on the ground for several hours. When he awakens, he sees the macabre sight of hundreds of wounded and dying soldiers retreating, almost zombielike, over where he lies. Rather than be frightened, he attempts to play with them. Eventually they reach the boy’s plantation, which is immersed in flames. The boy finds his mother, who is mortally and grotesquely wounded about the head. He tries to scream out in horror, but he is a deaf mute, which explains how so much has happened around him as he slept. The chief irony of the story may be the one played on the reader, who, perhaps having read other Bierce stories or because of the dreamlike quality of the story once the boy wakes up, expects the graphic war scenes to be only a dream; they are, however, reality, which Bierce has presented in a most nonrealistic manner.
Other stories in In the Midst of Life that show Bierce’s flare for everything from cruel irony to improbable reality to supernatural events include “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch,” in which a Civil War artillery officer fires on his own plantation; “The Man and the Snake,” in which a man literally dies of fright of what turns out to be a stuffed snake with shoe buttons for eyes; and “The Suitable Surroundings,” in which a man dies after reading a ghost story in a haunted house.
More collections of creative writing followed In the Midst of Life. Bierce published Black Beetles in Amber, a book of satirical poems, in 1892, and Can Such Things Be?, a collection of stories, in 1893, but his career as a fiction writer had clearly peaked with In the Midst of Life. His fame, though more limited at the time than he had hoped, had been made as well. He moved to Washington, D.C., in 1896, and between 1896 and 1913 he continued to write for the San Francisco Examiner and later for the magazine Cosmopolitan, all the while assembling his complete works for publication. His Devil’s Dictionary came out in 1906 under the title The Cynic’s Word Book.
In 1913, Bierce left Washington and headed to Mexico to observe the Mexican Revolution. Except for a letter he wrote in December of 1913 regarding his experiences with Pancho Villa, he was never heard from again. It is not certain when, where, or how Bierce died.
Ambrose Bierce is one of the true rogue characters of American letters, as well as one of the most enigmatic ones. As a journalist, he was loved by his readers and despised in many cases by those who became the targets of his bitter wit, from railroad executives and political leaders to literary contemporaries. As cruel as he was in his newspaper column, he was also the mentor to many fledgling writers in his beloved San Francisco. Still, his cynical view of the world went so far as to manifest itself in an alternative lexicon—The Devil’s Dictionary—for the language he manipulated first as a teenage typesetter and then later as an acclaimed fiction writer. That acclaim was less than he had hoped for, however, and it made “Bitter Bierce” clearly envious of the likes of Stephen Crane, whom he considered an inferior writer, and other more mainstream authors of his time.
Writing when he did rather than what he did was precisely Bierce’s problem as a fiction writer hoping for wide critical and popular acceptance. As he did in so many areas of his life, Bierce the short-story writer chose to go against the grain, and this cost him; however, he was, as always, true to himself. Though he did not live to know it, the short-story writer who disappeared into revolutionary Mexico in 1913 actually would have been right at home in the nonrealist, psychological, post-Freudian fiction of the twentieth century as practiced by writers ranging from Franz Kafka to Jorge Luis Borges. It would be with the readers of this generation and beyond that Bierce would find a more accepting reading public for his stories.
Davidson, Cathy N. The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. Contends that Bierce served as a direct influence for three twentieth century writers, among them Argentines Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. In-depth literary analysis for serious readers.
Grenander, M. E. Ambrose Bierce. New York: Twayne, 1971. Excellent and highly readable overview of Bierce’s life and career with literary analysis. Includes chronology, annotated bibliography, and index. Part of Twayne’s United States Authors Series.
Morris, Roy, Jr. Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company. New York: Crown, 1995. The definitive biography of Bierce. Includes some literary commentary, but it is not intended as a critical study of Bierce’s works. Contains an extensive, though unannotated, secondary bibliography and a comprehensive index.
Saunders, Richard. Ambrose Bierce: The Making of a Misanthrope. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1985. Another insightful biography, though not as exhaustive as Morris. Includes a brief, unannotated bibliography and an index. Part of the Literary West Series.
Wiggins, Robert A. Ambrose Bierce. University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers 37. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964. An excellent thumbnail sketch of Bierce’s life and career that provides a good starting point for student readers. Includes some literary commentary.