Perhaps the most rewarding way to approach Ambrose Bierce’s writing is to note that it was in many respects the product of two intertwined biographical factors, inseparable for purposes of analysis. The first of these reflects Bierce’s thorny and irascible personality which made him, on the one hand, quarrel with practically everyone he ever knew, and on the other, follow romantic and often impossible causes, the last of which led to his death. The second reflects his lifelong employment as a journalist, more specifically as a writer of short columns, generally aphoristic in nature, for various newspapers. The interaction of these two often contradictory strands explains, as well as any single factor can, both the strengths and weaknesses of Bierce’s writing.
Philosophically, Bierce’s work is almost completely uncompromising in its iconoclasm; his view of existence is despairing, revealing only the bitterness of life within a totally fallen world promising neither present happiness nor future redemption. This “bitterness,” which almost every critic has remarked in Bierce’s work, is not completely fortunate. It can, and in Bierce’s case often does, lead to that kind of adolescent cynicism which delights in discovering clouds in every silver lining. Too many of the insights which once seemed sterling are now fairly obviously only tinfoil. The definition of “economy” in The Devil’s Dictionary (1906) is a case in point: “Purchasing the barrel of whiskey that you do not need for the price of the cow that you cannot afford”—an arresting idea, certainly, succinctly expressed, but by no means a profound one. In fact, it is precisely the kind of item one would expect to find on the editorial page of the morning newspaper and perhaps remember long enough to repeat at the office. Indeed, this particular aphorism did first appear in a newspaper, with most of the other contents of The Devil’s Dictionary and, predictably, did not really survive the transformation into book form. The Devil’s Dictionary, like much of Bierce’s work, is now much more generally read about than actually read.
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”
At its best, however, Bierce’s cynicism is transformed into often-passionate statements of the tragedy of existence in a world in which present joys are unreal and future hopes vain, as a glance at one of Bierce’s best-known stories, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” will show.
This story, for all its apparent simplicity, has attracted uniform critical admiration and has been complimented not only by being extensively anthologized but also by having been made into an award-winning film. Purporting to be an incident from the American Civil War, the story opens with the execution by hanging of a Confederate civilian. His name, Peyton Farquhar, is revealed later, as is his apparent crime: He was apprehended by Union soldiers in an attempt to destroy the railroad bridge at Owl Creek, from which he is about to be hanged. The hangman’s rope breaks, however, precipitating Farquhar into the current below. He frees his bound hands and, by swimming, manages to escape both the fire of the Union riflemen who have been assembled to witness the execution and, more miraculously, the fire of their cannon. Reaching shore, Farquhar sets out for home along an unfamiliar road, and after a night-long journey in a semidelirious condition arrives at his plantation some thirty miles away. His wife greets him at the entrance, but as he reaches to clasp her in his arms he suffers what is apparently a stroke and loses his senses. He has not, it develops, suffered a stroke; the last sentence of the story tells us what has really happened. The rope had not broken at all: “Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl...
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- Critical Essays