Ambrose Bierce

1842–1914
Ambrose Bierce
Ambrose Bierce's literary reputation is based primarily on his short stories about the Civil War and the supernatural—a body of work that makes up a relatively small part of his total output. Often compared to the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, these stories share an attraction to death in its more bizarre forms, featuring depictions of mental deterioration, uncanny, otherworldly manifestations, and expressions of the horror of existence in a meaningless universe. Like Poe, Bierce professed to be mainly concerned with the artistry of his work, yet critics find him more intent on conveying his misanthropy and pessimism. In his lifetime Bierce was famous as a California journalist dedicated to exposing the truth as he understood it, regardless of whose reputations were harmed by his attacks. For his sardonic wit and damning observations on the personalities and events of the day, he became known as "the wickedest man in San Francisco."

Bierce was born in Meigs County, Ohio. His parents were farmers and he was the tenth of thirteen children, all of whom were given names beginning with "A" at their father's insistence. The family moved to Indiana, where Bierce went to high school; he later attended the Kentucky Military Institute. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted in the Union army. In such units as the Ninth Indiana Infantry Regiment and Buell's Army of the Ohio, he fought bravely in numerous military engagements, including the battles of Shiloh and Chickamauga and in Sherman's March to the Sea. After the war Bierce traveled with a military expedition to San Francisco, where he left the army and prepared himself for a literary career.

Bierce's early poetry and prose appeared in the Californian. In 1868 he became the editor of The News Letter, for which he wrote his famous "Town Crier" column. Bierce became something of a noted figure in California literary society, forming friendships with Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Joaquin Miller. In 1872 Bierce and his wife moved to England where, during a three-year stay, he wrote for Fun and Figaro magazines and acquired the nickname "Bitter Bierce." His first three books of sketches —Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California (1872), The Fiend's Delight (1873), and Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874)—were published during this period. When the English climate aggravated Bierce's asthma he returned to San Francisco. In 1887 he began writing for William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner, continuing the "Prattler" column he had done for the Argonaut and the Wasp. This provided him with a regular outlet for his essays, epigrams, and short stories.

Bierce's major fiction was collected in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891) and Can Such Things Be? (1893). Many of these stories are realistic depictions of the author's experiences in the Civil War. However, Bierce was not striving for realism, as critics have pointed out and as he himself admitted, for his narratives often fail to supply sufficient verisimilitude. His most striking fictional effects depend on an adept manipulation of the reader viewpoint: a bloody battlefield seen through the eyes of a deaf child in "Chickamauga," the deceptive escape dreamed by a man about to be hanged in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," and the shifting perspectives of "The Death of Halpin Frayser." The classic Biercian narrative also includes a marked use of black humor, particularly in the ironic and hideous deaths his protagonists often suffer. The brutal satire Bierce employed in his journalism appears as plain brutality in his fiction, and critics have both condemned and praised his imagination, along with Poe's, as among the most vicious and morbid in American literature. Bierce's bare, economical style of supernatural horror is usually distinguished from the verbally lavish tales of Poe, and few critics rank Bierce as the equal of his predecessor.

Along with his tales of terror, Bierce's most acclaimed work is The Devil's Dictionary (1906), a lexicon of its author's wit and animosity. His definition for "ghost"—"the outward and visible sign of an inward fear"—clarifies his fundamentally psychological approach to the supernatural. In The Devil's Dictionary Bierce vented much of his contempt for politics, religion, society, and conventional human values. A committed opponent of hypocrisy, prejudice, and corruption, Bierce acquired the public persona of an admired but often hated genius, a man of contradiction and mystery. In 1914 he informed some of his correspondents that he intended to enter Mexico and join Pancho Villa's forces as an observer during that country's civil war. He was never heard from again, and the circumstances of his death are uncertain.

Career

Short-story writer, novelist, journalist, poet, essayist, and critic. Worked variously as printer's apprentice for the antislavery newspaper Northern Indianan, c. 1857- 59; night watchman and memorandum clerk for the U.S. Sub-Treasury in San Francisco, CA, beginning 1867; writer, columnist, and managing editor for San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser, c. 1867-72; assay branch worker for the U.S. Mint, c. 1876; manager-overseer of mine in Black Hills of South Dakota for several months in 1881; Washington, DC, correspondent for New York American, 1898-1909.

Bibliography

  • (Under pseudonym Dod Grile) Nuggets and Dust Panned out in California (sketches), collected and loosely arranged by J. Milton Sloluck, Chatto & Windus, 1872.
  • (Under pseudonym Dod Grile) The Fiend's Delight (sketches), A. L. Luyster, 1873.
  • (Under pseudonym Dod Grile) Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (fables and tales; originally appeared in Fun), illustrated with engravings by the Dalziel brothers, Routledge, 1874.
  • The Lantern, illuminated by Faustin, A. Wilcox, 1874.
  • (With Thomas A. Harcourt, under joint pseudonym William Herman) The Dance of Death (satire), privately printed, 1877, corrected and enlarged edition, Henry Keller, 1877.
  • (Under pseudonym Mrs. J. Milton Bowers) The Dance of Life, 1877.
  • Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (short stories; includes "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"), E. L. G. Steele, 1891, published as In the Midst of Life: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, Chatto & Windus (London), 1892, revised and enlarged edition, Putnam (New York, NY), 1898.
  • Black Beetles in Amber (poetry), Western Authors Publishing, 1892.
  • (Adapter with Adolphe Danziger De Castro) Richard Voss, The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter (novel), translated by Gustav Adolph Danzinger, illustrated by Theodor Hampe, F. J. Schulte, 1892.
  • Can Such Things Be? (short stories), Cassell, 1893.
  • Fantastic Fables (satire), Putnam, 1899.
  • Shapes of Clay (poetry), W. E. Wood, 1903.
  • The Cynic's Word Book (satire), Doubleday, 1906, published as The Devil's Dictionary, volume 7 of The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Neale, 1911, selections published as Diabolical Definitions; A Selection from the Devil's Dictionary of Ambrose Bierce, edited with an introduction by C. Merton Babcock, with illustrations by Stanley Wyatt, Peter Pauper Press (Mount Vernon, NY), 1970.
  • A Son of the Gods and A Horseman in the Sky, introduction by W. C. Morrow, P. Elder, 1907.
  • The Shadow on the Dial and Other Essays, edited by S. O. Howes, A. M. Robertson, 1909, revised as Antepenultimata, volume 11 of The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Neale, 1912.
  • Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, (essay), Neale, 1909.
  • 1909-12 The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume 1: Ashes of the Beacon, The Land Beyond the Blow, For the Ahkoond, John Smith Liberator, Bits of Autobiography; Volume 2: In the Midst of Life; Volume 3: Can Such Things Be?, The Ways of Ghosts, Soldier-Folk, Some Haunted Houses; Volume 4: Shapes of Clay, Some Antemortem Epitaphs, The Scrap Heap; Volume 5: Black Beetles in Amber, The Mummery, On Stone; Volume 6: The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter, Fantastic Fables, Aesopus Emendatus, Old Saws with New Teeth, Fables in Rhyme; Volume 7: The Devil's Dictionary; Volume 8: Negligible Tales, The Parenticide Club, The Fourth Estate, The Ocean Wave, On with the Dance!, Epigrams; Volume 9: Tangential Views; Volume 10: The Opinionator, The Reviewer, The Controversialist, The Timorous Reporter, The March Hare; Volume 11: Antepenultimata; Volume 12: In Motley, Kings of Beasts, Two Administrations; Miscellaneous, Neale.
  • Letters of Ambrose Bierce, edited by Bertha Clark Pope, Book Club of California, 1922.
  • Twenty-one Letters of Ambrose Bierce, edited by Samuel Loveman, G. Kirk, 1922.
  • The Eyes of the Panther, introduced by Martin Armstrong, J. Cape (London), 1928.
  • An Invocation by Ambrose Bierce, critical introduction by George Sterling, explanation by Oscar Lewis, J. H. Nash, 1928.
  • Battle Sketches, illustrated by Thomas Derrick, First Edition Club, 1930.
  • Battlefields and Ghosts, edited by Hartley E. Jackson and James D. Hart, Harvest Press, 1931.
  • Selections from Prattle by Ambrose Bierce, foreword by Joseph Henry Jackson, compiled by Carroll D. Hall, Book Club of California, 1936.
  • Collected Writings, edited by Clifton Fadiman, Citadel Press, 1946.
  • Ambrose Bierce's Civil War, edited and introduced by William McCann, H. Regnery Co., 1956.
  • The Sardonic Humor of Ambrose Bierce, edited by George Barkin, Dover, 1963.
  • Enlarged Devil's Dictionary, with 851 Newly Discovered Words and Definitions, edited by Ernest Jerome Hopkins, Doubleday, 1967.
  • The Ambrose Bierce Satanic Reader: Selections from the Invective Journalism of the Great Satirist, edited by Hopkins, Doubleday, 1968.
  • The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, edited by Hopkins, Doubleday, 1970.
  • Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism from 1898-1901, edited with an introduction by Lawrence I. Berkove, Delmas (Ann Arbor, MI), 1980.
  • Seven Fables, illustrated by Louise Lafond, Press at Colorado College (Colorado Springs), 1986.
  • The Civil War Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, compiled with a foreword by Ernest Jerome Hopkins, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln), 1988.
  • Great Short Stories of the World: Thirty Classic Tales, edited by Lois Hill, Avenel Books (New York, NY), 1991.
  • Poems of Ambrose Bierce, edited and introduced by M. E. Grenander, University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
  • The Moonlit Road, and other Ghost and Horror Stories, Dover Publications (Mineola, NY), 1998.
  • A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville, TN), 1998.
  • The Collected Fables of Ambrose Bierce, edited, with introduction and commentary, by S. T. Joshi, Ohio State University Press (Columbus, OH), 2000.
  • The Fall of the Republic and Other Political Satires, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, University of Tennessee Press (Knoxville, TN), 2000.
  • The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, University of Georgia Press (Athens, GA), 2000.
  • Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce, edited by Russell Duncan and David J. Klooster, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 2002.
  • Shadows of Blue and Gray: The Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce, edited by Brian M. Thomsen, Tom Doherty Associates (New York, NY), 2002.
  • A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio State University Press (Columbus, OH), 2003.
Contributor to British magazines Fun, Figaro, and Hood's Comic Annual, c. 1872-75; writer, 1876-1886, and editor, 1880- 1886, for San Francisco's Wasp; columnist for San Francisco Examiner, 1887-1898; also wrote for the Californian, Golden Era, Argonaut, Cosmopolitan, and New York Journal.

Further Reading

BOOKS
  • Barret, Gerald R., and Thomas L. Erskine, compilers, From Fiction to Film: Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," Dickenson (Encino, CA), 1973.
  • Bier, Jesse, The Rise and Fall of American Humor, Holt, 1968.
  • Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography: Realism, Naturalism, and Local Color, 1865-1917, Gale (Detroit), 1988.
  • Davison, Cathy N., Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce, G. K. Hall, 1982.
  • Davidson, Cathy N., The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable, University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
  • De Castro, Adolphe Danziger, Portrait of Ambrose Bierce, Beekman Publishers (New York City), 1974.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale, Volume 11: American Humorists, 1800-1950, 1982, Volume 12: American Realists and Naturalists, 1982, Volume 23: American Newspaper Journalists, 1873-1900, 1983, Volume 71: American Literary Critics and Scholars, 1880-1900, 1988, Volume 74: American Short-Story Writers before 1880, 1988.
  • Fadiman, Clifton, Party of One: The Selected Writings of Clifton Fadiman, World Publishing, 1955.
  • Fatout, Paul, Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Lexicographer, University of Oklahoma Press, 1951.
  • Fatout, Paul, Ambrose Bierce and the Black Hills, University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.
  • Gaer, Joseph, editor, Ambrose Gwinett Bierce: Bibliography and Biographical Data, R. West (Philadelphia), 1977.
  • Grenander, M. E., Ambrose Bierce, Twayne, 1971.
  • Joshi, S. T., The Weird Tale: Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Ambrose Bierce, H. P. Lovecraft, University of Texas Press, 1990.
  • McWilliams, Carey, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, Albert & Charles Boni, 1929.
  • Mencken, H. L., Prejudices: Sixth Series, Knopf, 1927.
  • Morrill, Sibley S., Ambrose Bierce, F.A. Mitchell-Hedges, and the Crystal Skull, Cadleon Press (San Francisco), 1972.
  • Morris, Roy, Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, Crown Publishers (New York City), 1995.
  • O'Connor, Richard, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, Little, Brown, 1967.
  • Rubin, Louis D., Jr., editor, The Comic Imagination in American Literature, Quinn & Boden, 1973.
  • Saunders, Richard, Ambrose Bierce: The Making of a Misanthrope, Chronicle Books (San Francisco), 1985.
  • Short Story Criticism, Volume 9, Gale, 1992.
  • Sidney-Fryer, Donald, editor, A Vision of Doom: Poems by Ambrose Bierce, Donald M. Grant, 1980.
  • Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Gale, Volume 1, 1978, Volume 7, 1982, Volume 44, 1992.
  • Wagenknecht, Edward, editor, The Stories and Fables of Ambrose Bierce, Stemmer House, 1977.
  • Wiggins, Robert A., Ambrose Bierce, University of Minnesota Press, 1964.
  • Wilson, Edmund, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, Oxford University Press, 1962.
  • Woodruff, Stuart C., The Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce: A Study in Polarity, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964.
  • World Literature Criticism, Gale, 1992.
PERIODICALS
  • Nyctalops, Volume 2, number 7, 1978, pp. 29-31.
  • Western Humanities Review, Volume 31, 1977, pp. 173-80.

Discover this poet’s context and related poetry, articles, and media.

Poet Categorization

LIFE SPAN 1842–1914

Ambrose Bierce

Biography

Ambrose Bierce's literary reputation is based primarily on his short stories about the Civil War and the supernatural—a body of work that makes up a relatively small part of his total output. Often compared to the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, these stories share an attraction to death in its more bizarre forms, featuring depictions of mental deterioration, uncanny, otherworldly manifestations, and expressions of the horror of . . .

Report a problem with this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.