6: Late Nineteenth Century
and Naturalism

Ambrose Bierce
1842-1914?

© Paul P. Reuben
June 23, 2014
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Outside Links: | AB Bibliography | A Brief Biography | The AB Project |

Page Links: | Primary Works | Selected Bibliography 1980-Present | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

| A Brief Biography |

Site Links: | Chap 6: Index | Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page |


Source:
Reflections on Great Literature - AB 

"Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the

foolish their lack of understanding." AB, The Devil's Dictionary, (Dover paperback edition, 1958, p. 34)

 

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (1842-1913[?]) was an American journalist and fiction writer. His macabre tales featuring unexpected plot twists and his war stories calling upon on his experiences as a volunteer soldier for the Union Army have been regularly anthologized in numerous collections of U.S. literature and short stories. Bierce, like Edgar Allan Poe, has influenced many short story writers following him who feature mystery, suspense, and horror. For example, the surprise ending of his "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890) has been echoed and reworked in countless stories and popular dramas. Bierce is equally renowned for his sharp wit and biting satire attacking unbridled greed, power, and corruption. For instance, his piercing criticism of "rail-rogues" the railroad tycoons Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins, is indicative of his contempt for rampant monopoly capitalism. He did not, however, limit his censure to the rich and powerful but also directed it to those who attacked women, African Americans, and immigrants. Although Bierce himself was unable to escape entirely the prevailing influence of racist politics and religious chauvinism of his period, he consistently and irreverently took a critical stance regarding societal assumptions and values that privileged masculinity, capitalism, Christianity, and nationalism at the expense of justice, reason, and charity. Some of his most important short stories are "The Haunted Valley"(1871), "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1890), "Chickamauga (1891), and "The Death of Halpin Frayser (1891). He is also famous for his satirical The Devil's Dictionary(1911).

- Written for this webpage by Hellen Lee-Keller, author of "Civilizing Violence: 'The Haunted Valley.'" AB Project Journal

Primary Works

The Fiend's Delight, 1872 (writing as Dod Grile); Nuggets and Dust, 1872; Nuggets And Dust Panned Out in California, 1872 (writing as Dod Grile); The Fiend's Delight, 1873; Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, 1874; Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, 1874 (writing as Dod Grile); The Dance of Death, 1877 (writing as William Herman) (with Thomas A Harcourt); The Dance of Life: An Answer to the Dance of Death, 1877 (writing as Mrs J Milton Bowers); Black Beetles In Amber, 1892; The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter, 1892; Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, 1892; Black Beetles in Amber, 1892; Can Such Things Be? , 1893; Fantastic Fables, 1899; Shapes of Clay, 1903; The Cynic's Word Book, 1906; A Vision of Doom, 1980.

The letters of Ambrose Bierce. edited by Bertha Clark Pope; with a memoir by George Sterling. San Francisco: The Book Club of California, 1922. PS1097 .Z5 A3

Collected works. NY: Gordian P, 1966. 12 volumes. PS1097 .A1

Skepticism and dissent: selected journalism from 1898-1901. edited with an introduction by Lawrence I. Berkove. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Delmas, 1980. PS1097 .A6

Phantoms of a blood-stained period: the complete Civil War writings of Ambrose Bierce. edited by Russell Duncan & David J. Klooster. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2002. PS1097 .A6

Ambrose Bierce's 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge': An Annotated Critical Edition. Evans, Robert C. (ed.). West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill, 2003.

Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. Blume, Donald T. (ed. and introd.). Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 2004.

The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce: A Comprehensive Edition: Volume I; Volume II; Volume III. Joshi, S.T. (ed. and introd.); Berkove, Lawrence I.; Schultz, David E. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2006.

Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Berkove, Lawrence I. ed. Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism, 1898-1901 by Ambrose Bierce. Rev. ed. Ann Arbor: Univ. Microfilms Internat. P, 1986.

Blume, Donald T. Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers in Context: A Critical Study. Kent: Kent State UP, 2004.

Cornes, Judy. Madness and the Loss of Identity in Nineteenth Century Fiction. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008.

Davidson, Cathy N. Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce. Boston: Hall, 1982.

- - -. The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1984. PS1097 .Z5 D34 1984

Duncan, Russell, and David J. Klooster. Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2002.

Evans, Robert C. ed. Ambrose Bierce's 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge': An Annotated Critical Edition. West Cornwall, CT: Locust Hill, 2003.

Gale, Robert L. An Ambrose Bierce Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001.

Griffin, Martin. Ashes of the Mind: War and Memory in Northern Literature, 1865-1900. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2009.

Joshi, S. T., and David E. Schultz. eds. A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography. Knoxville, TN: U of Tennessee P, 1998.

- - -. Ambrose Bierce: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary Sources. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.

- - -. A much misunderstood man: selected letters of Ambrose Bierce. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2003. PS1097 .Z5 A4

Morris, Jr., Ray. Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company. NY: Oxford UP. 1995.

Owens, David M. The Devil's Topographer: Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2006.

Schaefer, Michael W. Just What War Is: The Civil War Writings of De Forest and Bierce. Knoxville, TN: U of Tennessee P, 1997.

Talley, Sharon. Ambrose Bierce and the Dance of Death. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2009.

| Top |Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?): A Brief Biography
A Student Project by Corey Strand 

Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce was born June 24, 1842 in Horse Cave Creek, Meigs County, Ohio to Marcus Aurelius and Laura Sherwood Bierce. Ambrose was the youngest of ten children who were all given names beginning with the letter "A" as a result of his father's love for poetry and alliteration. Bierce grew up on a farm where poverty and religion were constant. Richard O'Conner, in his biography of Ambrose Bierce claims that Bierce described his parents as "unwashed savages" and religious fanatics who would spare him little affection but were quick to punish him with anything "they could lay their hands on." (9) Hardship, disaffection, and rigid routine can best characterize his childhood. Religion played a major role in his parents' lives and quickly became an area of Bierce's life that he resented most. "Praying, hymn-singing and bible reading" was forced upon him at an early age and remained a constant and rigid way of life until Bierce was able to leave home in his late teens.

A struggling farmer the father still had a love for literature that was passed on to his son; otherwise according to O'Conner "Marcus had little influence on Ambrose." (11) The most influential male figure during Bierce's childhood was his Uncle Lucius, his father's brother, whose "political and military distinction won the admiration of his nephew" at an early age. (O'Conner 12) Lucius was a military leader and graduate of Ohio University. Although within the Bierce household the most dominant figure was Ambrose's mother, Laura, who was very authoritative and "dominat(ed) her husband and children." (O'Conner 12)

At the age of nine Ambrose and the family moved westward "in search of better land, (and) a more promising future" settling on an 80 acre piece of land in Walnut Creek, Indiana. (O'Conner 14). By the fifteen, according to Adolph DeCastro's biography titled, Portrait of Ambrose Bierce, Ambrose had "exchanged a hard farm life (and) stole away to the town of Warsaw for the easier way of a printer's apprenticeship." (7) This apprenticeship according to O'Conner was to a man named Rueben Williams who worked for a newspaper called The Northern Indian. It is undocumented how long Bierce worked under Williams, although O'Conner describes that Bierce quit this apprenticeship; "local legend had it that he decided to leave Warsaw because he was falsely accused of a theft." (18) During this time Bierce returned to the family farm in Walnut Creek. Bierce had been sending work to editors in hopes of being published, and repeatedly faced rejection "but kept on writing, reading and living the hard life on the farm." (DeCastro 7)

Through the recommendation of his Uncle Lucius, Ambrose was sent to the Kentucky Military Institute. This move proves to be very beneficial for Bierce when a year later his education at the institute "enables him to be commissioned as an officer" for the Union Army at the age of 19 after the Civil War breaks out. Bierce's heroism and leadership during the Civil War is commonly recognized, although few factual stories have been documented. It has been described that Bierce rescued two wounded comrades from the battlefield and was severely wounded in the head at Kenesaw Mountain leaving a very noticeable and distinguishing scar on his forehead.

Discharging himself from the military in 1866 Bierce retired, at a rank of Lieutenant, forty-two years later; with further consideration his rank was reevaluated to hat of a Major. Although at the time of retiring it is no surprise that that Bierce left feeling to a certain extent under-appreciated and as though his services to his country were not fully recognized.

| Top | That same year in 1866 Bierce became editor of the San Francisco Newsletter and California Advisor, where he worked for 6 years. In 1972 Bierce moved to London where he worked for a journal called Fun and quickly showed his unique ability for satirical criticism and commentary. Fearless in his commentary Bierce attacked all members of society earning nicknames ranging from "Bitter Bierce" to "Almighty God Bierce" by his colleagues. The Friend's Delight and Nuggets and Dust were based on Bierce's journals from his experiences in San Francisco and his travels on the West Coast and published in 1873. The following year Bierce published a collection of stories in Cobwebs From an Empty Skull that brought Bierce even more popularity throughout Europe and according to Starrett established his name as "chief wit and humorist of England." (13). Shortly after Bierce was given the job of editor of the London newspaper called The Lantern. Although not reaching the level of financial wealth that he wanted Bierce stayed only a short time before returning to San Francisco in 1876. Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, also known as In the Midst of Life was published in 1892. Bierce went to work for various journals and newspapers on the West Coast continuing his satire and commentary of American government and society while also writing independently.

Bierce's experiences of mental hardship, death and violence stemming from the atrocities of the Civil War play a large role in shaping his style and subject matter. Leaving the military with feelings of disrespect and under appreciation Bierce had no problems criticizing the U.S. government, politicians, or anyone else for that matter. Often expressing this bitterness about government in journals and newspapers Bierce expressed "wisdom and intellect" by exposing the many "hypocrisies" that were being "spoken and published" during the time (DeCastro 13). According to Vincent Starrett "it is no exaggeration to say that corrupt politicians, hypocritical philanthropists and clergymen, self worshipers, notoriety seekers, and pretenders of every description trembled at his name…(and) opened their morning papers with something like horror." (17) It did not take long for Bierce's reputation for brutal honesty and accurate portrayal to spread sending fear into the hearts of many. Bierce held no punches in criticizing even the most famous figures such as Oscar Wilde, but he had a gentleman's way commenting on principle rather than targeting the individual men. This kept him from making lifelong enemies. Starrett writes, "his wit was diabolic-satanic- but he was always the scholar, and he always bowed politely before he struck." (18)

Ambrose Bierce is best known for the short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek" published in 1891 (the story in our textbook) and The Devil's Dictionary, where Bierce's satiric style comes across strongly. It is said that Bierce loved war and wrote about the "shocking accounts and hideous" events of the battlefield. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek" is an example of this as Peyton Farquhar is hung for aiding the South in attempting to destroy a bridge; this particular story is rather mild in comparison to the brutality and violence of other short stories based on the Civil War. One such example is "Chickamauga," a story where a deaf-mute child wanders through the woods and encounters the horrific sight of seeing first hand wounded soldiers after a battle. Sickened by the sight the child runs home only to find his house burned and his mother violently murdered by soldiers.

One of the most controversial and interesting aspects of Bierce's life are the questions surrounding his disappearance in 1913. It is not known when or where Bierce died, although historians believe that he traveled to Mexico to fight alongside Pancho Villa. Starrett concludes that the passing of Bierce was "terribly beautiful and fitting" and that the mystery of his disappearance is a "tragically appropriate conclusion to a life of erratic adventure and high endeavor." (49-50)

Bierce's presence on the web is considerable; his work can be found readily on the internet. Although in my research I found that the majority of his sites are dedicated to his work rather than exploring his biography and I was unable to find any awards or literary honors given to him.

Works Cited:

DeCastro, Adolphe Danziger. Portrait of Ambrose Bierce. New York: Beekman Publishing Inc., 1974.

O'Conner, Richard. Ambrose Bierce: A Biography. Boston: Liitle Brown and Co., 1967.

Starrett, Vincent. Ambrose Bierce. New York: Kennikat Press, 1969.

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 6: Ambrose Bierce." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap6/bierce.html (provide page date or date of your login). 
 

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