Bierce, Ambrose (Gwinnet)

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BIERCE, Ambrose (Gwinnet)

Nationality: American. Born: Horse Cave Creek, Meigs County, Ohio, 24 June 1842. Education: High school in Warsaw, Indiana; Kentucky Military Institute, Franklin Springs, 1859-60. Military Service: Served in the 9th Indiana Infantry of the Union Army during the Civil War, 1861-65: major. Family: Married Mollie Day in 1871 (separated 1888; divorced 1905); two sons and one daughter. Career: Printer's devil, Northern Indianan (anti-slavery paper), 1857-59; U.S. Treasury aide, Selma, Alabama, 1865; served on military mapping expedition, Omaha to San Francisco, 1866-67; night watchman and clerk, Sub-Treasury, San Francisco, 1867-78; editor and columnist ("Town Crier"), News Letter, San Francisco, 1868-71. Lived in London, 1872-75: staff member, Fun, 1872-75, and editor, Lantern, 1875. Worked in the assay office, U.S. Mint, San Francisco, after 1875; associate editor, Argonaut, 1877-79; agent, Black Hills Placer Mining Company, Rockervill, Dakota Territory, 1880-81; editor and columnist ("Prattle"), Wasp, San Francisco, 1881-86; columnist, San Francisco Examiner, 1887-1906, and New York Journal, 1896-1906. Lived in Washington, D.C., 1900-13: Washington correspondent, New York American, 1900-06; columnist, Cosmopolitan, Washington, 1905-09. Traveled in Mexico, 1913-14; served in Villa's forces and is presumed to have been killed at the Battle of Ojinaga. Died: 11 January 1914.



Collected Works, edited by Walter Neale. 12 vols., 1909-12.

Complete Short Stories, edited by Ernest Jerome Hopkins. 1970.

Stories and Fables, edited by Edward Wagenknecht. 1977.

The Devil's Advocate: A Reader, edited by Brian St. Pierre. 1987.

The Moonlit Road, and Other Ghost and Horror Stories. 1998.

Short Stories

Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California. 1873.

Cobwebs from an Empty Skull. 1874.

Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. 1891; as In the Midst of Life, 1892; revised edition, 1898.

Can Such Things Be? 1893.

Fantastic Fables. 1899.


The Fiend's Delight. 1873.

The Dance of Death, with Thomas A. Harcourt. 1877; revised edition, 1877.

The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter, from a translation by Gustav Adolph Danziger of a story by Richard Voss. 1892.

A Son of the Gods, and A Horseman in the Sky. 1907.

Battlefields and Ghosts. 1931.


Black Beetles in Amber. 1892.

Shapes of Clay. 1903.

Poems of Ambrose Bierce. 1996.


The Cynic's Word Book. 1906; as The Devil's Dictionary, 1911; revised edition, by Ernest Jerome Hopkins, as The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary, 1967.

The Shadow on the Dial and Other Essays, edited by S.O. Howes.1909; revised edition, as Antepenultimata (in Collected Works 11), 1912.

Write It Right: A Little Black-List of Literary Faults. 1909.

Letters, edited by Bertha Clark Pope. 1921.

Twenty-One Letters, edited by Samuel Loveman. 1922.

Selections from Prattle, edited by Carroll D. Hall. 1936.

Satanic Reader: Selections from the Invective Journalism, edited by Ernest Jerome Hopkins. 1968.

The Devil's Advocate: A Bierce Readers, edited by Brian St. Pierre. 1987.

Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism, 1898-1901, edited by Lawrence I. Berkove. 1986.



Bierce: A Bibliography by Vincent Starrett, 1929; in Bibliography of American Literature by Jacob Blanck, 1955; Bierce: Bibliographical and Biographical Data edited by Joseph Gaer, 1968.

Critical Studies:

Bierce: A Biography by Carey McWilliams, 1929; Bierce, The Devil's Lexicographer, 1951, and Bierce and the Black Hills, 1956, both by Paul Fatout; Bierce by Robert A. Wiggins, 1964; The Short Stories of Bierce: A Study in Polarity by Stuart C. Woodruff, 1965; Bierce: A Biography by Richard O'Connor, 1967; Bierce by M.E. Grenander, 1971; Critical Essays on Bierce edited by Cathy N. Davidson, 1982, and The Experimental Fictions of Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable by Davidson, 1984; Bierce: The Making of a Misanthrope by Richard Saunders, 1985; Just What War Is: The Civil War Writings of De Forest and Bierce by Michael W. Schaefer, 1997.

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Ambrose Bierce was a master of short forms. As a journalist, he was primarily a columnist and aphorist, and many of the titles of his collected pieces provide examples: Nuggets and Dust, Cobwebs from an Empty Shell, Black Beetles in Amber, and Fantastic Fables. Many of his most witty and sardonic judgments of the American scene appeared as The Devil's Dictionary after his death. Even his larger stories are quite short in comparison with the work of his contemporaries among the realists and local colorists at the end of the nineteenth century. And the number of formal short stories he wrote—exclusive of brief fables and "short-shorts"—reach 55 or so. Published within a brief period, most were printed in book form in In the Midst of Life (first titled Tales of Soldiers and Civilians) and Can Such Things Be?, and were written between 1888 and 1891. The sales of these books were initially very small since the publishing house seemed to collapse after printing his work.

Perhaps the tightest aspect of Ambrose Bierce's short stories is the narrowness of subject matter and technique. The tales of soldiers are brilliant insights into the darker aspects of combat, which Bierce knew well from experience. The tales of civilians question (as do many of the military stories) matters of the uncanny, of life after death, ghosts, hauntings, and supernatural revenge. Whether writing of war in a realistic manner, drawn from personal experience that helped inspire the imagined war stories of his younger contemporary Stephen Crane, or writing of the uneasy peace in lonely farms, deserted city mansions, abandoned mining camps, places that remind of Bierce's master Edgar Allan Poe—both believe that terror is not of a specific place but of the heart—Bierce employed for the most part a manner of overwhelming irony. These tours de force of horror depend on beliefs in the unexplainable, on deeply psychological repressions and transference. As Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Rudyard Kipling, and even Henry James joined plausible realistic settings to unknown ghostly fears, so Bierce is at once a local color artist in his backgrounds and a darkly disturbing analyst of psyche in his plots. Thus, "Bitter Bierce"—wit, cynic, savage polemicist—wrote first some of the finest fiction of the Civil War, then attempted to transfer the cosmic values natural to military combat into the settings usual for ghost stories, always seeking the same point: life and death are so weird and unnatural, the horrifying tales of immolation or out-of-body experiences can take place whatever the setting. Yet the war stories work brilliantly because horror is natural to war's barbarisms; most often the ghost stories, depending as they do on the added ironic distance between bucolic urban setting and ghostly event, are strained. Tales of soldiers seem realistic in their ironies, while tales of civilians seem pathological in their recreation of war's bloodiness in a peaceful world. The war stories make a major contribution to fiction, anticipating the tone of disillusionment that would mark the novels of post-World War I writers like Remarque, Barbusse, or Hemingway. The ghost stories at their best compare with Stevenson, Poe, or Le Fanu, but too often depend on a sardonic twist of events at the end, a technique handled more effectively by O. Henry.

Ambrose Bierce never lost the overwhelming memories of his youthful Civil War experiences. Joining the Ninth Indiana Infantry at the age of 19, he fought through the entire war with the western armies, being severely wounded at Kenesaw Mountain, serving also at Shiloh, Stone River, Murfreesboro, and Chickamauga, among other battles. In his finest war tales, recollected decades later, he displays the awful misery, the macabre ghastliness, the shocking brutality of war. The 15 stories in Tales of Soldiers strike a mean between violently contrived naturalism—replete with revolting ugliness and shocking coincidence—and the accumulation of exact, realistic, and factual observations of combat life. The vision is bleak; each story treats the death of the good and the brave. Ironies prevail: a Northern soldier kills his rebel father, a young enlisted man on guard duty discovers his brother's corpse; a gunner destroys his own house, with his wife and children inside. While the characters are flat, each story expresses a deep trauma, one that ends in madness and loss.

Along with the much-anthologized "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" Bierce's "Chickamauga," "A Son of the Gods," "Parker Adderson, Philosopher," "One Officer, One Man," and "The Mocking-Bird" are superb vignettes of cosmic irony as people in all their insignificance learn the futility of so-called normal actions and aspirations in the face of the all-encompassing universe of war. Because war has its own framework of irony, its own foreshortening of time, its own rapid transitions and swift confrontations, Tales of Soldiers show Bierce at his best in his sardonic fiction, which often approaches, like Tolstoi's Sebastopol, universality. In a story called "The Holy Terror" Bierce reflexively indicates his basic approach to his civilian tales: "When terror and absurdity make alliance, the effect is frightful." And in "The Suitable Surroundings" the author reveals his aim: "You must be made to feel fear—at least a strong sense of the supernatural—and that is a difficult matter." The difficulty causes the strain in the stories in Tales of Soldiers or Can Such Things Be? A skeptic is driven mad in a haunted house; ancient murders are reenacted; a hanged man's spirit gets revenge; a murder haunts former scenes of domestic happiness.

The first and longest tale in Can Such Things Be?, "The Death of Halpin Frayser," remains one of Bierce's most horrifying and perhaps most revealing. A young man is killed in a forest beside a grave—by a female figure who seems to have been his dead mother. The psychoanalytic possibilities resonate, but Bierce is not interested in depth analysis. What these stories are interested in is the refusal to accept death as the end. Whether on rural farm or in urban apartment, the living dead haunt the dying living. As in the famous "Moxon's Master," even mechanical monsters that might have been created by a Dr. Frankenstein prevail. Indeed, perhaps the special quality of these horror tales is that the bland and the normal succumb to the evil and the macabre. The titles themselves are revealing: "The Damned Thing," "Beyond the Wall," "A Diagnosis of Death." But as one reads the third volume of Bierce's Collected Works and moves from Can Such Things Be? to stories added under the rubrics "The Ways of Ghosts" and "Some Haunted Houses," one comes also upon four short tales entitled "Soldier-Folk," and again the fictional story gives way to realistic irony. For Bierce, as a clear master of the American short story, war provided setting and structure in an appropriate form. He was an interesting horror and ghost story writer, certainly disturbing, but Bierce was one of the greatest military short story writers in any literature.

—Eric Solomon

See the essay on "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge."