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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Ambrose Bierce

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Ambrose Bierce's life is the mystery of his death. In 1913, when he was over seventy years of age, Bierce decided to tour Mexico in order to meet the revolutionary Pancho Villa, and understand firsthand the civil war in progress there. He realized he would probably never return from that war-torn country. His last letter was dated December 26, 1913. After that, his whereabouts are simply unknown, although the contemporary Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes insists that one still hears stories about "an old gringo" wandering the Mexican countryside. In spirit, Bierce certainly haunts the South American literary landscape: major writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Fuentes have all been influenced and intrigued by his work and his life.

Bierce was tenth of the thirteen children of Laura Sherwood and Marcus Aurelius Bierce, poor farmers in southeastern Ohio who believed in the western dream of expansion. The family moved in 1846 to a farm outside of Warsaw, Indiana, but did not achieve prosperity there either. Bierce early evinced a keen literary imagination and a nonconformist temperament. While still in school, he worked on The Northern Indianan, an anti-slavery newspaper.

In 1861, at the age of eighteen, he enlisted in the Ninth Indiana Infantry. Bierce performed a number of notable acts of bravery during his war years, including carrying a wounded comrade off a battlefield. The soldier died, and Bierce had his first taste of ambivalent heroism. Similarly, occupying the staff position of topographical engineer, Bierce surveyed some of the most famous—and bloodiest—battles of the Civil War, including those at Shiloh, Chickamauga, Lookout Mountain, and Missionary Ridge.

After the war, Bierce traveled for nearly seven years, trying his hand at different careers, and only in 1871 did he publish his first short story, "The Haunted Valley." On Christmas Day of the same year, he married Mollie Day. The couple lived first in San Rafael, California, and then, the following year, moved to London where Bierce wrote satirical pieces for Fun and Figaro.

Bierce returned to America in 1875. He settled in San Francisco with his wife and their three children and forged a career as a short story writer and one of the best-known journalists of his age. Unwilling to compromise his principles or tone down his scathing criticisms of those he thought to be unscrupulous or merely pompous, he was known as "bitter Bierce" and "the wickedest man in San Francisco" and seemed to enjoy both titles.

Although his personal life was not happy—he separated from his wife and experienced the tragic deaths of both of his sons—Bierce enjoyed the respect of a number of his contemporaries. He pioneered a number of important literary techniques, including a fluid, sometimes surrealistic prose style, the use of stream of consciousness, and the exploration of the subjectivity of time. In his stories he is particularly preoccupied with the human capacity for self-deception. Whether writing ghost stories or war tales, he often portrays characters who destroy themselves by their unwillingness to examine their own assumptions. "Chickamauga," in particular, is one of the most graphic anti-war stories in American literature. A fictional experimentalist, Ambrose Bierce nonetheless remained a moral writer who believed that the reader might learn from the lessons that his characters typically learn too late.

Cathy N. Davidson
Duke University

In the Heath Anthology
Chickamauga (1889)

Other Works
Black Beetles in Amber (1892)
Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1892)
Can Such Things Be? (1893)
Fantastic Fables (1899)
The Cynic's Word Book (1906)

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Internet movie site containing the entirety of Roberto Enrico's short adaptation of Owl Creek for online viewing.

Author of Supernatural Fiction
Extensive site including biographical data, secondary materials, and numerous links.

The Ambrose Bierce Appreciation Society
Annotated bibliography, references for film and TV sources, biographical information and links.

The Devil's Dictionary
Hypertext version of this satirical "masterpiece."

Secondary Sources

Lawrence T. Berkove, Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism, 1898-1901 by Ambrose Bierce, 1986

Cathy N. Davidson, The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable, 1984

Paul Fatout, Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Lexicographer, 1951

M.E. Grenander, Ambrose Bierce, 1971

Carey McWilliams, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, 1929

Roy Morris, Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, 1995

Michael W. Schaefer, Just What War Is: The Civil War Writings of Deforest and Bierce, 1997