[This is a slightly revised reprint of a column which originally appeared in the September 23, 2004, issue of Hellnotes.]
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born June 24, 1842, in Meigs County, Ohio, the youngest of 10 children. In 1846, his family moved to Indiana, where he grew up. He was a mischievous but bookish child. His literary career started at age 15 when he became a “printer’s devil” for The Northern Indianan newspaper.
Among Bierce’s best known works are the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and the witty The Devil’s Dictionary. The latter, originally published in 1906 under the title The Cynic’s Word Book, is a collection of hundreds of “definitions,” such as “Helpmate, n. A wife, or bitter half.”
Of his 93 published short stories, 53 are considered supernatural. The remainder include 22 satires, 12 war stories, and two fantasies. Many of his horror stories have a Western or Civil War setting, and the dominant theme is hauntings. Other themes are lycanthropy, hypnosis, telepathic influence, and mysterious disappearances. He also wrote psychic and Lovecraftian stories and is well known for his twist endings. Many of his stories are under 3000 words in length, and several are no longer than a thousand words.
Bierce fought in the Civil War as a member of the Ninth Regiment of Indiana Volunteers and Hazen’s Brigade of Buell’s Army of the Ohio. He was seriously wounded during the battle of Kennesaw Mountain. He also fought at Chickamauga, Philippi, Girard Hill, Shiloh, Stones River, Cornith, Missionary Ridge, and Pickett’s Mill. He was captured by the Confederates in Alabama but managed to escape. In 1865, he left the Army and received the rank of brevet major (an honorary title for distinguished service). Biographer Richard O’Conner wrote, “War was the making of Bierce as a man and a writer.” Bierce’s Civil War adventures were the basis of many of his stories, which are considered to be among the best writings on war. These stories include “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “Chickamauga.”
“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” was filmed by Robert Enrico in 1962. Enrico also filmed “Chickamauga” and In the Midst of Life. “Owl Creek” is available on DVD. A new version of “Owl Creek,” directed by Brian James Egen, was released in 2005.
In 1866, Bierce joined General Hazen as engineering attaché in a military expedition through Indian territory to inspect Western military posts. He arrived in San Francisco with the Hazen expedition, but when his application for an Army commission was denied, he took a job as watchman at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco.
His first published writing was a poem, “The Basilica,” which appeared on September 21, 1867, in the Californian. In 1868, he joined the staff of the News Letter for which he wrote a column, “The Town Crier.” He later became an editor at that paper, and while there, he first met Mark Twain, who was a major influence on his writing. In January 1871, his first published short story, “The Haunted Valley,” appeared in the Overland, which was edited by Bret Harte, who also influenced his writing.
On December 25, 1871, Bierce married Mary Ellen (Mollie) Day in San Francisco. They eventually had two sons, Day and Leigh, and a daughter, Helen. In 1872, Bierce and his wife moved to England. There, Bierce wrote for the humor magazine Fun under the pseudonym of Dod Grile and contributed to the magazine Figaro. In July 1872, his first book was published: The Fiend’s Delight, by “Dod Grile.”
The family returned to San Francisco in 1875, where Bierce obtained employment in the Assay Office of the Mint. In March 1877, he was named associate editor of the Argonaut, where he had a column. During this time, he pulled his pistol on an angry reader who attacked him in the Argonaut office.
From 1881 to 1886, Bierce worked for The Wasp, a satirical San Francisco newspaper. He had a column, “Prattle,” and also worked for a time as managing editor. It was in this column that he started The Devil’s Dictionary. Bierce suffered no fools in his column, which was avidly read by San Franciscans. He promoted civil liberties and religious freedom, and attacked narrow-minded journalists, greedy businessmen, and crooked politicians, and he savagely attacked Oscar Wilde during Wilde’s first tour of America.
In March 1887, Bierce was hired as a columnist and editorial writer for the San Francisco Examiner by William Randolph Hearst, where he began publishing his Civil War stories.
Bierce’s first collection was published in 1891: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, which consisted of 26 horror stories. It was reprinted in London as In the Midst of Life. In 1892, Black Beetles in Amber, a poetry collection, appeared. Another supernatural collection, Can Such Things Be? was published in 1893. Other books were Fantastic Fables (1899); Shapes of Clay, a book of verse (1903); The Shadow on the Dial and Other Essays (1909); and Write it Right, a book on writing (1909). From 1909 to 1912, Neale Publishing Co. issued the 12-volume Collected Works.
In December 1899, Bierce moved to Washington, D.C., to continue writing for Hearst’s newspapers. From 1905 to 1908, he wrote for Hearst’s Cosmopolitan magazine. After this, he started formulating plans to go to Mexico to fight in the revolution.
Bierce’s death remains a mystery. He disappeared in 1913 and is thought to have died in the Battle of Ojinaga in Mexico on January 11, 1914, where he had gone to fight with the bandit Pancho Villa. Some scholars speculate that his joining the revolution–he was 71 at the time–was an act of suicide. In August 2004, a memorial marker was placed in the town of Sierra Mojada, Mexico, by James Lienert, who speculates Bierce was executed and buried there.
Many inexpensive editions of Bierce’s work are available from both brick and click stores, including The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary and Graphic Classics, Vol. 6.: Ambrose Bierce. The San Francisco Wasp is available from Periodyssey Press. On-line editions of several of Bierce’s works (as well as those of many other authors) are available at the Project Gutenberg web site. AAn excellent web site on Bierce is at The Ambrose Bierce Site.