Cobwebs: Being the Fables of Zambri the Parse, 1884
Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, 1891 (also known as In the Midst of Life, 1898)
Can Such Things Be?, 1893
Fantastic Fables, 1899
The Cynic’s Word Book, 1906
My Favourite Murder, 1916
Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce, 1964
The Collected Fables of Ambrose Bierce, 2000 (S. T. Joshi, editor)
Vision of Doom, 1890
Black Beetles in Amber, 1892
How Blind Is He?, 1896
Shapes of Clay, 1903
Poems of Ambrose Bierce, 1995
The Fiend’s Delight, 1873
Nuggets and Dust Panned in California, 1873
Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, 1874
The Dance of Death, 1877
The Dance of Life: An Answer to the Dance of Death, 1877 (with Mrs. J. Milton Bowers)
The Devil’s Dictionary, 1906
The Shadow on the Dial, and Other Essays, 1909
Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, 1909
The Letters of Ambrose Bierce, 1922
Twenty-one Letters of Ambrose Bierce, 1922
Selections from Prattle, 1936
Ambrose Bierce on Richard Realf by Wm. McDevitt, 1948
A Sole Survivor: Bits of Autobiography, 1998 (S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, editors)
The Fall of the Republic, and Other Political Satires, 2000 (Joshi and Schultz, editors)
The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter, 1892 (with Gustav Adolph Danziger; of Richard Voss’s novel)
The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, 1909-1912
Shadows of Blue and Gray: The Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce, 2002 (Brian M. Thomsen, editor)
Ambrose Gwinett Bierce (bihrs), journalist, short-story writer, and cynical wit, was born in Horse Cave Creek near Chester, Ohio, on June 24, 1842, on the site of a camp meeting. He later would label his parents, characteristically, as being “unwashed savages.” He disappeared into even greater obscurity at the age of seventy-two, having crossed into Mexico during the revolution; one legend is that he was attached for a time to Pancho Villa’s staff.
Bierce was educated in a country school with no later university training, although much of his literary fame rests upon a severely impeccable style that depends upon grammatical succinctness for effect. In 1861, he entered the Union army as a volunteer private but rose to the rank of lieutenant and was finally brevetted major. He was twice wounded, once severely in the head at Kennesaw Mountain. A lifelong interest in strategy developed from his experience as a mapmaker while touring the West under General William Hazen. Bierce’s exacting and unromantic accounts of the Civil War in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (a collection also called In the Midst of Life) imaginatively record this period. These tales, in which his feeling for unusual descriptions of nature heightens the intellectual precision of his plots, gave a more inexorable twist to “life’s ironies” than did Thomas Hardy’s novels and verse during the same period.
After the Civil War, Bierce lived in California and wrote for several San Francisco journals and papers. He deserted his wife and three children in 1871 to go to England for four years. There he was associated with the magazine Fun and wrote The Fiend’s Delight and Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, a collection of satirical fables. He resumed his journalistic career in California in 1876, acting for the next twenty-one years as the arbiter of literary taste–the unchallenged Dr. Johnson–of the West Coast while writing columns for William Randolph Hearst’s Sunday Examiner. Sent to Washington, D.C., to oppose the railroad lobby of Collis P. Huntington, Bierce wrote for the New York American and Cosmopolitan until 1909; he produced little between that year and his departure for the Mexican border in 1913.
Bierce’s first short story, “The Haunted Valley” (1871), was published in Overland Monthly. His earliest sketches, humorous accounts of mining camps, were published in Nuggets and Dust Panned in California. In these tales, there is marked resemblance to the works of Bret Harte; but gradually Edgar Allan Poe, whom Bierce greatly admired, became the greater influence on Bierce’s work, even to the extent of his disavowing the novel as a fictional mode. In 1881, he began printing in periodical form much of the material later published as The Cynic’s Word Book (now known as The Devil’s Dictionary). His mordant brevity in this book (“Politeness: The most acceptable hypocrisy.”) is the most philosophical form of the columnist’s quip that later became a mainstay of American journalism.
Bierce’s first volume of satiric verse, Black Beetles in Amber, followed his translation, with G. A. Danziger, of The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter, from the German of Richard Voss. A later verse collection was Shapes of Clay. These poems did not carry the literary force and conviction of his Write It Right, a critical listing of stylistic faults, or of his frank essays in The Shadow on the Dial.
Bierce’s main contributions to American literature are some of the finest short stories in English. In “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and “The Death of Halpin Fraser,” he rivaled Poe, Bierce being less macabre but more forthright in his mockery of circumstance. Above all, he had the power to surprise the reader by a deft ending that hung on the edge of impossibility, as in “A Tough Tussle” and “The Night Doings at Deadman’s.” The very title of Can Such Things Be? best expresses Bierce’s attitude toward the critical events of life that inspire the writer of fiction. The Collected Works in twelve volumes (1909-1912) was his legacy to a world he believed to be incapable of discrimination; in it–in what may have been a last gesture of defiance–he published everything he had ever written.