Authors: Ambrose Bierce

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer and journalist

Author Works

Short Fiction:

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)

Poetry:

Vision of Doom, 1890

Black Beetles in Amber, 1892

How Blind Is He?, 1896

Shapes of Clay, 1903

Poems of Ambrose Bierce, 1995

Nonfiction:

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)

Translation:

The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter, 1892 (with Gustav Adolph Danziger; of Richard Voss’s novel)

Miscellaneous:

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)

Biography

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.{$I[AN]9810001449}{$I[A]Bierce, Ambrose}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Bierce, Ambrose}{$I[tim]1842;Bierce, Ambrose}

Ambrose Bierce

(Library of Congress)

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.

BibliographyBerkove, Lawrence. Presciption for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002. Iconoclastic study that revises the traditional view of Bierce as a cynic.Bierce, Ambrose. A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schutz. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003. A collection of the author’s correspondence calculated to nourish a more sympathetic portrait than is usually presented of Bierce.Bierce, Ambrose. The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce: A Comprehensive Edition. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Lawrence I. Berkove, and David E. Schultz. Knoxville : University of Tennessee Press, 2007. This comprehensive collection of Bierce’s short fiction is covered in three volumes spanning 1868-1910. The general introduction as well as the introductions to the sections are lucidly written, drawing attention to the themes and literary devices that appear in many of Bierce’s stories. The editors provide a wealth of information on the author’s short fiction and give readers the tools to examine the works critically.Bierce, Ambrose. Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings of Ambrose Bierce. Edited by Russell Duncan and David J. Klooster. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2002. This volume collects all of Bierce’s Civil War writings and places each piece in the historical context of the war. The lengthy introduction describes Bierces’s battlefield experiences and discusses their effect on the psyche and literary expression of the writer.Butterfield, Herbie. “’Our Bedfellow Death’: The Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce.” In The Nineteenth Century American Short Story, edited by A. Robert Lee. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1985. A brief, general introduction to the themes and techniques of some of Bierce’s most representative short stories.Conlogue, William. “A Haunting Memory: Ambrose Bierce and the Ravine of the Dead.” Studies in Short Fiction 28 (Winter, 1991): 21-29. Discusses Bierce’s symbolic use of the topographical feature of the ravine as a major symbol of death in five stories, including “Killed at Resaca,” “Coulter’s Notch,” and “The Coup de Grace.” Shows how the ravine symbolizes the grave, the underworld, and lost love for Bierce, all derived from his Civil War memories and the death of his first love.Davidson, Cathy N. The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. Discusses how Bierce intentionally blurs distinctions between such categories as knowledge, emotion, language, and behavior. Examines how Bierce blurs distinctions between external reality and imaginative reality in many of his most important short stories.Davidson, Cathy N., ed. Critical Essays on Ambrose Bierce. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982. A comprehensive compilation of thirty essays and reviews of Bierce’s work, this collection is an essential tool for any serious study of Bierce. Davidson’s introduction locates the essays in relation to the ongoing process of reevaluating Bierce’s work, and her thoroughly researched bibliography contains more than eighty further critical references.Fatout, Paul. Ambrose Bierce, the Devil’s Lexicographer. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951. Fatout’s impressive collation of painstakingly researched biographical data represents an important landmark in the scholarly study of Bierce’s life. Supplemented by illustrations and a bibliography.Gale, Robert L. An Ambrose Bierce Companion. New York: Greenwood Press, 2001. A guide to the life and writings of the American satirist.Grenander, Mary Elizabeth. Ambrose Bierce. New York: Twayne, 1971. This volume is well researched, balanced, and readable, and it is perhaps the single most accessible study of Bierce’s work and life. Contains a valuable, annotated bibliography and a list of primary sources.Hoppenstand, Gary. “Ambrose Bierce and the Transformation of the Gothic Tale in the Nineteenth-Century American Periodical.” In Periodical Literature in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Kenneth M. Price and Susan Belasco Smith. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995. Examines Bierce’s relationship to the San Francisco periodicals, focusing on the influence he had in bringing the gothic tale into the twentieth century; discusses themes and conventions in “The Damned Thing” and “Moxon’s Master.”McWilliams, Carey. Ambrose Bierce: A Biography. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1967. A reprint of the 1929 edition, with a new introduction that tells of the book’s origin in McWilliams’s collaboration with Bierce’s surviving daughter Helen. Based on oral interviews of people who knew Bierce, this is the first scholarly study of his life.Morris, Roy, Jr. Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company. New York: Crown, 1996. A compelling biography that reviews Bierce’s literary career alongside the writer’s life. Morris argues that Bierce’s cynicism was both real and deeply rooted, a lasting depression left over from Bierce’s Civil War experiences and built on by personal tragedy and disappointment. Bierce’s mysterious disappearance, according to Morris, was a cleverly made ruse to cover his own suicide–an attempt to make the end of his already peculiar life an enduring work of gothic fiction.O’Connor, Richard. Ambrose Bierce. Boston: Little, Brown, 1967. A popular biography by a prolific writer on the American West. Very readable, the book interprets Bierce’s work as that of a despairing moralist. Complemented by a select bibliography.Schaefer, Michael W. Just What War Is: The Civil War Writings of De Forest and Bierce. Knoxville: University of Tennesse Press, 1997. Examines the pervasive theme of the Civil War in Bierce’s stories as well as John William De Forest’s.Woodruff, Stuart C. The Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce: A Study in Polarity. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1964. Argues that Bierce’s fiction derives from a series of violent oscillations between art and life and idealism and cynicism; argues that Bierce’s major theme is the inscrutable universe which blocks man’s every effort to live his dreams; discusses the polarity between the true and permanent art Bierce hungered for and the popular journalism he took up.
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