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Ambrose Bierce’s literary reputation is based primarily on his short stories about the Civil War and the supernatural— a body of work that makes up a relatively small part of his total output. Often compared to the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, these stories share an attraction to death in its more bizarre forms, featuring depictions of mental deterioration and uncanny, other worldly manifestations and expressing the horror of existence in a meaningless universe. Like Poe, Bierce professed to be mainly concerned with the artistry of his work, yet critics find him more intent on conveying his misanthropy and pessimism. In his life-time Bierce was famous as a California journalist dedicated to exposing the truth as he understood it, regardless of whose reputations were harmed by his attacks. For his sardonic wit and damning observations on the personalities and events of the day, he became known as ”the wickedest man in San Francisco.”
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Forged by War
Bierce was born in Meigs County, Ohio. His parents were farmers and he was the tenth of thirteen children, all of whom were given names beginning with “A” at their father’s insistence. The family moved to Indiana, where Bierce went to high school; he later attended the Kentucky Military Institute. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he enlisted in the Union army.
In such units as the Ninth Indiana Infantry Regiment and Buell’s Army of the Ohio, he fought bravely in numerous military engagements, including the battles of Shiloh and Chickamauga and in Sherman’s March to the Sea. After the war, Bierce traveled with a military expedition to San Francisco, where he left the army and prepared himself for a literary career.
Channeling Horror and Cynicism into Success
Bierce’s early poetry and prose appeared in the Californian. In 1868 he became the editor of The News Letter, for which he wrote his famous ”Town Crier column. Bierce became something of a noted figure in California literary society, forming friendships with Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Joaquin Miller. In 1872 Bierce and his wife moved to England, where during a three-year stay he wrote for Fun and Figaro magazines and acquired the nickname ”Bitter Bierce.” When the English climate aggravated Bierce s asthma, he returned to San Francisco. In 1887 he began writing for William Randolph Hearst s San Francisco Examiner, continuing the ”Prattler column he had done for The Argonaut and The Wasp. This provided him with a regular outlet for his essays, epigrams, and short stories.
Bierce’s major fiction was collected in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891) and Can Such Things Be? (1893). Many of these stories are realistic depictions of the author s experiences in the Civil War. His most striking fictional effects depend on an adept manipulation of the reader’s viewpoint: a bloody battlefield seen through the eyes of a deaf child in ”Chickamauga ; the deceptive escape dreamed by a man about to be hanged in ”An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge the shifting perspectives of ”The Death of Halpin Frayser.”
An Often-Hated Genius
Along with his tales of terror, Bierce’s most acclaimed work is The Devil’s Dictionary (1906), a lexicon of its author’s wit and animosity. His definition for the word ghost, ”the outward and visible sign of an inward fear, clarifies his fundamentally psychological approach to the supernatural. In The Devil’s Dictionary Bierce vented much of his contempt for politics, religion, society, and conventional human values. A committed opponent of hypocrisy, prejudice, and corruption, Bierce acquired the public persona of an admired but often hated genius, a man of contradiction and mystery. In 1914, he informed some of his correspondents that he intended to enter Mexico and join Pancho Villa’s forces as an observer during that country s civil war, a chaotic conflict that arose over issues of rampant poverty and the need for sweeping social, political, and economic reform. Bierce s interest, judging from letters to friends and family, seems to have arisen from a desire for one last great adventure. Despite the numerous fanciful accounts of what happened thereafter, the present consensus among scholars is that Ambrose Bierce was probably killed in the battle of Ojinaga on January 11, 1914.
Works in Literary Context
Like Edgar Allan Poe, Bierce believed that poems must be short, for otherwise the poetic quality cannot be sustained, and that a novel was only ”a short story padded.” His style, even in his fiction, has something of the baldness and directness of journalism, but he combines this with a military or aristocratic formality and reserve. The eighteenth-century ”serenity, fortitude and reasonableness” he professed to admire shows not in his subject matter, which is often highly sensational, but only in his passion for correctness and his emotional reserve. The last book published during his lifetime was a literary manual called Write It Right (1909). Like Aristotle and James Branch Cabell, he wanted a writer to ”represent life, not as it is, but as it might be; character, not as he finds it, but as he wants it to be.” In his own stories there is little character, with the whole emphasis being upon situation. Slang for Bierce was ”the grunt of the human hog.” This viewpoint separated Bierce from many other writers of the period, such as Stephen Crane and Mark Twain, who used such techniques to enhance the realism in their works.
Horror and Fear
The principal themes of Bierce’s short stories are war, death, horror, madness, ghosts, fear, and bitter irony. Thus, ”One of the Missing” is an almost sadistic study of a trapped, immobilized soldier, frightened to death by his own rifle pointed at his head, although the gun is not loaded. In ”One Officer, One Man,” Captain Graffenreid falls upon his own sword when ”the strain upon his nervous organism” grows ”insupportable.” Such terrors are not confined to the battlefield. In ”The Man and the Snake,” Harker Brayton, spending the night in a herpetologist’s house, is frightened to death by a stuffed reptile in his bedroom.
Chilling Depictions of War
Historically, Bierce ranks with J. W. DeForest and Stephen Crane as having pioneered in the realistic portrayal of war in fiction. To him a soldier is an assassin for his country, a ”hardened and impenitent man-killer.” In his pages son kills father and troops fire on their own men and shell their own homes. In ”One Kind of Officer,” he offers a bleak picture of the mindlessness of military discipline. Yet, he has none of the moral revulsion against war that characterized the war novels published after World War I. Although he is free of “patriotics,” one often finds it difficult to decide whether his emphasis upon war’s horrors has been inspired by what he calls its ”criminal insanity” or by his love of sensation.
Ambrose Bierce is far more than a regional, or western, writer. He has come to be recognized as an outstanding exemplar of literary impressionism, a counterweight to the emphasis on realism and naturalism embodied in the work of most of his important contemporaries at the end of the nineteenth century. Bierce’s writing shows the dependence of external reality on the shifting awareness of a perceiver. He often manipulates space and time and builds to an individual’s sudden flash of insight, or epiphany. Such features have led critics to cite Bierce as an early postmodernist.
With such literary techniques Bierce opposed the literary trends of his day. In both his journalism and his fiction, for example, he waged war against a simplistic notion of realism. He believed any view of life which ignored the unconscious processes of mind could not call itself realistic. Similarly, although many of his stories appear naturalistic in their bleak depiction of humans in hostile environments and in their meticulous description of violence, Bierce held humans more accountable for their actions than the naturalists. He also tended to interject his peculiar humor into the most gruesome of scenes, creating a tone more similar to Franz Kafka than to Frank Norris or Jack London.
Bierce’s aphorisms or clever sayings, collected in The Devil’s Dictionary, can be classified according to various types of ascending significance. Several entries feature wordplay in and of itself, as in his definitions of helpmate (”A wife, orbitterhalf”), harangue (”A speech by an opponent, who is known as an harangue-outang”), or architect (”One who drafts a plan of your house, and plans a draft of your money”). He also makes full use of comic pairings or juxtaposition within definitions or between definitions, as in the two definitions of belladonna (”In Italian, a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the essential identity of the two tongues”).
Then there are those definitions which zero in on ideas concerning society, religion, and self by forcing readers to confront the ways they misuse language to deceive and abuse. Their cynical but truthful edge cuts deep even as the reader chuckles: the scriptures, for example, are ”The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based,” and infidel has two contradictory meanings (”In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does”).
Works in Critical Context
Although he stopped writing fiction by 1899 and although he produced fewer than a hundred short stories, Bierce was an influential writer. Stephen Crane said of Bierce’s ”An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” ”Nothing better exists—the story has everything,” and, as has been well documented, Crane consciously modeled his own impressionist tales of war on Bierce’s. H. L. Mencken, Carey McWilliams, and other writers of the post-World War I era appreciated Bierce’s scathing journalism and his sardonic tall tales. In fact, Bierce was almost a folk hero of the Roaring Twenties, as indicated by the fact that one year, 1929, saw the publication of no fewer than four popular biographies of the author.
Tales of Soldiers and Civilians
The decade of the 1890s saw the publication of Bierce’s first books since 1874, beginning with the collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. These collections of war, supernatural, and frontier stories engendered much favorable reaction on both sides of the Atlantic, with especially significant praise coming from such American reviewers as Walter Black burn Harte, Percival Pollard, Brander Matthews, and William Dean Howells. Not all were enthusiastic about his work, however. An unnamed reviewer for The Critic notes that the author has caught the modern knack of telling a story about nothing and telling it well,” and adds that he sometimes commits the fault of telling about something, and not telling it well but theatrically.” He further notes that the stories lack variety, in fact are tiresomely alike.” A Bookman reviewer of an 1898 collection of the same and additional stories offered much greater praise: Nowhere can the art of how and when to end a story be more perfectly exemplified than in some of these remarkable tales.”
While Bierce’s short stories are widely anthologized, they have received relatively little critical attention. Yet, in the past two decades this situation has begun to change. His surrealistic literary techniques and rhetorical presentations of subjective and objective time strike a contemporary note. Such modern masters of fiction as Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, and Carlos Fuentes have been influenced by Bierce’s stories, particularly by his juxtaposition of multiple points of view and often contradictory perspectives, and by his expositions of the deceptions that the mind plays upon itself. Increasingly, Bierce is recognized as one of the masters of the short-story form.
- ”Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?).” Short Story Criticism. Edited by Thomas Votteler. Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale Research, 1992, pp. 48-101.
- ”An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Short Stories for Students. Edited by Kathleen Wilson. Vol. 2. Detroit: Gale, 1997.
- Barret, Gerald R. and Thomas L. Erskine, compilers. From Fiction to Film: Ambrose Bierce’s ”An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Encino, Calif.: Dickenson Publishing Company, 1973.
- Davidson, Cathy N. The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce: Structuring the Ineffable. Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
- Morris, Jr., Roy. Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company. New York: Crown Publishers, 1995.
- Saunders, Richard. Ambrose Bierce: The Making of a Misanthrope. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1985.
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