Bierce was an American satirist, critic, poet, short story writer,
editor, and journalist.
His clear style and lack of sentimentality have kept him popular
when many of his contemporaries have become obscure. His dark,
sardonic views and vehemence as a critic, earned him the nickname
"Bitter Bierce". Such was Bierce's venerable reputation,
that it was feared that his judgment on any contemporary fiction
of the day could "make or break" a writer's career.
life and military career
Born in a rural area of Meigs County, Ohio, Bierce resided during
his adolescence in the town of Elkhart, Indiana. At the outset
of the American Civil War, Bierce enlisted in the Ninth Regiment,
Indiana Volunteers, as part of the Union Army. In February 1862,
he was commissioned as a first lieutenant and served on the staff
of Gen. William Babcock Hazen as a topographical engineer, making
maps of likely battlefields. He fought bravely in several of the
war's most important battles, at one point receiving newspaper
attention for his daring rescue under fire of a gravely wounded
comrade at the battle of Girard Hill, West Virginia. In June,
1864, he received a serious head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw
Mountain and spent the rest of the summer on furlough, but returned
to active duty in September, and was ultimately discharged from
the army in January 1865.
military career, however, resumed when, in the summer of 1866,
he rejoined Gen. Hazen as part of the latter's expedition to inspect
military outposts across the Western plains. The expedition proceeded
by horseback and wagon from Omaha, Nebraska, arriving in San Francisco
near the end of the year.
In San Francisco, Bierce resigned from the Army and received the
rank of brevet Major. He remained there for many years, eventually
becoming famous as a contributor and/or editor for a number of
local newspapers and periodicals, including The San Francisco
News Letter, The Argonaut, and The Wasp. Bierce lived and wrote
in England from 1872 to 1875. Returning to the United States,
he again took up residence in San Francisco. In 1879–1880,
he went to Rockerville and Deadwood, South Dakota, in the Dakota
Territory, to try his hand as local manager for a New York mining
company, but when the company failed he returned to San Francisco
and resumed his career in journalism.
1887, he became one of the first regular columnists and editorialists
to be employed on William Randolph Hearst's newspaper, the San
Francisco Examiner, eventually becoming one of the most prominent
and influential among the writers and journalists of the West
Coast. In December 1899, he moved to Washington, D.C., but continued
his association with the Hearst newspapers until 1906.
Because of his penchant for biting social criticism and satire,
Bierce's long newspaper career was often steeped in controversy.
On several occasions his columns stirred up a storm of hostile
reaction which created difficulties for Hearst. One of the most
notable of these incidents occurred following the assassination
of President William McKinley when Hearst's political opponents
turned a satirical poem Bierce had written in 1900 into a cause
célèbre. Bierce meant his poem, written on the occasion
of the assassination of Governor-elect William Goebel of Kentucky,
to express a national mood of dismay and fear, but after McKinley
was shot in 1901 it seemed to foreshadow the crime:
bullet that pierced Goebel's breast
Can not be found in all the West;
Good reason, it is speeding here
To stretch McKinley on his bier.
was (presumably) falsely accused by rival newspapers—and
by then Secretary of State Elihu Root—of having called for
McKinley's assassination. Despite a national uproar that ended
his ambitions for the presidency (and even his membership in the
Bohemian Club), Hearst neither revealed Bierce as the author of
the poem, nor fired him.
His short stories are considered among the best of the 19th century.
He wrote realistically of the terrible things he had seen in the
war in such stories as "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge",
"Killed at Resaca", and "Chickamauga".
was reckoned a master of "pure" English by his contemporaries,
and virtually everything that came from his pen was notable for
its judicious wording and economy of style. He wrote skillfully
in a variety of literary genres, and in addition to his celebrated
ghost and war stories he published several volumes of poetry and
verse. His Fantastic Fables anticipated the ironic style of grotesquerie
that turned into a genre in the 20th century.
of Bierce's most famous works is his much-quoted book, The Devil's
Dictionary, originally a newspaper serialization which was first
published in book form in 1906 as The Cynic's Word Book. It offers
an interesting reinterpretation of the English language in which
cant and political double-talk are neatly lampooned.
twelve-volume Collected Works were published in 1909, the seventh
volume of which consists solely of "The Devil's Dictionary,"
the title Bierce himself preferred to "The Cynic's Word Book."
In October 1913, the septuagenarian Bierce departed Washington
on a tour to revisit his old Civil War battlefields. By December,
he had proceeded on through Louisiana and Texas, crossing by way
of El Paso into Mexico, which was then in the throes of revolution.
In Ciudad Juárez, he joined the army of Pancho Villa as
an observer, in which role he participated in the battle of Tierra
is known to have accompanied Villa's army as far as the city of
Chihuahua, Chihuahua. After a last letter to a close friend, sent
from that city on December 26, 1913, he vanished without a trace,
becoming one of the most famous disappearances in American literary
history. Subsequent investigations to ascertain his fate were
fruitless and, despite many decades of speculation, his disappearance
remains a mystery.
one of his last letters, Bierce wrote:
— if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone
wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good
way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling
down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that
in popular culture
Robert W. Chambers borrowed several terms and fictional locations
(including, for instance, Carcosa and Hastur) from Bierce, for
use in his book of horror short stories, The King in Yellow. The
horror writer H.P. Lovecraft later incorporated these into his
own work, as did other authors who later extended Lovecraft's
characters and themes, collectively creating the Cthulhu Mythos.
Bloch's short story "I Like Blondes" (published in Playboy,
1956) is constructed around a group of alien bodysnatchers frequenting
Earth. The narrator's host body's "name was Beers...Ambrose
Beers, I believe. He picked it up in Mexico a long time ago."
least three films have been made of Bierce's story An Occurrence
at Owl Creek Bridge. A silent movie version was made in the 1920s.
A French version called La Rivière du Hibou, directed by
Robert Enrico, was released in 1962 (available as of 2005). This
is a black and white film, faithfully recounting the original
narrative using voice-over. Another version, directed by Brian
James Egan, was released in 2005. The 1962 film was also used
for an episode of the television series The Twilight Zone: An
Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. A copy of An Occurrence at Owl
Creek Bridge appeared in the ABC television series Lost (ep. "The
Long Con" - airdate February 8, 2006).
novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote Gringo Viejo (The Old Gringo), a
fictionalized account of Bierce's disappearance. Fuentes's keenly
observed novel was later adapted as a motion picture, with Gregory
Peck in the title role.
appears as a character in the 2000 movie From Dusk Till Dawn 3:
The Hangman's Daughter (set in 1913, a prequel to the original
From Dusk Till Dawn). While traveling to join up with Villa, Bierce
is first attacked by bandits, and then trapped in a bar filled
with vampires bent on killing all the humans inside. This clearly
fictional adventure also portrayed Bierce as an alcoholic. In
that movie Ambrose Bierce was played by Michael Parks.
appears as a character in Robert A. Heinlein's novella Lost Legacy,
(published in the short story collection Assignment in Eternity).
In the story, Bierce is one of a league of humans who have learned
to use the unused portions of their brains and have advanced mental
appears as the main character and narrator in the story The Oxoxoco
Bottle by Gerald Kersh. The bulk of the story purports to be a
manuscript written by Bierce on his last journey in Mexico, and
relates a very strange adventure. The manner of his death, however,
remains a mystery at the end.
is depicted as a detective in series of mystery novels by Oakley
Hall, including Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Spades and Ambrose
Bierce and the Death of Kings.
DC Comics's miniseries Stanley and His Monster, Bierce (or at
least a character claiming to be Bierce) appears as a sardonic
trenchcoat-clad adventurer into the supernatual, very similar
to John Constantine; although Bierce derides Constantine as a
"clown," he admits that he and Constantine are but two
of several trenchcoated occult adventurers at large in the world,
perhaps an implication by the writer that the archetype of the
sarcastic commentator on the occult, exemplified by Constantine,
can be traced back to Bierce as narrator of his own horror stories.
When the comic book Bierce learns that the boy Stanley's friend,
the nameless Monster, is a demon, he considers vanquishing him
but soon realizes that the Monster is a benevolent demon and instead
helps Stanley and his friend against other demons.