An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge | Study Guide

Ambrose Bierce

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Ambrose Bierce | Biography


Ambrose Bierce was an American journalist and short story writer known for writing dark, often satirical works that frequently mocked social hypocrisy. He is most recognized for three kinds of writing: supernatural fiction, vivid short stories about war, and cynical, even bitter, nonfiction works, such as The Devil's Dictionary, in which Bierce provided cynical definitions.

Family Background

Born on June 24, 1842, Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was the 10th of 13 children born to Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood Bierce, farmers living in Ohio. His father gave all 13 children names that started with the letter A. The family later moved to Indiana, where Bierce went to high school. His family strongly favored abolition, and one uncle was friends with abolitionist John Brown, who believed slavery could only be stopped through armed revolt. They were also very religious, but Ambrose Bierce rejected his family's spiritual beliefs. In response, his father, who was a harsh disciplinarian, whipped his son repeatedly, causing him to rebel even further.

Education, Professional Experience, and the Military

When he left high school, Bierce worked as a "printer's devil," a low-level apprentice to a printer. The printer published an abolitionist newspaper, which exposed Bierce directly to the most intense elements of period politics. After two years Bierce left to attend the Kentucky Military Institute.

As soon as the American Civil War broke out in April 1860, Bierce volunteered and joined Company C, 9th Indiana Volunteers, who fought in the Union army against the Confederate forces of the South. He served throughout the war and took part in some of its bloodiest, most devastating battles, including Chickamauga and Shiloh. His war experiences formed the basis for much of Bierce's later writings.

Bierce was honored for saving a wounded soldier at the Battle of Rich Mountain and promoted for his heroism to sergeant major. In 1861 he reenlisted, and in 1862 he became a topographical engineer, surveying land and creating maps, under General Hazen. He was repeatedly promoted, reaching the rank of first lieutenant in 1863, while continuing to participate in numerous battles. In June 1864 Bierce was shot in the head at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia. He was so badly injured he would have been left for dead if his brother hadn't found him. The injury made him permanently prone to fainting and serious headaches. He resigned from the army in early 1865 and was named brevet, or honorary major, for his service.

A New Career, a New Family

After the war Bierce was working as a Treasury agent when an officer Bierce had served under and admired offered him a commission to reenlist. Despite the aftereffects of his injury, Bierce agreed and traveled to San Francisco to join him. However, when Bierce arrived, the commission had evaporated. Bierce left the military and got a job as a watchman at the San Francisco branch of the U.S. Mint. This left him time to begin writing, and by 1867 he began to publish journalism and satirical pieces. Bierce started editing the News Letter in 1868, where he wrote a column titled "Town Crier." He developed a strong reputation in California and met other famous writers, such as Bret Harte and Mark Twain. He also published his first short story in 1871. That same year Bierce married Mary Ellen Day.

The following year the couple moved to England. There, Bierce's first two children were born: sons Day (1872) and Leigh (1874). Bierce wrote for magazines such as Figaro, earning the title "Bitter Bierce" for his pessimistic wit. During this time he published his first three books, all collections: Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California (1873), The Fiend's Delight (1873), and Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874). Bierce's asthma was worsened by the English climate, so he returned to San Francisco. A third child, Helen, was born there in 1875.

In San Francisco Bierce wrote for several papers and edited one called the Argonaut. He wrote a new column called "Prattle," in which he attacked publicly those he considered unethical or immoral, again using his often cutting sense of humor. In 1888 he joined William Randolph Hearst's newspaper the San Francisco Examiner.

When he took the position at Hearst's paper, Bierce insisted on writing without editorial interference. Hearst agreed, and Bierce published many of his most famous pieces during this period, including "Chickamauga" (1889), "A Horseman in the Sky" (1889), and "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" (1890). Bierce published his Civil War stories in a collection called Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891). While his creative work was reaching its peak, however, his personal life was in decline. He separated from his wife in 1888 and lost his son Day in 1889 when the teenager got in a gunfight over a girl. Bierce would also lose his remaining son, Leigh, in 1901 to pneumonia.

After 1893 Bierce focused more on journalism and published less fiction. In 1896 Hearst sent him to Washington, DC, to use his writing skills to help fight a bill on funding railroads by attacking its supporters in print. Bierce transferred to DC permanently in 1899. Bierce stopped writing for Hearst in 1909. He then devoted himself to assembling his collected works.

The Disappearance of Ambrose Bierce

Bierce's death remains a mystery. Bierce went to Mexico in 1913, at age 71, to observe the Mexican Revolution. At some point in 1914, people stopped hearing from him. It is likely that he died in Mexico, one of the casualties of the revolution, but his body was never found.

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