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by Bamber Gascoigne

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (1842-1914)


"Bitter Bierce" – American newspaper columnist, satirist, essayist, short-story writer, and novelist, an enigmatic figure, who disappeared in the Mexican Revolution. His end is still a mystery, but he is presumed to have died in the siege of Ojinega on 11 January 1914. Bierce is best-known for his numerous short stories collected in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891), which show the influence of Edgar Allan Poe. However, Bierce himself was annoyed by comparisons. As a literary critic he was against realism. After Stephen Crane published his famous novel about the Civil War, The Red Badge of Courage, Bierce wrote: "I had thought there could be only two worse writers than Stephen Crane, namely, two Stephen Cranes."

"John Searing, a man of courage, the formidable enemy, the strong, resolute warrior, was as pale as a ghost. His jaw was fallen; his eyes protruded; he trembled in every fibre; a cold sweat bathed his entire body; he screamed with fear. He was not insane – he was terrified." (from 'One of the Missing', 1888)

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born in Meigs County, Ohio, the tenth of thirteen children of Marcus and Laura (Sherwood) Bierce. Each of the children was given a name beginning with the letter "A". Bierce's father had a large private library, and he spent much time with the books – his name Marcus Aurelius was given after the famous Roman emperor. Bierce grew up on a farm in northern Indiana. Later, in his parody of 'The Old Oaken Bucket', Bierce wrote about his early years: "With what anguish of mind I remember my childhood, / Recalled in the light of a knowledge since gained; / The malarious farm, the wet, fungus grown wildwood, / The chills then contracted that since have remained." Bierce studied year in a high school. At the age of fifteen he became a printer's apprentice on The Northern Indianan, an antislavery paper. After a term at a military school, he worked in a combination store and café.

Upon the outbreak of the Civil War, Bierce enlisted in the army in 1861, rising eventually to the rank of lieutenant. He served nearly four years in the Union Army – an experience that was crucial for his life and career as a writer. He fought in several bloody battles including Shiloh, Pickett's Mill, Missionary Ridge, and the one that later provided the setting for 'Chickamauga' (1889), one of his best stories. It tells about a little boy who sees wounded crawling toward a creek from one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. He leads the company to his home. The place is burning, and he finds his mother dead.

At the Battle of Kenesaw Mountain, Bierce was wounded in June 1894 in the head; the bullet lodged within his skull behind his left ear, but he returned to General William B. Hazen's brigade in September. On leave his engagement with Bernie (Fatima) Wright was broken for unknown reasons. After the war Bierce served briefly as a Treasury aide in Alabama. He was a topographical officer on General William B. Hazen's staff, and then settled in San Francisco, where he began his journalistic career. Bierce contributed to a number of periodicals, among others the Overland Monthly and the Californian. In 1868 he became the editor of the News-Letter and California Advertiser. His first story, 'The Haunted Valley', appeared in 1871 in the Overland Monthly.

In 1871 Bierce married a wealthy miner's daughter, Mollie Day; they had two sons and a daughter. As seveal other American writers, he decided to seek his fortune England, where he lived with his family in London from 1872 to 1875, and wrote sketches for the magazines Figaro and Fun. "But, generally speaking, the English are good fellows, the Scotch are better, and the Irish are a bad lot," he said in a letter. With their white hair and eyebrowns Biece and Mark Twain were frequently mistaken for each other. During this time he published three volumes of sketches and epigrams, The Fiend's Delight (1872), Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California (1872), and Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874).

Tales of Soldiers and Civilians included Bierce's most celebrated tale, 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'. "A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man's hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck." The story continues with a lucky miracle – the rope breaks, and Peyton Farquhar escapes from the execution and returns to his wife at his plantation. But in the end Bierce reveals that this is merely a fantasy, occurring just before his death. "Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek Bridge." As disillusioned was his view of the soldiers who fell at Shiloh: "Faugh! I cannot catalogue the charms of the these gallant gentlemen who had got what they enlisted for." Stephen Crane said of the tale, "Nothing better exists. That story contains everything." ('Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane: a "First Look" at the Civil War Through Fiction' by Amelia Ann and Chris Mackowski, in Entertaining History: the Civil War in Literature, Film, and Song, edited by Chris Mackowski, 2020, p. 19)

After returning to San Francisco, Bierce took a job at the U.S. Mint. In 1877 Bierce worked as an associate editor of the San Francisco Argonaut, a weekly paper. With Thomas A. Harcourth he wrote The Dance of Death (1877) under the pseudonym William Herman. Before going back to San Francisco to work for the Wasp, he tried his luck in the mining business in the Dakota Territory without success. Bierce joined then the San Francisco Examiner, which started his long career as one of the most respected columnists and contributors to the Hearst publications. Having the backing of Hearst, who needed a strong circulation building columnist, Bierce launched a campaign against the Big Four of the Central Pacific Railroad, Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker. Bierce branded them as "railrogues".

With the German author, Gustav Adolph Danziger, Bierce translated Richard Voss's Der Mönch des Berchtesgaden (1890-91, The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter), and quarreled with his collaborator ceaselessly over the profits of the Monk. The story was based on a German tale. Danziger had translated the original novella and wanted to give it a happy ending, Bierce preferred the retention of the tragic part. It was first published serially in the San Francisco Examimer in September 1891 and then as a book. With Bierce and others, Danzinger formed the Western Authors Publishing Association, which issued Bierce's Black Beetles in Amber (1892).

Bierce's marriage was stormy. The couple separated in 1888 and divorced in 1905. No wonder that in The Devil's Dictionary (1911) Bierce defined happiness "as an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another." He also said: "You are not permitted to kill a woman who has wronged you, but nothing forbids you to reflect that she is growing older every minute. You are avenged 1440 times a day." An exeption was Lily Walsh, a deaf-mute poet and Bierce protege, whom he helped during her short life.

Between the years 1887 and 1906 he wrote his famous "Prattle" column, which was a mixture of literary gossip, epigrams, and stories. He did not have much passion for writing novels, but preferred the short story. His sardonic and cruel epigrams and aphorisms Bierce gathered in The Cynic's Wordbook (1906). When he edited his twelve-volume Collected Works (1909-1912), however, he changed the title of this work to The Devil's Dictionary. Although Bierce was called "wicked" and "devilish", behind the misanthropic facade was a disappointed idealist, who saw a saint as "a dead sinner revised and edited", and a marriage "a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two." When his friend suggested him to write a book of memoir, one of the planned titles was The Autobiography of a Much Misunderstood Man. Bierce's satires have much in common with the views of Swift and Voltaire, whom he had read. Bierce also confessed his debt to Stoicism, the especially praised Epictetus. His attitude to religion was worldly: "Treat things divine with marked respect – don't have anything to do with them."

Bierce was sent in 1896 to Washington, D.C., where he lobbied for Hearst, but a decade later refused to join in the rivalry with Pulitzer's New York World. "I know nothing about the quarrel—did not know there was one—and know nothing about him," he said in a letter. "I should have to rely on your fellows in New York for my material facts, and there are not many of them whom I would believe under oath." Bierce's greatest achievement was the defeating of the railroad baron C.P. Huntington. As a protest to the tampering with his work at the New York Journal, Bierce resigned from Hearts's employ for a brief period – Hearst wanted to keep one of the best of his editorialists. Eventually Bierce found a refuge at the Cosmopolitan, where his writings appeared sporadically.

In contrast to his success in journalism, Bierce's private life went down hill. His marriage started to fall apart, and he had problems with alcohol. His son, Day, had run away from home at fifteen. Day killed a rival suitor of a sixteen-year-old girl and eventually was killed in a duel in 1889. Bierce's other son, Leigh, died of died of pneumonia at the age of 26. In the 1890s Beirce published some of his best works, including Tales of Soldiers and Civilians. From 1900 to 1913 Bierce lived and worked mainly in Washington. Among his friends and drinking companions was H.L. Mencken. Once Bierce told him that he kept the ashes of his son on his writing desk. Mencken said that the urn must be a formidable ornament. '"Urn hell!" he answered. "I keep them in a cigar-box."' (from Prejudices by H.L. Mencken, 1927)

Late in 1913, at the age of seventy-one, Bierce retired from writing and went to Mexico, to seek "the good, kind darkness." He vanished mysteriously during the civil war. "I am going away to South America, and have not the faintest notion when I shall return," he wrote to Samuel Loveman on September 10, 1913. From Chihuahua he posted a letter which was his last. According to one explanation by Roy Morris (and others) Bierce did not go to Mexico at all but, instead, committed suicide in the Grand Canyon. One wild story tells that he was held captive by a tribe of Brazilian Indians. A fictional account of Bierce's last days is given in the novel The Old Gringo (1985) by Carlos Fuentes. The book was adapted into screen in 1989 and directed by Luis Punzo, starring Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck. Ambrose Bierce has also inspired other South American writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. 

Danzinger, who later changed his name to de Castro, wrote an article in the American Parade for October 1926 entitled 'Ambrose Bierce as He Really Was', and told of his search for his friend in Mexico. To publish a book-length memoir of Bierce, he sought help from H.P. Lovecraft, who turned down the commission. (A Dreamer and a Visionary: H P Lovecraft in His Time by S. T. Joshi, 2001, pp. 265-266) Lovecraft never mentioned Bierce as one of his major models for his writings, although he called Bierce "the greatest story writer except Poe that America ever produced." (In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of H.P. Lovecraft by W. Scott Poole, 2015, p. 52) 

For further reading: Ambrose Bierce: A Biography by C. Mc Williams (1929); Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Lexicographer by Paul Fatout (1951); Ambroce Bierce by Robert A. Wiggins (1964); Ambrose Bierce: A Biography by Richard O'Connor (1968); Ambrose Bierce by M.E. Grenander (1971); The Experimental Fictions of Ambrose Bierce by C.N. Davidson (1984); Ambrose Bierce, a Biography by Carey McWilliams (1992); Ambrose Bierce is Missing: And Other Historical Mysteries by Joe Nickell (1991); Classic Horror Writers, ed. by Harold Bloom (1994); Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company by Roy Morris Jr. (1996); Ambrose Bierce's Civil War, ed. by William McCann (1996); Ambrose Bierce Takes on the Tailroad: the Journalist as Muckraker and Cynic by Daniel Lindley (1999); A Prescription for Adversity: the Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce by Lawrence I. Berkove (2002); Ambrose Bierce's Civilians and Soldiers in Context: a Critical Study by Donald T. Blume (2004); The Devil's Topographer: Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story by David M. Owens (2006); Ambrose Bierce and the Dance of Death by Sharon Talley (2009); The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took on the Notorious Central Pacific Railroad by Dennis Drabelle (2012); Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife: the Civil War and the Emergence of an American Writer by Christopher Kiernan Coleman (2016); 'Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane: a "First Look" at the Civil War Through Fiction' by Amelia Ann and Chris Mackowski, in Entertaining History: the Civil War in Literature, Film, and Song, edited by Chris Mackowski (2020). Note: Robert Enrico's three-part film Au coeur de la vie (1962) was based on 'Chickamauga,' 'An occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,' and 'The Mocking-Bird'. Suom.: Suomeksi Bierceltä on julkaistu mm. valikoima Pyhä kauhu (1934), Vanhempainmurhaajien klubi (1986), Lyhyitä tarinoita (1998) sekä novelleja antologioissa Amerikkalaisia kertojia (1959), Fantastisia kertomuksia (1969), Pieni kauhukirja (1992), Suuri kummituskirja (1993), Haudantakaisia (1994).

Selected bibliography:

  • The Fiend's Delight, 1872 (pseud. Dod Grile)
  • Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California, 1872 (pseud. Dod Grile)
  • Cobwebs: Being the Fables of Zambri, the Parsee, 1873
  • Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, 1874 (pseud. Dod Grile)
  • The Dance of Death, 1877 (under the pseudonym William Herman, with Thomas A. Harcourt)
  • The Dance of Life: An Answer to the "Dance of Death," 1877 (pseud. Mrs. J. Milton Bowers)
  • Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, 1891 (renamed In the Midst of Life, 1892, revised 1898; contains the short story 'An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge')
    - 'Tapaus Owl Creekin sillalla,' teoksessa Pyhä kauhu (suom. V. Hämeen-Anttila, 1934)
  • The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter, 1892 (based on the story by Richard Voss; translated by Gustav Adolph Danziger)
  • Black Beetles In Amber, 1892
  • Can Such Things Be?, 1893 (contains 'The Death of Halpin Frayser,' 'One Summer Night,' 'A Jug of Sirup,' 'The Middle Toe of the Right Foot,' 'Haita the Shepherd,' 'The Damned Thing,'  'An Inhabitant of Carcosa' etc.)
    - 'Halpin Frayserin kuolema' (suom. Timo Tamminen, teoksessa Vanhempainmurhaajien klubi, 1986); 'Eräs kesäyö' (suom. Timo Tamminen, teoksessa Vanhempainmurhaajien klubi, 1986); 'Siirappipurnukka' (suom. Timo Tamminen, teoksessa Vanhempainmurhaajien klubi, 1986); 'Oikean jalan keskivarvas' (suom. Osmo Saarinen, teoksessa Haudantakaisia, toim. Markku Sadelehto, 1994); 'Paimenpoika Haita (suom. Timo Tamminen, teoksessa Vanhempainmurhaajien klubi, 1986); 'Kirottu otus' (suom. Timo Tamminen, teoksessa Vanhempainmurhaajien klubi, 1986); 'Muuan Kalmalan asukas' (suom. Pertti Koskela, teoksessa Suuri kummituskirja, toim. Richard Dalby, 1993)
  • Fantastic Fables, 1899
  • Shapes of Clay, 1903
  • The Cynic's Word Book, 1906
  • A Son of the Gods and A Horseman in the Sky, 1907
  • The Shadow on the Dial and Other Essays, 1909
  • Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults, 1909
  • The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, 1909-1912 (12 vols.)
    - Lyhyitä tarinoita (Collected Works, Vol. 9; suom. Asmo Koste, 1998) 
  • The Devil's Dictionary, 1911 (in The Collected Works, Volume VII, originally published as The Cynics Word Book, 1906; expanded version, by Ernest J. Hopkins, 1967)
    - Saatanan sanakirja (suom. Asmo Koste, 1995) / Laajennettu saatanan sanakirja (suom. Asmo Koste, 2007)
  • The Letters of Ambrose Bierce , 1922 (ed. Bertha Clark Pope)
  • Twenty-One Letters of Ambrose Bierce, 1922 (edited with a note by Samuel Loveman)
  • Ten Tales, 1925
  • Tales of Ghouls and Ghosts, 1926
  • Tales of Haunted Houses, 1926
  • The Eyes of the Panther: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, 1928
  • An Invocation, 1928
  • Battlefields & Ghosts, 1931
  • Selections from Prattle, 1936 (edited by Carroll D. Hall)
  • The Collected Writings Of Ambrose Bierce, 1946 (edited by Clifton Fadiman)
  • The Sardonic Humor of Ambrose Bierce, 1963 (edited by George Barkin)
  • Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce, 1964 (edited by E.F. Bleiler)
  • The Ambrose Bierce Satanic Reader: Selections from the Invective Journalism of the Great Satirist, 1968 (edited by Ernest Jerome Hopkins)
  • The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, 1970 (edited by Ernest Jerome Hopkins)
  • The Stories and Fables of Ambrose Bierce, 1977 (edited by Edward Wagenknecht)
  • A Vision of Doom: Poems by Ambrose Bierce, 1980 (edited by Donald Sidney-Fryer)
  • Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism from 1898- 1901, 1980 (edited by Lawrence I. Berkove)
  • The Best of Ambrose Bierce, 1984
  • Devils Advocate: An Ambrose Bierce Reader, 1987 (edited by Brian St. Pierre)
  • An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Other Stories, 1995
  • Ambrose Bierce's Civil War, 1996 (edited by William McCann)
  • A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce, 2003 (eds. S.T. Joshi, David E. Schultz)
  • The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce: a Comprehensive Edition, 2007 (edited by S.T. Joshi, Lawrence I. Berkove, and David E. Schultz)
  • Essential Bierce: a Selection of the Writings of Ambrose Bierce, 2007 (edited with an introduction by John R. Dunlap)
  • The Collected Civil War Stories of Ambrose Bierce, 2007 (introduction by Paul C. Williams) 

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