“Divorce: a resumption of diplomatic relations and rectification of boundaries.” — From The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce (born June 24, 1842)
From Short Story Criticism: Volume 244:
(Full name Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce; also spelled Gwinett; also wrote under the pseudonyms Dod Grile and William Herman) American short-story writer, journalist, essayist, fabulist, and poet.
The following entry provides criticism of Bierce’s life and short-fiction works. For additional information about Bierce, see SSC, Volumes 9 and 124; for additional information about the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” see SSC, Volumes 72 and 169.
Ambrose Bierce is best known for impressionistic short stories that explore the emotional horror of war, the supernatural, and the macabre. Bierce’s reputation rests mainly on the short-story collections Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891), which draws on his own experiences during the Civil War, and Can Such Things Be? (1893), which employs Gothic and supernatural elements in posing questions about inexplicable forces that affect human beings. Bierce is widely respected for his compelling, innovative portraits of individuals in extreme circumstances, but he has also drawn negative criticism for the dark, nihilistic, and often morbid outlook of his stories. Contemporary scholars have noted that Bierce’s stories prefigure many of the techniques of high modernism in their narrative experimentations with time and subjective experience.
Bierce was born on 24 June 1842 on a farm in southeastern Ohio. His parents were Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood Bierce, and he was the tenth of their thirteen children, all of whom were given first names starting with the letter A. In 1846, the family moved to northern Indiana, near the village of Warsaw, where Bierce attended high school. He studied drafting, surveying, and engineering at the Kentucky Military Institute from 1859 to 1860, during which time he also worked for the antislavery newspaper the Northern Indianan. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Bierce enlisted as a private in the Union Army, serving in the Ninth Indiana Infantry Regiment and in Buell’s Army of the Ohio as a mapmaker. He saw fierce action at such battles as Shiloh and Chickamauga, and he took part in General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Savannah Campaign in 1864. While participating in the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain that same year, Bierce was shot in the head, but he returned to duty after hospitalization and a brief convalescence.
After the war, Bierce traveled with a military mapmaking expedition from Omaha, Nebraska, to the West Coast. Angry at not having received the captain’s commission he had been promised, Bierce resigned his post and settled in San Francisco in 1867. He decided to pursue a literary career and published some early poems and essays in such newspapers as the Californian and the San Francisco News Letter and California Advertiser, where he became editor in 1868. Bierce’s first published story, “The Haunted Valley,” appeared in Bret Harte’s Overland Monthly in 1871.
The same year, Bierce married Mary Ellen (Mollie) Day, with whom he had three children. The family lived in England from 1872 to 1875, during which time Bierce wrote for English and American publications. His first three volumes of sketches—The Fiend’s Delight (1873), Nuggets and Dust Panned out in California (1873), and Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874)—appeared during this period under the pseudonym Dod Grile. Upon his return to San Francisco in 1875, he took an administrative job with the US Mint. Two years later, he became the editor of the Argonaut, for which he wrote a column titled “Prattle.” Bierce next became involved in a gold-mining venture in the Dakota Territory, but the enterprise collapsed because of the management’s corruption and incompetence. He returned to San Francisco in 1881 to assume editorship of the Wasp, a satirical magazine. In 1887, his “Prattle” column, as well as his reviews, articles, essays, and short stories, began to appear in William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner. Many of these short stories were later collected in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians and Can Such
In the late 1880s, Bierce separated from Mollie, his eldest son was killed in a duel, and his chronic asthma worsened. In 1899, he left San Francisco and moved to Washington, DC. More misfortune followed: Bierce’s second son died of pneumonia in 1901, and Mollie died in 1905, not long after she and Bierce were finally divorced. In 1913, Bierce announced that he would be joining Pancho Villa’s forces in Mexico as an observer of the Mexican Revolution. He traveled to Chihuahua to join Villa and his men, and according to his last letter, written in December, he intended to go with them to Ojinaga. He was never heard from again, and though the exact circumstances of his death are unknown, many speculate that he was killed during the Battle of Ojinaga in January 1914.