Who is Ambrose Bierce?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Ambrose Bierce was an American author and journalist of the 19th century, best known for his macabre short stories and his satirical work, The Devil's Dictionary, which provides such cynical definitions as, "Love: A temporary insanity curable by marriage." Bierce is also remembered for his disappearance in Mexico in the final days of 1913, an event as mysterious as many of his stories.

Ambrose Bierce was an author who fought for the Union army in the U.S. Civil War.
Ambrose Bierce was an author who fought for the Union army in the U.S. Civil War.

Ambrose Bierce was born on 24 June 1842 in Meigs County, Ohio, the tenth of 12 children. The family later moved to Elkhart, Indiana. Bierce fought in the Civil War, enlisting in 1861 as a member of the Union Army. He worked first as a topographical engineer for General William Babcock Hazen, creating maps of battlefields, and later fought in the Battle of Shiloh. This latter experience traumatized Bierce and became the subject of many of his stories.

After sustaining a major head wound in 1864, Bierce went on leave for a few months, and he was discharged early in 1865. The following year, he rejoined Hazen in a Westward expedition to inspect military outposts and ended up in San Francisco. Bierce resigned from the Army shortly thereafter and began his career as a journalist.

Bierce moved to England in 1872, but returned to San Francisco after three years. Beginning in 1887, he wrote regularly for the San Francisco Examiner, owned by William Randolph Hearst. Bierce moved to Washington, D.C. in 1899, but continued writing for Hearst until 1906.

In 1913, Bierce took a trip to visit his former battlefields and eventually entered revolutionary Mexico. He joined Pancho Villa's army as an observer and wrote his last letter from Chihuahua on 26 December 1913. That was the last Bierce was ever heard from or seen, and no evidence ever surfaced regarding his disappearance.

For the most part, Bierce's short stories deal either with war or with the supernatural. One of his most well known stories, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", was the subject of an award-winning film in 1962 that later aired on The Twilight Zone. Bierce's war stories are realistic and brutal, and his frequently anthologized horror tales range from the deliciously macabre conte cruelle to the truly haunting. His style is characterized by sparse elegance and thoughtful word choice, no doubt inspired by his experience as a journalist and editor. Bierce also wrote poetry, and of course The Devil's Dictionary, which originally appeared in serial form in a magazine.

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


A common theme in many of Bierce’s short stories is the conflict between reality and illusion. An example of that would be Bierce’s “Chickamauga”. It is a portrayal of a deaf child who was in the midst of a battle that he thought to be a game. He carries his wooden sword and leads the wounded soldiers (his soldiers) toward the glow of a fire. He then realizes that this game of his was not a game at all. It was real. His own village was being burned down and he finds his mother dead.

There are several other works by Bierce that display this “reality vs. illusion” theme, such as “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, and the essay “Bierce’s Turn of the Screw: Tales of Ironical Terror”.

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