American Literature Ambrose Bierce
Kevin Corstorphine
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0249


Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born on 24 June 1842 in a log cabin in Meigs County, Ohio. He was the tenth of thirteen children, all of whom were given names beginning with the letter “A.” His parents, both from Puritan settler families, had moved to Ohio from Cornwall, Connecticut. The family moved to northern Indiana and the young Bierce spent time as a printer’s devil before enrolling at the Kentucky Military Institute and training to become a topographical engineer. He left the institute and returned to Indiana, but with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 he enlisted in the Union Army. He suffered a head wound from a bullet at Kennesaw Mountain, with the subsequent dizziness and blackouts leading to his leaving the army in 1865. The next significant phase of his career was becoming a newspaper writer in San Francisco, eventually writing for the San Francisco Examiner, where his work as a critic and his satirical definitions (which would later be published as The Devil’s Dictionary) made him well known. During his lifetime he gained a reputation for his acerbic reviews and cynical nature, and was known as “Bitter” Bierce. He married Mary Ellen “Mollie” Day in 1871, but later divorced in 1904 after a long separation. The couple had two sons, Day and Leigh (who both died young), and a daughter, Helen. As well as journalism, Bierce wrote fiction, which he is best remembered for today, although he has historically been overshadowed by other authors such as Mark Twain. An accomplished author in the short story form, he is celebrated for his fiction about the Civil War as well as his writing in the gothic horror mode and several satirical “tall tales.” In 1913 Bierce embarked from his home in Washington, DC, on a tour of Civil War battlefields, and then disappeared after crossing into Mexico. Despite his stated intention to travel to South America, and his own suggestion that he may be shot in the turmoil of the Mexican Revolution, the mystery of his fate has never been solved.

General Overviews and Reference

The texts here reflect the history of scholarly interest in Bierce. The academic reception of his work has evolved in different directions, focusing variously on his character and disappearance, his innovations in literary form, his place as an author in the “weird fiction” tradition, and his place in the history of the Civil War. The debate over where to place this focus is demonstrated in the difference between critical works such as Berkove 2002, which emphasizes formal aspects of his writing, and those such as Talley 2009 and Mason 2012, which take a more biographical approach. Other works here give useful overviews, as with Grenander 1971, Rubens and Jones 1983, and Gale 2001. The standard reference work and complete edition of his short fiction is Joshi, et al. 2006, with poetry appearing in Grenander 1995. Joshi and Schultz 1999 is the best bibliographical source.

  • Berkove, Lawrence I. A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002.

    Argues against the trend of placing too much emphasis on Bierce’s biography, particularly his “bitter” reputation, and strange disappearance. Berkove instead argues for the inherent value of Bierce’s literary achievements through a study of his literary and philosophical influences.

  • Gale, Robert L. An Ambrose Bierce Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2001.

    A useful reference work that gives an alphabetical list of Bierce’s essays, reviews, and character names across his fiction.

  • Grenander, Mary Elizabeth. Ambrose Bierce. New York: Twayne, 1971.

    Provides a timeline and biography of Bierce, and is also particularly useful in giving literary analysis, dividing the short stories into the didactic and mimetic.

  • Grenander, Mary Elizabeth, ed. Poems of Ambrose Bierce. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

    The only recent edition of Bierce’s poetry, selected and with scholarly introduction.

  • Joshi, S. T., Lawrence I. Berkove, and David E. Schultz, eds. The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce: A Comprehensive Edition. 3 vols. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2006.

    Comprehensive reference work on Bierce, collecting all his known short fiction. Draws on the original sources to provide definitive versions of the two hundred and forty-nine texts included, as well as providing extensive annotations and citations to scholarly works.

  • Joshi, S. T., and David E. Schultz, eds. Ambrose Bierce: An Annotated Bibliography of Primary Sources. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.

    The most comprehensive primary bibliography. Particularly useful in providing a list of Bierce’s contributions to books and periodicals in his career as a journalist.

  • Mason, David. “The Dark Delight of Ambrose Bierce.” The Hudson Review 65.1 (Spring 2012): 81–89.

    Gives an appraisal of Bierce’s work in the context of biographical details, providing a good sense of the author’s use of horror, humor, and realism.

  • Rubens, Philip M., and Robert Jones. “Ambrose Bierce: A Bibliographic Essay and Bibliography.” American Literary Realism, 1870–1910 16.1 (Spring 1983): 73–91.

    An overview and bibliography current to 1983, but this gives a good snapshot of the concerns of the field at this point and is particularly illuminating on how Bierce has influenced storytelling in fiction and film.

  • Talley, Sharon. Ambrose Bierce and the Dance of Death. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009.

    Gives a psychoanalytic reading of Bierce’s writing, covering the Civil War and horror material, and intertwining biography with literary analysis, emphasizing contextual detail.

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