Ambrose G. Bierce: The writer behind "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"
Published: April 1, 2005
|In 1913 at age 71, Ambrose G. Bierce left the United States on a quest to report on rebel Gen. Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. Perhaps he was also trying to forget the deaths of his two sons (one shot during a gun duel over a girl, the other dead of pneumonia) and his divorce from his wife of many years. He never returned and was presumed killed in 1914 during a battle.|
Bierce left behind a voluminous assortment of writings, including journalistic reports, columns and commentaries, sharp satiric essays, sketches, verse, fables and short stories. His published work also included a medieval tale that he novelized, a group of pessimistic essays of social commentary and even a book on common pitfalls in writing.
He is probably best known for his short stories, many based on the Civil War in which he fought, collected in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1892, later republished as In the Midst of Life) and in Can Such Things Be? (1893). His plots range over gothic horror, the supernatural, war, death, the grotesque and ironic reversals. Also well known is his 1906 collection of satiric definitions that was eventually retitled The Devil's Dictionary.
Bierce was a handsome man with a magnetic personality that drew aspiring young writers to him. During his lifetime, he was also famous as a muckraking reporter and journalist.
He was born in Ohio in 1842 and brought up in Indiana in a poor farming family. His formal education was limited to a year of high school, but he later read widely. In 1861, he joined the Union Army and fought in several important Civil War battles. He was wounded in 1864 and left the Army in 1865 as a lieutenant, with several commendations for bravery.
He went to San Francisco and became a columnist for the News Letter and, in 1868, its editor. Shortly after marrying, he went to England in 1872 and stayed for several years, writing and editing for several London magazines, publishing three books, and developing his skills as a sardonic, satirical observer of life.
He returned to San Francisco to his wife and two sons in 1875 and the next year began his popular newspaper column the "Prattler," a blend of razor-sharp observations on political and social events and gossip of the day. The column later ran in William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Sunday Examiner, from 1887 to 1896.
Several of Bierce's finest stories first appeared in Hearst's Examiner, including "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," first published there on July 13, 1890.
In 1897, Bierce went to Washington, D.C., as a reporter for the Hearst newspapers. His experiences there formed the basis for his Fantastic Fables (1899) about the politics of the times. Before his departure for Mexico, he spent the years 1909-1912 gathering and arranging his published works, the basis of his first collected edition.
Bierce defined a "cynic" as one who points out the way things are, rather than the way people would like them to be. He believed foolish optimism allowed evil to flourish. His journalism and literary works are both designed to shatter that complacency. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" allows readers to live what Bierce perceived, that people try to see things the way they would like them to be (Farquhar escaping) rather than the way they are (Farquhar dying). This story makes readers the victims of their own optimism. Evil does exist, and they must face it.