Bierce, Ambrose Gwinett

Bierce, Ambrose Gwinett ăm´brōz gwĭnĕt´ bĭrs [key], 1842–1914?, American satirist, journalist, and short-story writer, b. Meigs co., Ohio. He fought with extreme bravery in the Civil War, and the conflict, which he considered meaningless slaughter, is reflected in his war stories and to a great extent in the deep pessimism of his late fiction.

After the war, he turned to journalism. In San Francisco he wrote for the News-Letter, becoming its editor in 1868. He soon established a reputation as a satirical wit, and his waspish squibs and epigrams were much quoted. In London (1872–75), he wrote for the magazine Fun and finished three books, including Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874). After his return to San Francisco, he wrote for the Argonaut, edited the Wasp (1881–86), and was a columnist for Hearst's Sunday Examiner (1887–96); his writings in the Examiner made him the literary arbiter of the West Coast. Later he was Washington correspondent for the American and a contributor to Cosmopolitan.

Bierce's famous collection of sardonic definitions, originally called The Cynic's Word Book (1906), was retitled The Devil's Dictionary in 1911. His short stories, often dark in tone, grisly or macabre in subject matter, and masterful in their spare language, were collected in such volumes as Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891) and Can Such Things Be? (1893). He was also highly praised for The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter (1892), which he adapted from a translation of a German story. Bierce's distinction lies in his distilled satire, in the crisp precision of his astringent language, and in his realistically developed horror stories. Disillusionment and sadness pervaded the latter part of his life. In 1913 he went to Mexico, where all trace of him was lost.


See his Collected Works (12 vol., 1909–12; repr. 1966), Collected Writings (ed. by C. Fadiman, 1946), and Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period: The Complete Civil War Writings (ed. by R. Duncan and D. J. Klooster, 2002); A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce (ed. by S. T. Joshi and D. E. Schultz, 2003); biographies by C. McWilliams (1929), R. O'Connor (1967) and R. Morris, Jr. (1996); studies by M. E. Grenander (1971), C. N. Davidson (1982 and 1984), R. Saunders (1984), D. M. Owens (2006), and S. Talley (2009).

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