The Strange Case of Ambrose Bierce

13 Feb

The American writer Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913) was a highly accomplished man who was famous for many things. He was a skilled short story writer who could turn his talent to virtually any genre, although his ghostly tales are the ones which have won him the most acclaim. As a literary critic he was feared and respected in equal measure, since his commentaries (though always fair) could be uncompromisingly blunt. Bierce pioneered a distinctive, much-imitated style of writing, which often embraced an abrupt beginning, dark imagery, vague references to time, limited descriptions, the theme of war and impossible events. Yet for all of these laudable achievements, to this day what Bierce is best known for is the fact that in 1913, while on a visit to Mexico to gain a first-hand perspective on that country’s ongoing revolution, the elderly writer disappeared without a trace. No satisfactory explanation has ever been put forward for this mysterious event, which was strangely prefigured in Bierce’s short stories, and the writer’s body has never been found.

A Civil War veteran, Bierce’s military experiences were to have a profound impact on his writing. The war was something that Bierce could not have forgotten even if he had wanted to – a serious head wound that he sustained at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain was to continue to affect him all his life. Nevertheless, this did not stop him from quickly acquiring an enviable reputation in both literature and journalism. He wrote realistically of the terrible things he had seen in the war in his short stories, which are commonly regarded as some of the best in 19th century American literature. A connoisseur of the English Language, one of Bierce’s most famous works was his much-quoted book, The Devil’s Dictionary, which consisted of satirical definitions of English words which lampooned political double-talk. Bierce’s column on the San Francisco Examiner likewise won him widespread acclaim, however, as both journalist and writer he was no stranger to controversy. Bierce famously wrote a poem which seemed to predict the assassination of President William McKinley, although his identity as the writer of the poem was never revealed during his lifetime. Strange as this incident was, it paled into comparison beside the events surrounding Bierce’s own demise.

During the Mexican revolution, Bierce was said to have rode with Pancho Villa. While in Mexico, his last known communication with the world was apparently a letter dated December 26, 1913 that he wrote to his close friend Blanche Partington, following which he vanished without a trace, becoming one of the most famous disappearances in American literary history. This letter, its contents and even its very existence, are to this day a matter of widespread debate and controversy. In one version of events Bierce closed this letter by saying, ‘As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination’; in another there was no such letter, only an outline left in a notebook belonging to one of the writer’s companions. There are other, somewhat more far-fetched theories, one of which is The Croatoan Mystery (click to read!) while another, put forward by the priest James Lienert, states that Bierce was executed by a firing squad in the town cemetery in Sierra Mojada. The fact remains that all investigations into Bierce’s disappearance have proved fruitless, largely because of the lack of hard evidence concerning his movements while in Mexico, and his end therefore remains shrouded in mystery. At least we have Bierce’s excellent short stories to remember him by, one of the best known of which is An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (click to read!).

2 Responses to “The Strange Case of Ambrose Bierce”

  1. Hayden February 17, 2012 at 4:26 pm #

    This is really interesting. I know nothing about Bierce, but I’ve read a few of his stories. Now I’m itching to read more.

    • anilbalan February 18, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

      Thanks and yes, he’s a fascinating person as well as an excellent writer

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