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An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Ambrose Bierce

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Plot Overview

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born in Meigs County, Ohio, in 1842, the tenth of thirteen children, all of whom had names beginning with the letter A. In 1846, the family moved to a farm in northern Indiana, where Bierce was exposed to periodic schooling, became a printer’s apprentice on an antislavery newspaper, briefly attended the Kentucky Military Institute, and worked in a store and restaurant. His experiences fighting at the front lines of the Civil War proved to have a powerful influence on his writing. He enlisted in 1861, eventually achieving the rank of lieutenant and fighting in several noted battles and campaigns, including Shiloh, Chickamauga (the inspiration for his lauded story of the same name), and Sherman’s March to the Sea.

After the war, he served as a treasury aide and topographical officer and then turned to journalism, embarking on a distinguished career both in the United States and abroad. He wrote for a variety of San Francisco periodicals and became the editor of the News-Letter and California Advertiser in 1868. Living in London in the early 1870s, he published three books of sketches and epigrams and wrote articles for various magazines. Settling once again in San Francisco, Bierce served as an editor of the Argonaut and then the Wasp from 1881 to 1886, and then went on to become a featured columnist in the Hearst publication the Examiner. There, he established himself as a leading literary critic and vocal opponent of realism, which dominated American letters at the time. Realist writers attempted to portray life objectively, without filtering it through the lens of artifice. From the late 1890s to 1913, he lived in Washington, D.C., where he continued to write for several well-known East Coast newspapers and magazines.

Bierce’s reputation as an aphorist and epigrammist grew steadily in the latter part of the nineteenth century, as he showed great skill at producing pithy, observational, and often humorous sayings. Known for his wit and biting satirical style, his collected epigrams and aphorisms were first published as The Cynic’s Word Book (1906) and later reissued under the title The Devil’s Dictionary (1911). Today, he is known mostly for his short stories, which often have grim subject matter; a cynical or brooding tone; crisp, precise language; and a spare, stripped-down style. Arguably his most famous and well-received work is “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Written in 1886 and first published in the collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891), the story is a much-anthologized classic that secured Bierce’s place on the American literary map.

Critics have had mixed reactions to “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Some have balked at the story’s gimmicky, contrived ending and manipulation of readers’ expectations. Others have praised its innovative use of plot, structure, and time. In any case, Bierce was able to explore complex ideas of cognition and perception in his story, and he is often credited with being one of the first American writers to introduce psychology into his characters and scenarios. In doing so, he stretched the boundaries of the form, taking the short story out of a realm of closely observed lives and realistic, hard-won epiphanies.

By his early seventies, disillusioned and gripped most likely by depression, Bierce retired from writing after completing work on his twelve-volume Collected Works (1912). In 1913, he headed for Mexico, during the height of the country’s revolution. The events of the last year of his life and the circumstances surrounding his death are shrouded in mystery. After posting a letter in Chihuahua, he was never heard from again. Some scholars believe he was killed in the siege of Ojinega on January 11, 1914, while other sensational explanations contend that he committed suicide in the Grand Canyon or was kidnapped by Brazilian Indians. However he died, his legacy remains. He has influenced a diverse array of modern writers, including William Golding, Jorge Luis Borges, and Carlos Fuentes, as well as the creators of suspense- and horror-based films and television programs.

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