Ambrose Bierce

December 2006


During the opening scenes of the film Old Gringo we see actor Gregory Peck in his portrayal of septuagenarian writer Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?) dramatizing before a large audience of admirers one of his most ironic stories―that of his own life. To his unsuspecting onlookers Bierce coolly hails an epiphanic declaration that his life’s work is but a heap of meaningless paper. His shocked audience nearly gasps out of its pre-Prohibition contentment. Bierce triumphantly waves farewell and turns to begin his final journey, traveling to the places of his past with the determined objective of passing out of existence as indistinctly as he entered it.


I first experienced Ambrose Bierce at age 12 when I saw the wonderful 1962 French-made 28-minute film of his story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The film stayed with me as a warm reminder of the hope that humans hold onto seemingly beyond death. I never decided whether Bierce intended the story as a celebration of hope or as a caution of life’s futility. In Chickamauga, a bloody Civil War battle is seen through the fresh, innocent, dreamy eyes of a six-year-old boy. Even when the boy realizes that his mother and home are gone, we learn that not only was the boy’s life spared, but his deafness helped the experience be less terrorizing. Hope or futility?


Bierce wrote several Civil War tales many years after his own experiences in the war. He was only 19 when he fought in the horrific Battle of Shiloh in April 1862. Bierce suffered a serious head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in June 1864. After recovery, he fought on until his discharge in January 1865 when the war was in its waning days. He returned to the army after the war ended and made his way out west. Bierce began his writing career and soon became a prominent columnist and editorialist for William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. Bierce relocated to Washington D.C. in 1899, still associated with Hearst, and that is where we meet him embellishing his farewell scene.


Bierce left Washington D.C. in 1913 to visit old Civil War battlefields. After he made his way south and west, he vanished in Chihuahua, Mexico, accompanying Pancho Villa's army. No one knows the details of Bierce’s death, but we have his ominous depiction from one of his final letters. “Good-bye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia.”