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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Gothic Undercurrents Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?)

[3320] J. H. E. Partington, Ambrose Bierce (1928), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-20182].

Ambrose Bierce spent an unhappy childhood in Ohio and left home as a bitter and pessimistic young man. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Bierce joined the Union Army; he later brought his military experience vividly to life in some of his best stories. Bierce moved to San Francisco after the war and embarked on a career as a journalist. His “Prattler” column, originally printed in the Argonaut and then the Wasp, was picked up by William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Sunday Examiner in 1886 and provided Bierce with an excellent outlet for his biting wit and his short stories. After divorcing his wife in 1891 and losing one son in a gunfight and the other to alcoholism, Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1913, where legend says he was killed in the Mexican Revolution. His works include Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891; later retitled In the Midst of Life) and The Devil’s Dictionary (1906).

Teaching Tips

  • “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” is a textbook example of irony, with a surprising “twist ending.” Have students practice this literary technique by writing brief narratives with unexpected, ironic endings. Briefly explore which ones work the best and what elements allow them to do so.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: How does the ending of “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” change your sense of what happens earlier in the story?
  2. Context: How might it matter that this story takes place in the South? How does this story relate to the Core Context “Swamps, Dismal and Otherwise” and the South’s conflicting senses of identity?
  3. Exploration: What does this story seem to be saying about perception and knowledge? We typically assume that perception precedes knowledge: I know the truth because I have seen it. To what extent does “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” argue that the opposite is sometimes true? You might compare it to the stories by Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne in this regard.

Selected Archive Items

[3230] Anonymous, Confederate and Union Dead Side by Side in Trenches at Fort Mahone (1865), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-B8171-3181].
Civil War photograph of the aftermath of the siege of Petersburg.

[3320] J. H. E. Partington, Ambrose Bierce (1928), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-20182]. 
Partington’s painting features Bierce leaning next to a human skull. Bierce’s satires often commented on the dark side of nineteenth-century America.

[7357] Sarony and Major, View of San Francisco, Taken from the Western Hill at the Foot of Telegraph Hill, Looking toward Ringon Point and Mission Valley [detail] (1851), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1716]. 
Less than two years after the Gold Rush began, San Francisco had become a sprawling boom town that drew people from all over the world.

[7505] Anonymous, Music in Mexican Insurrecto Camp (1911), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62- 115488]. 
This photo, of musicians and armed men in a camp during the Mexican Civil War, shows the close relationship between music and politics in the borderlands.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6