Friday, October 14, 2011

Adventure classics -- A hanging and an old gringo

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

by Ambrose Bierce


Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether Bierce is more famous for his often-filmed Civil War story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” or for his mysterious disappearance during Mexico’s revolution.

In a number of ways, Bierce’s life parallels Edgar Allan Poe's, including service in the army, a series of jobs with periodicals, and reputations for bitter literary criticism. But it was his writings about paranormal events that ultimately earned him comparison with Poe, a comparison Bierce detested.

Like Poe, he wrote horror because people bought it, but the two writers’ styles could hardly have been more different. As Carey McWilliams notes one of the earliest works about Bierce’s life, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, “The method, in so far as it attempted to produce a ‘dominant impression,’ might be the same (as Poe’s), but the styles were of two worlds. Bierce’s style has nothing of the sonorous, rhythmic sweep of Poe’s best prose. On the contrary, Bierce aimed at clarity, precision, and simplicity.”

But precision and simplicity can be deceiving, as Bierce’s best-known story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” demonstrates.

It relates the story of Southern plantation owner Peyton Farquhar, condemned to be hanged near the end of the Civil War for sabotage. But was Farquhar entrapped by a spy, or merely warned of the consequences? As the scholars who edited The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce caution, “Readers -- in effect, all of us -- who initially misread Farquhar as the hero of the story put their feet on a path that leads to the shocking conclusion. . . .”

The atmosphere of journalistic realism was enhanced by Bierce’s personal knowledge of the setting, where he served as a Union Army officer in the Civil War. (Poe’s similarly-detailed knowledge of the setting for “The Gold-Bug,” discussed last Friday, stems from his own service on Sullivan Island in South Carolina during his army enlistment as a young man.)

The combination of realism and the ending’s psychological twist won awards at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Awards for the 1962 French film based on “Owl Creek” and later shown on television as an episode of Twilight Zone.

It’s been reprised in a variety of settings, from a 1929 silent film to a 2006 DVD version, and seems as destined for immortality as the mystery of Bierce’s own death.

In 1913, at age 71, Bierce traveled to Mexico. He corresponded with his secretary, Carrie Christiansen, who later destroyed his letters after making notes of a few excerpts, as well as dates and postmarks. The last letter was mailed from Juarez, Mexico, in December 1913. Bierce was never heard from again.

Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes’s novel The Old Gringo (Gringo Viejo) fictionalizes Bierce’s disappearance and was adapted into a 1989 film. And Bierce lives on in additional films and stories, sometimes combined with elements from “Owl Creek.”

For additional interesting speculation, with photos, about Bierce’s fate and final resting place, see The Ambrose Bierce Site,

(Next Friday -- Adventure classics revisits the progenitor of all horror stories, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.)

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