Friday, June 27, 2014

An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?)
From Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs

Detail from portrait of Ambrose Bierce by British painter John Herbert Evelyn Partington (1843–1899), whose daughter Blanche received the last known letter sent by Bierce before he disappeared. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A century ago Ambrose Bierce carried out (intentionally or not) one of the most legendary disappearing acts in the history of literature. He was reported to have crossed the border into Mexico in late December 1913—and was neither seen nor heard from again. Since then, a multitude of theories have been advanced, many of them beyond the realm of possibility. A number of scholars believe he may have been killed at the Battle of Ojinaga, won by Pancho Villa on January 11, 1914. A recent biography by Roy Morris Jr. questions the idea that Bierce ever went to Mexico at all and advances another popular theory: that he committed suicide, perhaps by shooting himself while staying in the Grand Canyon. Among the more sensational claims is an old rumor that Bierce had re-emerged a decade later in Mexico City as the mysterious writer B. Traven, author of the 1927 novel The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Before he began his travels, Bierce certainly seemed to be a man settling affairs for a long journey—or for good. (He was seventy-one years old, after all.) In January 1913 he transferred to his daughter Helen the ownership of a lot in the St. Helena cemetery and closed his letter, “By the way, I do not wish to lie there. The matter is all arranged, and you will not be bothered about the mortal part of Your Daddy.” In September he assigned the copyrights for the Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce to his secretary Carrie Christiansen. Other letters hint at the likelihood of death or “a pretty long absence.”

For most of the last century, the only known clues indicating that Bierce had actually made it to Mexico were his repeated statements that he was heading there, along with a diary kept by Christiansen recording his whereabouts until December 26. He wrote cryptically to the journalist Josephine McCrackin, “Yes, I shall go to Mexico with a pretty definite purpose, which, however, is not at present disclosable.” He conveyed similar plans to other journalists and friends, and a letter to his niece was characteristically macabre: “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 in this life. . . . To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!”

As for Christiansen’s diary, her summary of a December 26 letter sent by Bierce from Chihuahua begins:
Ridden in four miles to mail a letter. Ride from Juarez to Chihuahua hard—nights cold, days hot. Allusion to Jornada del Muerta (journey of death) of thousands of civilian refugees, men, women and children. Train load of troops leaving Chihuahua every day. Expect (next day) to go to Ojinaga, partly by rail. . . .
Because the original letter was lost, many of Bierce’s friends and biographers doubted the accuracy or authenticity of this transcription. But during the 1990s self-described “amateur historian” Leon Day (who died in 2011) seemed to confirm the diary’s accuracy when he discovered “the only Bierce letter from Mexico,” buried in the archives of the University of California at Berkeley among the papers of Blanche Partington (whose father painted the portrait shown above, of Bierce posing with a skull). Because the letter was sent to Blanche Partington from Chihuahua on December 26, 1913, this document seems likely to be the letter summarized in Christiansen’s diary. In the letter, Bierce discusses his original plan, which was to travel to South America:
I must also have told you that I intended to go by the way of Mexico, which I am doing, though it looks now as if “the Andes” would have to wait. . . . I do not know how, nor when, you are to get this letter; there are no mails, and sometimes no trains to take anything to El Paso.
The letter ends, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” [The text of the entire letter, included with Day’s account of his research, can be read here.] What happened to Bierce after December 26 remains unknown, although it is widely agreed that he probably died in 1914.

And so, to commemorate Bierce’s eccentric life and the centennial of his mysterious disappearance, we present his masterpiece, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which Kurt Vonnegut called the greatest short story in American literature and which, according to a reviewer in the Columbia Journalism Review, “is considered by critics to be one of the finest ‘experimental’ American stories of the period.”

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A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.