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In the Midst of Life

Ambrose Bierce

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The first major collection of Ambrose Bierce’s short stories, In the Midst of Life: Tales of Soldiers and Civilians went through multiple editions and titles, with Bierce adding, removing, and revising the stories each time. The version of the stories as collected here follows the final selection and revisions made by Bierce for his Collected Works, Volume 2, published in 1909, and is broken up into two sections, “Soldiers” and “Civilians.”

Bierce fought for the Union in the American Civil War from the very first organized action at Philippi. He went on to fight in some of the deadliest battles of the war, at Shiloh and Chickamauga. He joined Sherman’s army on its march to Atlanta, and was grievously wounded in the head at Kennesaw Mountain. These locations serve as backdrops in his gritty and realist short stories in the “Soldiers” collection, most especially in the surreal story “Chickamauga.” While these stories are set in the war, Bierce covers a wide range of themes, from the fear of death in “Parker Adderson, Philosopher,” the requirements of duty for a soldier in “A Horseman in the Sky,” and what one might do for love in “Killed at Resaca.”

Perhaps the most well-known story in “Soldiers” is “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” Kurt Vonnegut called it “the greatest American short story,” saying “It is a flawless example of American genius, like ‘Sophisticated Lady’ by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove.”

Bierce, much like Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, was an American pioneer in what he called his “tall tales”—psychological, supernatural, grotesque, and horror fiction. Many stories in “Civilians,” such as “The Man and the Snake,” “A Holy Terror,” and “The Suitable Surroundings,” foreshadow his later and darker works as studies in psychological horror. “The Eyes of the Panther” is a tragic, near-supernatural (though the reader is left guessing) tale of a woman of “feline beauty” and the man seeking her hand. Other stories found in the collection are satirical and ironic, like “The Famous Gilson Bequest” and “The Applicant.”

Bierce’s writing earned him the title “Bitter Bierce” from his contemporaries, as one finds precious little hope and compassion in his stories, with death—often cruel—a recurring theme. A very rare exception can be found in “A Lady from Redhorse,” an epistolary romance.

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