The Devil's Topographer

Ambrose Bierce and the American War Story

  • Author(s): Owens, David M.
  • Series:
  • Imprint: Univ Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2006-08-15
  • Status: Active
  • Available in Hardcover - Cloth: Price $33.00 | Buy Now

H. L. Mencken wrote in 1927 that Ambrose Bierce was “the first writer of fiction ever to treat war realistically.” This realism was based in large part on his experiences as a Union soldier in the Civil War. First as an infantryman and then a cartographer, Bierce was a veteran of epic battles: Shiloh, Chickamauga, Stone’s River, and Pickett’s Mill, among others. While many critics have noted a strong link between Bierce’s military career and his literary work, none have traced this connection in great detail.

In this provocative new book, David M. Owens shows how Bierce’s involvement in the war specifically influenced his fiction. By identifying and examining the actual terrain in which Bierce’s stories are set in conjunction with his military experience and the historical record, this study demonstrates that the stories document Bierce’s personal pilgrimage through the conflict and contends that thematic concerns in them reflect his development as a soldier rather than as a writer. Owens considers Bierce’s twenty-two war stories chronologically according to the time of the action of the story. Arranging the pieces in such an order and plotting the locations of their settings yield an accurate chart of Bierce’s own progress through the war. Thus, The Devil’s Topographer uncovers and explores a crucially important autobiographical context in Bierce’s Civil War fiction.

By bringing under careful scrutiny the biography, history, and geography of Bierce’s settings, a geography never wholly fictional but seldom entirely factual, the book analyzes the variety of techniques that Bierce employs to create the verisimilitude and reader complicity that are characteristic of his best work. Owens breaks new ground by demonstrating the importance of considering the “testimony of landscape,” or the input of the physical world.

The Devil’s Topographer explores the wider implications of Bierce’s contribution to war short fiction and the significance of the war story as a subgenre in American literature. This innovative volume is a significant contribution to the body of literary commentary on Ambrose Bierce and to the study of the development of the American short story.