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Ambrose Bierce, ca. 1866
|Born||June 24, 1842(1842-06-24)
Meigs County, Ohio, United States
Chihuahua, Chihuahua, Mexico (?)
|Notable work(s)||“An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge“, The Devil’s Dictionary|
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842 – 1914?) was an American editorialist, journalist, short story writer, fabulist and satirist. Today, he is best known for his short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and his satirical lexicon, The Devil’s Dictionary.
The sardonic view of human nature that informed his work — along with his vehemence as a critic — earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce” and “The Wickedest Man in San Francisco”. Despite his reputation as a searing critic, however, Bierce was known to encourage younger writers, including poet George Sterling and fiction writer W. C. Morrow. Bierce employed a distinctive style of writing, especially in his stories. This style often includes a cold open, dark imagery, vague references to time, limited descriptions, the theme of war, and impossible events.
In 1913, Bierce traveled to Mexico to gain a firsthand perspective on that country’s ongoing revolution. While traveling with rebel troops, the elderly writer disappeared without a trace.
|Absence blots people out. We really have no absent friends. – Ambrose Bierce|
Early life and military career
Bierce was born in Meigs County, Ohio to Marcus Aurelius Bierce (1799–1876) and Laura Sherwood Bierce. His mother was a descendant of William Bradford. His parents were a poor but literary couple who instilled in him a deep love for books and writing. He grew up in Kosciusko County, Indiana, attending high school at the county seat, Warsaw. He was the tenth of 13 children whose father gave all of them names beginning with the letter “A”. In order of birth, the Bierce siblings were Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, Adelia, and Aurelia. He left home at age fifteen to become a “printer’s devil” at a small Ohio newspaper.
At the outset of the American Civil War, Bierce enlisted in the Union Army’s 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment. In February 1862 he was commissioned First Lieutenant, and served on the staff of General William Babcock Hazen as a topographical engineer, making maps of likely battlefields. Bierce fought at the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862), a terrifying experience that became a source for several later short stories and the memoir, “What I Saw of Shiloh”.
He continued fighting in the Western theater, at one point receiving newspaper attention for his daring rescue, under fire, of a gravely wounded comrade at the Battle of Rich Mountain, West Virginia. In June 1864, he sustained a serious head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, and spent the rest of the summer on furlough, returning to active duty in September. He was discharged from the army in January 1865. His military career resumed, however, when in mid-1866 he rejoined General Hazen as part of the latter’s expedition to inspect military outposts across the Great Plains. The expedition proceeded by horseback and wagon from Omaha, Nebraska, arriving toward year’s end in San Francisco, California.
Bierce married Mary Ellen (“Mollie”) Day on Christmas Day 1871. They had three children; two sons, Day (1872–1889) and Leigh (1874–1901), and a daughter, Helen (1875–1940). Both of Bierce’s sons died before him: Day was shot in a brawl over a woman, and Leigh died of pneumonia related to alcoholism. Bierce separated from his wife in 1888 after discovering compromising letters to her from an admirer, and the couple finally divorced in 1904. Mollie Day Bierce died the following year.
In San Francisco, Bierce received the rank of brevet major before resigning from the Army. He remained in San Francisco for many years, eventually becoming famous as a contributor and/or editor for a number of local newspapers and periodicals, including The San Francisco News Letter, The Argonaut, the Overland Monthly, The Californian and The Wasp. A selection of his crime reporting from The San Francisco News Letter was included in The Library of America anthology True Crime.
Bierce lived and wrote in England from 1872 to 1875, contributing to Fun magazine. His first book, The Fiend’s Delight, a compilation of his articles, was published in London in 1873 by John Camden Hotten under the pseudonym “Dod Grile”. Returning to the United States, he again took up residence in San Francisco. From 1879 to 1880, he travelled to Rockerville and Deadwood in the Dakota Territory, to try his hand as local manager for a New York mining company, but when the company failed he returned to San Francisco and resumed his career in journalism.
In 1887, he published a column called “Prattle” and became one of the first regular columnists and editorialists to be employed on William Randolph Hearst‘s newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, eventually becoming one of the most prominent and influential among the writers and journalists of the West Coast. He remained associated with Hearst Newspapers until 1906.
Railroad Refinancing Bill
The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies had received large loans from the U.S. government to build the First Transcontinental Railroad—on gentle terms, but Collis P. Huntington persuaded a friendly member of Congress to introduce a bill excusing the companies from repaying the money, amounting to $130 million (nearly $3 billion in 2007 money).
In January 1896 Hearst dispatched Bierce to Washington, D.C. to foil this attempt. The essence of the plot was secrecy; the railroads’ advocates hoped to get the bill through Congress without any public notice or hearings. When the angered Huntington confronted Bierce on the steps of the Capitol and told Bierce to name his price, Bierce’s answer ended up in newspapers nationwide: “My price is one hundred thirty million dollars. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States”. Bierce’s coverage and diatribes on the subject aroused such public wrath that the bill was defeated. Bierce returned to California in November.
 McKinley accusation
Because of his penchant for biting social criticism and satire, Bierce’s long newspaper career was often steeped in controversy. On several occasions his columns stirred up a storm of hostile reaction which created difficulties for Hearst. One of the most notable of these incidents occurred following the assassination of President William McKinley when Hearst’s opponents turned a poem Bierce had written about the assassination of Governor Goebel in 1900 into a cause célèbre.
Bierce meant his poem, written on the occasion of the assassination of Governor William Goebel of Kentucky, to express a national mood of dismay and fear, but after McKinley was shot in 1901 it seemed to foreshadow the crime:
- “The bullet that pierced Goebel’s breast
- Can not be found in all the West;
- Good reason, it is speeding here
- To stretch McKinley on his bier.”
Hearst was thereby accused by rival newspapers—and by then Secretary of State Elihu Root—of having called for McKinley’s assassination. Despite a national uproar that ended his ambitions for the presidency (and even his membership in the Bohemian Club), Hearst neither revealed Bierce as the author of the poem, nor fired him.
 Literary works
Bierce was considered a master of “Pure” English by his contemporaries, and virtually everything that came from his pen was notable for its judicious wording and economy of style. He wrote in a variety of literary genres.
His short stories are held among the best of the 19th century, providing a popular following based on his roots. He wrote realistically of the terrible things he had seen in the war in such stories as “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge“, “The Boarded Window“, “Killed at Resaca“, and “Chickamauga“.
In addition to his ghost and war stories, he also published several volumes of poetry and verse. His Fantastic Fables anticipated the ironic style of grotesquerie that turned into a genre in the 20th century.
One of Bierce’s most famous works is his much-quoted book, The Devil’s Dictionary, originally an occasional newspaper item which was first published in book form in 1906 as The Cynic’s Word Book. It consists of satirical definitions of English words which lampoon cant and political double-talk.
Under the entry “leonine“, meaning a single line of poetry with an internal rhyming scheme, he included an apocryphal couplet written by the fictitious “Bella Peeler Silcox” (i.e. Ella Wheeler Wilcox) in which an internal rhyme is achieved in both lines only by mispronouncing the rhyming words:
- The electric light invades the dunnest deep of Hades.
- Cries Pluto, ‘twixt his snores: “O tempora! O mores!“
Bierce’s twelve-volume Collected Works were published in 1909, the seventh volume of which consists solely of The Devil’s Dictionary, the title Bierce himself preferred to The Cynic’s Word Book.
In October 1913 Bierce, then in his seventies, departed Washington, D.C., for a tour of his old Civil War battlefields. By December he had proceeded through Louisiana and Texas, crossing by way of El Paso into Mexico, which was in the throes of revolution. In Ciudad Juárez he joined Pancho Villa‘s army as an observer, and in that role he witnessed the Battle of Tierra Blanca.
Bierce is known to have accompanied Villa’s army as far as the city of Chihuahua. After a last letter to Blanche Partington, a close friend, dated December 26, 1913, he vanished without a trace, becoming one of the most famous disappearances in American literary history.
All investigations into his fate have proven fruitless, and despite an abundance of theories his end remains shrouded in mystery.