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Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce had a diverse literary, military and journalistic career, during which his sardonic view of human nature ensured he was both frequently critical and frequently criticised. As a writer, his work included short stories, fables, editorials and his journalism, which was often controversial owing to his vehemence and acerbic style.
He was born on June 24th 1842 to Marcus Aurelius Bierce (1799-1876) and Laura Sherwood Bierce at Horse Cave Creek in Meigs Country, Ohio. Though his parents were poor they were literarily inclined and they introduced Bierce to this passion at an early age, instilling in him a deep appreciation of books, the written word and the elegance of language.
Bierce grew up in Koscuisko Country, Indiana, attending school at the county seat in Warsaw. He was the tenth of thirteen children, all of whom Marcus Aurelius gave names beginning with ‘A’, an indication of his love of poetry and alliteration. In order of birth they were Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, Adelia and Aurelia. Poverty and religion were defining features of his childhood, and he would later describe his parents as “unwashed savages” and fanatically religious, showing him little affection but quick to punish him “with anything they could lay their hand on”. He soon came to resent religion, and an introduction to literature is about the only lasting effect Marcus Aurelius had on Bierce.
Instead, Bierce began to respect his Uncle Lucius, whose “political and military distinction won the admiration of his nephew”; as an important figure within the American military and a graduate of Ohio University, he seemed far more worthy of admiration than his father. The family moved Westward when he was nine “in search of better land, and a more promising future”, settling on 80 acres of farmland in Walnut Creek, Indiana.
Then, at the age of fifteen, Bierce left home to become a printer’s devil, mixing ink and fetching type at The Northern Indian, a small Ohio newspaper run by a man named Reuben Williams. The duration of his time here is uncertain, though it is known that he quit the apprenticeship; apparently after being falsely accused of a theft. He returned to the family farm and spent time sending work to editors in the hopes of being published, though he was met with frequent rejection.
On the recommendation of his Uncle Lucius he was sent to the Kentucky Military Institute where, after a year’s education, he was commissioned as an Officer in the Union Army. At the outset of the American Civil War in 1861, Bierce enlisted in the Union Army’s 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment. His first major participation was during the Operations in Western Virginia campaign of 1861, and he was present at the ‘first battle’ at Philippi.
At the Battle of Rich Mountain on July 11th 1861 he executed the daring rescue of a gravely wounded comrade under heavy enemy fire, an act of bravery which received attention in the newspaper. Following this triumph he was commissioned First Lieutenant, serving as a topographical engineer on the staff of General William Babcock Hazen, undertaking the important work of making maps of likely battlefields.
In April 1862 Bierce fought at the Battle of Shiloh, an experience which, though terrifying, became the source of several of his short stories in later years, along with the memoir What I Saw of Shiloh. Two more years of valuable service followed until June 1864 when, while fighting at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, he sustained a serious head wound which required him to spend the summer on furlough, an unpaid yet honourable period of leave, in order to recover. He returned to active duty in September of that year, only to be discharged in January 1865 towards the close of the war.
However midway through 1866 he rejoined General Hazen on his expedition to inspect military outposts across the Great Plains, proceeding by horseback and wagon from Omaha, Nebraska, to San Francisco, California, at the end of the year.
While still in San Francisco, Bierce was presented with the rank of brevet major before tendering his resignation from the Army, choosing to remain in San Francisco and becoming involved with publishing and editing. On Christmas Day of 1871 Bierce married Mary Ellen, also known as Molly, with whom he had his first child, Day, the following year.
Later in 1872 he moved to England where he lived and wrote between the years 1872 and 1875, contributing work to Fun magazine. In 1874 his second son, Leigh, was born, and while in England he saw his first book, The Fiend’s Delight, published by John Camden Hotton under the pseudonym ‘Dod Grile’. It appeared in London in 1873, and was a collection of his articles. On the back of this success he was published twice more, first Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California in 1873, and the next year Cobwebs from and Empty Skull, both collections of stories, fables, maxims, sketches, poetry, epigrams, quips and witticisms.
After this success and his continued regular contribution to Fun, he returned to San Francisco where he took up a more permanent residence and focused on his editorial career, working for a number of local papers including The San Francisco News Letter, The Argonaut, the Overland Monthly, The Californian and The Wasp. His crime writing was some of the finest of the medium and was reproduced in the Library of America anthology True Crime. His novella ‘The Dance of Death’, co-written with Thomas A. Harcourth for which he used the pseudonym William Herman was published in 1877, and then from 1879 to 1880 he travelled to the Dakota Territory, visiting Rockerville and Deadwood and experimenting with a managerial role at a New York mining company.
With the failure of that company he returned to San Francisco to continue his journalism, where in 1887 he began a column at the San Francisco Examiner named ‘Prattle’, which saw him become one of William Randolph Hearst’s first regular columnists and editors at the paper. He eventually became one of the more influential and prominent of the journalists and writers of the West Coast. His association with Hearst Newspapers would continue until 1906.
Bierce’s marriage was to fall apart when in 1888 he discovered compromising letters to his wife from a secret admirer. This led to their separation. The following year, 1889 his first son Day committed suicide following depression brought on by a romantic rejection.
In 1891, inspired by his time in the Union Army, Bierce wrote and published the collection of 26 short stories, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians which included his famous ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’. Maintaining in the preface to the first edition that the book had been “denied existence by the chief publishing houses in the country”, the eventual publication is accredited to his friend Mr E.L.G. Steele, a San Franciscan merchant against whose name the 1891 copyright is listed. The heavy irony of his depictions of battlefield heroism and valour perhaps reflects his own response to the differences between his act of human bravery, rescuing a comrade, and the ‘brave sacrifices’ of troop leaders whose stubborn and rash decisions often led to the deaths of many whose lives could have been spared by more prudent warmongering. A particular example of this is found in the actions of Lieutenant Brayle, of the story ‘Incident at Resaca’, in whose orders for a hundred men to charge gloriously into certain death Bierce presents valourous sacrifice, ideally rendered, but it is a portrayal which he then juxtaposes against the gruesomely realistic descriptions of their wounds and deaths. Moreover, alongside these informed accounts of battlefield brutality he acknowledges the frequent injuries sustained by women and children which were oft overlooked by official accounts and propaganda.
Three more publications followed, a book of poetry in 1892 entitled Black Beetles in Amber, followed by a novella, again co-written but this time with Adolphe De Castro named The Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter, also published in 1892 and Can Such Things Be?, a collection of short stories which reached print in 1893. By this time the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies were receiving huge loans from the United States Government towards their endeavours to build the First Transcontinental Railroad, and Collis P. Huntingdon sought to introduce a bill which quietly excused the companies from repaying the money, essentially converting the loan into a handout of $130 million dollars. The plot’s essence was secrecy, for its perpetrators hoped to get the bill through Congress without any public notice and subsequent hearing, so in 1896 Hearst dispatched Bierce to Washington, D.C to scupper their plans. Confronted by Huntingdon on the steps of the Capitol and angrily invited to name his price, Bierce answered “my price is $130 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”. This answer became famous and was recorded in newspapers nationwide, and his coverage of and diatribes on the issue encouraged such public outrage that the bill was challenged and defeated. Following this huge success, Bierce returned to California in November.
He now began his first foray into a career as a fabulist, publishing Fantastic Fables in 1899 and anticipating the rise of ironic grotesquerie which was seen in the 20th century. The following year, owing to his penchant for stirring up the public through his biting satire and social criticism, he induced a hostile reaction to a poem he had written in 1900 about the assassination of Governor Goebel and following the assassination of President William McKinley which had been deliberately misconstrued by Hearst’s opponents, turning it into something of a cause célèbre. The poem was meant to express the national sense of fear and dismay at Goebel’s death, but the lines -
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
(written innoculously in 1900) seemed to foreshadow the subsequent shooting on McKinley in 1901. This saw Hearst accused of having called for McKinley’s assassination by his rivals and then by Elihu Root, then Secretary of State, though despite the national uproar which ended Hearst’s ambitions for presidency, Bierce was never revealed as the author of the poem; nor, indeed, did Hearst ever fire him from the paper.
In 1901, his second son Leigh died of pneumonia relating to his alcoholism.
His enduring career at the paper was accompanied by several more publications, the next of which was Shapes of Clay in 1903, a book of poetry and the first publication of one of his most famous works, The Devil’s Dictionary, which began life as an occasional newspaper item of satirical definitions of English words and then, in 1906, was published as a collection in book form under the name The Cynic’s Word Book. In 1909 The Cynic’s Word Book was reprinted under its current name, which Bierce himself preferred, as the entirety of the seventh volume of his Collected Works which brought together the majority of his short stories and poems. The same year he wrote Write it Right, a non-fiction work of literary criticism and commentary, which appeared alongside The Shadow on the Dial, and other essays. However, despite this professional success he finally divorced his wife in 1904, and she died the following year.
At the age of 71, in 1913 Bierce departed from Washington, D.C., for a tour of the battlefields upon which he had fought during the civil war. He had passed through Louisiana and Texas by December and was crossing into by way of El Paso into Mexico which was itself in the throes of revolution. He joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer in Ciudad Juárez during which time he witnessed the battle of Tierra Blanca. It is known that he accompanied Villa’s army as far as the city of Chihuahua where he wrote his last known communication in the form of a letter to Blanche Partington, one of his close friends, dated 26th December 1913. He closed the letter with the words “as to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination” and then vanished without trace in what would become one of the most famous unexplained disappearances in American history. Various suggestions have been posited, including that belonging to the oral tradition of Sierra Mojada, Coahuila, which holds that Bierce was executed by firing squad in the town cemetery there. All that is known is that, by this time, he was suffering considerably from the asthma which had dogged him throughout his life and was compounded by his war injuries.
In 1920, three of his stories A Horseman in the Sky, A Watcher by the Dead and The Man and the Snake were published posthumously, and further poetry was published in 1980 under the title A Vision of Doom: Poems by Ambrose Pierce. As a writer, he often found himself splitting opinion and continues to do so in death, his writing variously described as cheap and vulgar, and conversely the best writing on war and that of a flawless American genius. Regardless of how differently his critics speak of him, his legacy is one of concise, acerbic and cruelly satirical social commentary, an authorial style of economy, fruitful observation and as a judicious wordsmith.