Ambrose Bierce

(1842 - 1913?)

“I consider anybody a twerp who hasn't read the greatest American short story, which is 'Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,' by Ambrose Bierce.”

Kurt Vonnegut

Printer's Devil and Union Soldier

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born in the settlement of Horse Cave Creek, Ohio, one of thirteen children. His parents were deeply religious members of the First Congregationalist Church of Christ and his siblings were called Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Arthur, Adelia, and Aurelia. Though they were poor, they were a literary family and Ambrose grew up with a deep respect for books and a love for the written word.

Bierce left home at 15 to become an apprentice or 'Printer's Devil' (so called for the black ink which constantly stained their hands) at the Northern Indianian newspaper. After serving his apprenticeship he enrolled at 17 in the Kentucky Military Institute and was there able to gain the rudiments of a classical education, studying Latin, history and political science.

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Bierce joined the Union Army. He served with distinction in the 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment at the first Battle of Philippi and the Battle of Rich Mountain. Promoted to First Lieutenant, he took part in the brutal Battle of Shiloh in 1862, the bloodiest in the history of the United States at that time. He would later write the memoir What I Saw at Shiloh about the harrowing experience.

Having been invalided out of the conflict at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, he left the army to become a clerk in Alabama. He later moved to California, which would remain his home state for the rest of his life. Bierce had written some fiction during the war, but it was in San Francisco that he began to build a career from writing.

Bitter Bierce

Working for a number of local newspapers, Bierce supplied essays, journalism, stories and sketches on numerous subjects – from political intrigue to lambasting society figures. It was while writing for these newspapers, particularly the San Francisco Examiner and The Wasp (where he had a weekly column called ‘Prattle’), that Bierce became a national figure, known for his sharp wit and satire, earning the ire of many leading figures of the day, including Oscar Wilde, whom he referred to as an ‘intellectual jellyfish’.

In 1871 Bierce met and married Mary Ellen (Mollie) Day, with whom he had three children. A keen traveller, Bierce journeyed extensively across the United States and Europe as a correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner, owned by William Randolph Hearst (the inspiration for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane). He became one of Hearst's most trusted reporters. Between 1879 and 1881 he also tried his hand at running a mine in Deadwood, South Dakota. However, the venture swiftly collapsed, forcing Bierce and his family to return to California.

Whilst working for Hearst's newspapers, Bierce wrote some of his best-known fiction, including the stories 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge' and 'Killed at Resaca', in which he relived the horrors of the Civil War. The quintessential master of ‘pure’ English, he was also an accomplished poet, often using his skills to attack his contemporaries. However, he would become known around the world for his collection of highly witty and caustic definitions, The Devil’s Dictionary. Eminently quotable, the work reinvented English words to reveal a seemingly endless litany of foolishness and hypocrisy.

For example:

CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamoured of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.
DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.
BIRTH, n. The first and direst of all disasters.

First appearing in his column for San Francisco’s News Letter, they earned Bierce the nickname ‘Bitter Bierce’.

As a journalist he was heavily involved in a number of political scandals. A poem he published in 1900 seemed to demand the assassination of President McKinley, and when McKinley was shot a year later there was a national outcry. Bierce was protected by his benefactor Hearst, his identity as the author of the poem kept secret.

An unsolved mystery

By the turn of the century Bierce had become a hugely respected journalist and writer. However, his personal life was in tatters. He had separated from Mollie in 1888; a year later his eldest son, Day, killed himself allegedly over a woman. In 1901 his second son, Leigh, also died suddenly of pneumonia. Outliving his sons had a debilitating effect on Bierce. He wrote less and wound down his career writing for Hearst’s newspapers. In 1909 the 71-year-old Bierce took to travelling across the country, visiting the sites of the battles of the Civil War.

In October 1913 Bierce's niece claimed to have received a letter from him, mentioning a plan to go to Mexico, at the time in the grips of a bloody revolution. Very little is known about this journey, or even if it took place, though it has been suggested that he joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer and witnessed the Battle of Tierra Blanca. There are also stories amongst the locals in the Sierra Madre that he was captured and executed in the town of Sierra Mojada in early 1914. However, no categorical evidence exists and to this day, his disappearance remains an unsolved mystery.

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