Highlights of a Life
BIRTH, n. The first and direst of all disasters.
Ambrose Bierce began his life on June 24, 1842, in a log cabin on Horse Cave Creek in Meigs County, Ohio. He was the tenth of a large brood of children (some sources say there were 13) whose names all began with the letter “A” at the odd insistence of their father, Marcus Aurelius Bierce. Supposedly, Marcus Aurelius was a ne’er-do-well who cared more about books than holding down a job; but his extensive library was a resource to which Ambrose later wrote that he owed “everything.”
Clifton Fadiman noted in The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce that Ambrose “hated the home and except for one brother, Albert, the entire family.” So in 1957, he left home for Indiana, where he was a “printer’s devil” for an abolitionist newspaper. He later returned to Ohio to live with his uncle, Lucius Verus Bierce, who was Grand Master of Ohio Freemasons in 1854.
WAR, n. A by-product of the arts of peace.
Ambrose attended the Kentucky Military Institute, and during the Civil War he enlisted as a volunteer with the Ninth Indiana Infantry Regiment. He fought in several notable and bloody battles, including Shiloh, Chickamauga, Stones River, Resaca, and Pickett’s Mill.
The war affected Bierce, both physically and otherwise. At Kennesaw Mountain, he was struck in the temple by a bullet, which lodged in the skull behind his left ear. Although he survived, many found the wound left Bierce more suspicious, less trusting, and beginning to display the misanthropy characteristic of his later years.
Ambrose Bierce was the only writer of war stories in his time to have actually experienced battle first-hand. His wartime experiences were catalysts for writing, and perhaps the major impetus; many of his most successful works, including An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, involved the Civil War. Bierce would die mysteriously in Mexico, presumably swept up in the rebellion there in 1914. Thus, Civil Wars both began and ended his writing career.
FRIENDSHIP, n. A ship big enough to carry two in fair weather, but only one in foul.
Bierce’s literary career began on the west coast. After the war, Ambrose went to live with his favorite brother, Albert, in San Francisco. He took a job at the United States Mint, while contributing to weeklies like the Argonaut and the News Letter; of the latter he became editor in 1868, and it usurped his job at the Mint. His famous “Town Crier” column, with its caustic wit, earned Bierce a reputation in California literary society, which led to friendships with Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Joaquin Miller. In 1871, he published his first story, “The Haunted Valley” in the Overland Monthly.
MARRIAGE, n.The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.
In San Francisco, Bierce met and married Mary Ellen (Mollie) Day, a Bay Area socialite, in 1871. Together they would have three children: Day, their first son, in 1872; Leigh, their second son, in 1874; and Helen, their daughter, in 1875. Day and Leigh were both born in England, during a three-year stay which began as a honeymoon—Mollie’s father’s wedding gift to the couple.
In England, Ambrose wrote for Fun and Figaro magazines and published his first three books of sketches under the pseudonym Dod Grile. His sense of humor earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce,” but Ambrose was happy in England. He was bitter, however, when he followed his wife back to San Francisco in 1975, shortly after the birth of Helen. The family settled in Marin County, and Bierce became the editor of The Argonaut in 1877, gaining notoriety for his “Prattle” column.
PUBLISH, n. In literary affairs, to become the fundamental element in a cone of critics.
In 1877 Bierce published The Dance of Death, in collaboration with two other writers, under the pseudonym William Herman. This “wily humbug against the waltz” called the dance “an open and shameless gratification of sexual desire and a cooler of burning lust.” In Bierce’s Argonaut column he dismissed this, his own book, to the objection of the Methodist Church, who responded by endorsing it. An “anonymous” rebuttal was published, and the hubbub ultimately boosted sales of the tiny book to 18,000 copies. (Barbara Meister, Ohioana Librarian’s Report, October 19, 2001)
LOVE, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder.
In 1888 Bierce’s marriage ended in separation, after he found a packet of love letters to his wife that he hadn’t written. Regardless of whether or not she was truly unfaithful, Bierce said, “I will not compete with any other man.” Just one year later, Bierce’s prized first-born son, Day, was killed in a duel over a woman. In just over a decade his second son, Leigh, would die of pneumonia. Mary would eventually file for divorce for “abandonment,” but would die in 1904, before the official proceedings went through.
HEARSE, n. Death’s baby-carriage.
In 1887, William Randolph Hearst hired Ambrose Bierce to write for the San Francisco Examiner at $35 a week and thus began their famous and tumultuous love-hate relationship. According to legend, Bierce was the only man who ever cowed Hearst, bringing him to his knees time and again as Bierce quit or threatened to quit, whenever the propriety of what he wanted to say was questioned.
One thing Bierce shared with Hearst was hatred for President McKinley—Hearst, because he thought McKinley took too long to enter into war with Spain; Bierce, because he believed McKinley caved to the pressure of warmongers like Hearst. In fact, Bierce wrote this poem shortly after the assassination of Kentucky governor-elect Goebel and shortly before McKinley’s assassination (both he and McKinley’s assassin denied the poem had anything to do with the act):
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.
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.
The word bier, also found in “Bierce,” means “a stand on which a corpse or coffin is placed.” The word hearse, a close relative to “Hearst,” means “an elaborate framework erected over a coffin or tomb to which memorial verses or epitaphs are attached,” or “a vehicle for conveying the dead to the grave.” Bierce’s words about McKinley were more like epithets than epitaphs. And Hearst’s vehicle, The San Francisco Examiner, conveyed Bierce’s words to the public. Thus, figuratively, McKinley’s coffin got its stand from Ambrose Bierce and its vehicle from Hearst.
RAILROAD, n. The chief of many mechanical devices enabling us to get away from where we are to where we are no better off.
In 1896, Bierce’s writing had a more direct political impact. With Hearst’s support and space in The San Francisco Examiner and New York Journal, Bierce wrote some work that alerted the public to the way “railrogue” Collis P. Huntington was slipping through legislation that would allow him to get out of repaying a debt to the federal government. Public ire ensued and prevented Huntington’s bill from passing. Many believe this was the first stage of the downfall of the railroad industry’s power.
FAMOUS, adj. Conspicuously miserable.
In 1909, Bierce quit working for Hearst for the last time, and as a gesture of his good will, Hearst gave Bierce permission to reproduce all of the writings he had completed under Hearst’s employment. This allowed for a voluminous Collected Works, compiled from 1909 to 1912. Volume 7 was perhaps Bierce’s most famous work: The Devil’s Dictionary (originally published as The Cynic’s Word Book), from which the headings for this brief biography were taken.
LIFE n. A spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay.
Towards the end of his life, Ambrose Bierce began expressing an interest in visiting Mexico and South America. He wrote in a letter to his daughter: “If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life. To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia.” Supposedly, shortly before crossing the border into Mexico, he wrote to his niece, Lora, “I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much.”
No one knows for certain if Ambrose Bierce finally made it to Mexico. His last communication was sent to his former secretary in December, 1913. Much speculation and many stories have been told about his disappearance. Some suggest that he was, indeed, shot by a Mexican during the civil war ravaging the country. Others believe that he committed suicide. One contemporary film, From Dusk Til Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter offers a more supernatural story of his end, involving vampires.
Regardless of how Ambrose Bierce died, he left behind volumes of cynical satire and a devoted following. His books are the subjects of film, stage, and scholarship, and his life has become the stuff of legend.