Oct 19, 2013

Ambrose Bierce

Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret ...
Ambrose Gwinett Bierce was born on June 24th 1842 and his date of death can only be estimated to be after December 26th 1913.
Among the list of classic American authors, famous for his short stories, he was also an editorialist, journalist and at the end of his life, an adventurer. He was a critical satirist, but was quick to encourage youthful writers which included George Sterling and W.C. Morrow. His writing style was unique and featured sudden beginnings, dark images with limited description and often depicting the theme of war.
Bierce was born at Horse Cave Creek in Meigs County, Ohio to Marcus Aurelius Bierce (1799-1876) and Laura Sherwood Bierce, his mother being the descendant of William Bradford, an early American English Separatist leader in Holland, later the governor of the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, part of the Mayflower Compact; and whose journal Of Plymouth Plantation became an important American colonial historical document.
Ambrose was the tenth of thirteen children whose names all began with the letter “A”. At the age of fifteen, he left home to become a printer's devil at a small Ohio newspaper.
When the American Civil War began, Bierce enlisted in the 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment of the Union Army. He participated in the Operations in Western Virginia campaign in 1861 and was at the first Battle of Philippi, which he received newspaper attention for his daring rescue, under fire, of a seriously wounded comrade at the Battle of Rich Mountain. Bierce was commissioned as First Lieutenant in February of 1862 and served on the staff of General William Babock Hazen as a topographical engineer who made maps of proposed battlefields. The Battle of Shiloh in April of 1862 was a terrifying experience which became a source of short stories and part of Bierce's memoir: What I Saw of Shiloh. In June of 1864, Bierce received a serious head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain and spent the rest of the summer on convalescent furlough, returning to active duty in September of 1864. He was discharged from the army in January of 1865. In 1866, his military career resumed when he rejoined General Hazen as part of his expedition to inspect military outposts across the Great Plains. The expedition was began on horseback and wagon from Omaha, Nebraska and arrived at the end of the year in San Francisco, California.
Bierce married Mary Ellen Day, whom he affectionately called Mollie, on December 25th 1871. They had three children, two sons and a daughter. Ambrose outlived his sons, one committing suicide because of a romantic rejection and the other dying of pneumonia related to alcoholism. Bierce separated from his wife in 1888 after discovering letters to her from an admirer. They divorced in 1904 and Molly Day Bierce died the next year in 1905.
Bierce suffered from asthma all his life as well as complications from his war wounds.
In San Francisco, Bierce received the rank of brevet major before resigning from the Army, and remained in San Francisco for several years becoming famous as the editor and contributor of several newspapers and periodicals.
Bierce contributed to the Fun magazine while living and writing in England from 1872 to 1875. His first book was entitled The Fiend's Delight, published in London in 1873. When he returned to the United States he resumed his residence in San Francisco. From 1879 to 1880 he traveled to Rockerville and Deadwood in Dakota Territory to try managing a New York mining company. When the company failed, he returned to San Francisco to resume his career in journalism.
In 1887, Bierce published a column called “Prattle” and became a regular columnist and editorialist on William Randolph Hearst newspaper – San Francisco Examiner. He soon became a prominent and influential journalist and writer of the West Coast. He remained associated with Hearst Newspapers until 1906.
In January of 1896, Hearst sent Bierce to Washington DC to foil an attempt of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies to excuse them from repaying loans via a bill being hurried secretly through Congress that totaled $130 million, which would be equivalent to $3 billion in today's money. Collis P. Huntington caught wind of the mission of Bierce by his articles exposing the bill and confronted Bierce on the steps of the Capitol telling him to name his price. Bierce printed his answer in nationwide newspapers:
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.
Of course, after the coverage provided by Bierce, the bill was defeated and he returned to California in November of 1896.
During the journalistic career of Bierce, his articles were steeped in social criticism and satire. On several occasions the hostile reaction to his articles created difficulties for Hearst. The most notable was probably the incident that followed the assassination of President William McKinley where enemies of Bierce turned a poem written in 1900 used against him in 1901 when President McKinley as shot. The poem was entitled Assassination of Governor Goebel:
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.
Rival newspapers of Hearst accused him and Bierce of calling for McKinley's assassination. Hearst stood by Bierce by not revealing the author of the poem and did not fire him.
Bierce was best remembered for his short stories, considered the best of the 19th century, next to E.A. Poe, that included: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, The Boarded Widow, Killed at Resaca, and Chickamauga. He wrote the Dance of Death under a pseudonym of William Herman. He also used a pseudonym Grile Dod.
In addition to his ghost and war stories, Bierce published several volumes of poetry part of the style of grotesquerie ushered in the 20th century by E. A. Poe. Another of his famous works is The Devil's Dictionary, originally an occasional newspaper entry published in book form in 1906. An entry example:
Abstainer, n. A weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure. A total abstainer is one who abstains from everything but abstention, and especially from inactivity in the affairs of others.
An example of his biting sarcasm:
Camels and Christians accept their burdens kneeling.
To most of us who have studied American literature feel that Ambrose Bierce is one of the most under-appreciated authors in history.
Ambrose Bierce retired from writing in 1913 at the age of 73, deciding to take the dangerous journey to Mexico to witness the revolutionary revolt of Pancho Villa first hand. The murderous bandito had been glorified by newspaper journalists despite the revolutionary's massacre of a Texas town. Bierce was not employed by any newspaper to go there and it has been assumed that he wanted to go out in a fight rather than die of old age in bed. This was conjectured by his last written communication in December of 1913:
If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rages, please know that I think this is a pretty good way to depart this life.
Many have conjectured just how Ambrose Bierce died, but the Gargoyle Magazine printed a possible ending for the American in a short story part of reminiscence of a member of the Pancho Villa gang that describes an unnamed old gringo who is killed by a vicious member by the name of “Butcher”. It is believed that the story is a description of the death of Bierce, published in Mexico.
Ambrose Bierce was not a familiar character of the Old West and veterans of the Civil War, or a pistol-packing historical figure, but he lived to see the Old West disappear and apparently died on his own terms.
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