Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842–1914?) was an American satirist, critic, social commentator, poet, short story writer, editor, and journalist.
Ambrose Bierce by J.H.E. Partington
His clear unsentimental style has kept him popular when many of his contemporaries have become obscure. His dark, sardonic  views and vehemence as a critic, earned him the nickname Bitter Bierce. Such was Bierce's venerable reputation, that it was said that his judgement on any contemporary fiction of the day could make or break a writer's career.
Early life and military career
Bierce was born in a rural area of Meigs County, Ohio and lived during his adolescence in the town of Elkhart, Indiana. He was the tenth of twelve children, and their eccentric father gave all his children 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.
At the outset of the American Civil War, Bierce enlisted in the Ninth Regiment, Indiana Volunteers, as part of the Union Army. In February 1862, he was commissioned as a first lieutenant and served on the staff of Gen. William Babcock Hazen as a topographical engineer, making maps of likely battlefields. Bierce fought at the Battle of Shiloh in April 1862, a terrifying experience that profoundly shocked him and became a source for several later short stories, including "What I Saw of Shiloh." He continued fighting in the western theatre, 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 received a serious head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain and spent the rest of the summer on furlough, but returned to active duty in September, and was ultimately discharged from the army in January 1865.
His military career, however, resumed when, in the summer of 1866, he rejoined Gen. Hazen as part of the latter's expedition to inspect military outposts across the Western plains. The expedition proceeded by horseback and wagon from Omaha, Nebraska, arriving in San Francisco near the end of the year.
In San Francisco, Bierce received the rank of brevet Major before resigning from the Army. He remained there 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, and The Wasp. Bierce lived and wrote in England from 1872 to 1875. Returning to the United States, he again took up residence in San Francisco. In 1879–1880, he went to Rockerville and Deadwood, South Dakota, 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 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. In December 1899, he moved to Washington, D.C., but continued his association with the Hearst Newspapers until 1906.
The 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 célčbre. 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.
His short stories are considered 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", "Killed at Resaca", and "Chickamauga".
Bierce was reckoned 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 skillfully in a variety of literary genres, and in addition to his celebrated ghost and war stories he 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 a newspaper serialization which was first published in book form in 1906 as The Cynic's Word Book. It offers an interesting reinterpretation of the English language in which cant and political double-talk are neatly lampooned.
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, the septuagenarian Bierce departed Washington on a tour to revisit his old Civil War battlefields. By December, he had proceeded on through Louisiana and Texas, crossing by way of El Paso into Mexico, which was then in the throes of revolution. In Ciudad Juárez, he joined the army of Pancho Villa as an observer, in which role he participated in the battle of Tierra Blanca. He is known to have accompanied Villa's army as far as the city of Chihuahua, Chihuahua. After a last letter to a close friend, sent from that city on December 26, 1913, he vanished without a trace, becoming one of the most famous disappearances in American literary history. Subsequent investigations to ascertain his fate were fruitless; despite many decades of speculation, his disappearance remains a mystery, and his (unconfirmed) date of death is generally listed as "1914?".
In one of his last letters, Bierce wrote:
- "Good-bye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia".
- Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874)
- Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (also known as In the Midst of Life) (1892)
- The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter (1892)
- Can Such Things Be? (1893)
- The Devil's Dictionary (1911) (originally The Cynic's Word Book (1906))
- Collected Works (1909)
- The Haunted Valley (1871)
- An Inhabitant of Carcosa (1887)
- One of the Missing (1888)
- The Boarded Window (1891)
- Chickamauga (1891)
- The Eyes of the Panther (1891)
- Haita the Shepherd (1891)
- The Man and the Snake (1891)
- The Middle Toe of the Right Foot (1891)
- An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge (1891)
- The Suitable Surroundings (1891)
- A Tough Tussle (1891)
- A Watcher by the Dead (1891)
- An Adventure at Brownville (1893)
- A Baby Tramp (1893)
- Bodies of the Dead (1893)
- The Death of Halpin Frayser (1893)
- The Famous Gilson Bequest (1893)
- John Bartine's Watch (1893)
- The Night-Doings at 'Deadman's' (1893)
- A Psychological Shipwreck (1893)
- The Realm of the Unreal (1893)
- The Secret of Macarger's Gulch (1893)
- The Damned Thing (1894)
- A Vine on a House (1905)
- The Moonlit Road (1907)
- Beyond the Wall (1909)
- A Diagnosis of Death (1909)
- A Jug of Syrup (1909)
- Moxon's Master (1909)
- Staley Fleming's Hallucination (1909)
- The Stranger (1909)
- The Way of Ghosts (1909)
- The Affair at Coulter's Notch
- An Affair of Outposts
- The Applicant
- The Baptism of Dobsho
- A Bottomless Grave
- The City of the Gone Away
- The Coup de Grace
- Curried Cow
- The Failure of Hope and Wandel
- George Thurston
- A Holy Terror
- A Horseman in the Sky
- The Hypnotist
- An Imperfect Conflagration
- The Ingenious Patriot
- John Mortonson's Funeral
- Jupiter Doke, Brigadier-General
- Killed at Resaca
- A Lady from Redhorse
- The Little Story
- The Major's Tale
- The Man Out of the Nose
- The Mocking-Bird
- The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter
- Mr Swiddler's Flip-Flap
- My Favourite Murder
- Mysterious Disappearances
- Oil of Dog
- One Kind of Officer
- One of Twins
- One Officer, One Man
- One Summer Night
- Parker Adderson, Philosopher
- Perry Chumly's Eclipse
- A Providential Intimation
- The Race at Left Bower
- A Resumed Identity
- A Revolt of the Gods
- Some Haunted Houses
- A Son of the Gods
- The Story of a Conscience
- The Tail of the Sphinx
- Visions of the Night
- The Widower Turmore
- Ambrose Bierce in popular culture
Richard O'Connor, Ambrose Bierce: a Biography, with illustrations, Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 1967.
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