Ambrose Bierce (1842–1913) is arguably the finest not-quite-first-rate writer in nineteenth-century American literature. Civil War veteran, contrarian journalist, master of the short story, muckraker, epigrammatist, and versifier, he is today most widely known for that word hoard of cynical definitions, The Devil’s Dictionary, and for a handful of shockingly cruel stories about the Civil War.
In those dozen or so “tales of soldiers,” gathered in the collection eventually titled In the Midst of Life (1892, augmented in 1898 and 1909), a brother shoots his brother, a sniper is compelled to kill his father, and a cannoneer obeys the order to destroy his own house, where his wife and child await his return from battle. The best known of these contes cruels, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” has been called—by Kurt Vonnegut, himself a kinder, gentler Bierce—the greatest short story in American literature. Surely, no first-time reader ever forgets the shock of its final sentences.
Throughout these gruesome episodes of war, there is no armor against fate, as seeming coincidence assumes the character of tragic destiny. Bierce himself always insisted that most of his Civil War fiction was based on fact. As he wrote in a letter, “It commonly occurs that in my poor little battle-yarns the incidents that come in for special reprobation by the critics as ‘improbable’ and even ‘impossible’ are transcripts from memory—things that actually occurred before my eyes.” The Battle of Shiloh, for instance, took place near Owl Creek.
While we associate Bierce primarily with California and with San Francisco in particular, he was, in fact, a widely traveled man. Born in Ohio, he turned out to be the youngest surviving child of a zealously Christian couple who gave their ten children names beginning with A: Abigail, Amelia, Addison, Aurelius… Growing up on a hardscrabble farm in Indiana, he gained most of his education from the books in his father’s library (supposedly the finest in the area) but also managed to spend a year at the Kentucky Military Institute.
When the Civil War broke out, Bierce immediately enlisted with the 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment and rose to become a brevet major. He fought all over the South—at Shiloh, Chicka- mauga, Missionary Ridge; he marched with Sherman through Georgia. Shot during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in 1864, he carried the bullet in his skull for the rest of his life. He was even captured by Confederates in Alabama, but managed to escape. While his stories and memoirs reveal war as hell, Bierce, the scout and topographical engineer, always looked back on his service as the most exhilarating time of his life.
Following Lee’s surrender, Bierce’s former commanding officer persuaded him to serve as the mapmaker and engineering attaché for a survey expedition of western military posts. Denied the rank he deserved, Bierce abandoned the army as a career and instead settled in San Francisco, where he met the author Bret Harte and began to write poetry and satirical prose for various newspapers, with increasing success and renown. After he married Mollie Day in 1871, his father-in-law underwrote a trip to England and there Bierce lived (in Bristol, London, and Bath) for three years, contributing squibs and satirical pieces to Fun, a rival to Punch. In England Mollie gave birth to two sons (both of whom would die young, one committing suicide in jealous despair at sixteen, the other succumbing to drink and pneumonia at age twenty-six) while her husband published his first three books, comprised of humorous sketches: The Fiend’s Delight (1873), Nuggets and Dust (1873), and Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874). When Mollie traveled to California for a visit, she wrote to Bierce that she was pregnant with a third child, their daughter Helen, and so compelled her reluctant spouse to return to San Francisco.
Despite his success with his writing, in 1880 Bierce was readily lured to North Dakota, where he spent a year managing a mining company. When that enterprise began to fail, he headed home to Oakland—which he sometimes called “Terminopolis”—and settled into his most productive period as a writer, establishing himself during the next fifteen years as the leading journalist on the West Coast. In 1887, he was hired as chief editorial writer for the San Francisco Examiner. His first encounter with its owner, William Randolph Hearst, is worth quoting:
Many years ago I lived in Oakland, California. One day as I lounged in my lodging there was a gentle, hesitating tap at the door and, opening it, I found a young man, the youngest young man, it seemed to me, that I had ever confronted. His appearance, his attitude, his manner, his entire personality suggested extreme indifference. I did not ask him in, instate him in my better chair (I had two) and inquire how we could serve each other. If my memory is not at fault I merely said: “Well,” and awaited the result.
“I am from the San Francisco Examiner,” he explained in a voice like the fragrance of violets made audible, and backed a little away.
“O,” I said, “you come from Mr. Hearst.”
Then that unearthly child lifted its blue eyes and cooed: “I am Mr. Hearst.”
In 1896 Hearst sent his best man to Washington, D.C., where Bierce’s reporting helped sink Collis P. Huntington’s attempt to wiggle out of immediate repayment of a huge government loan to his railroad empire. (This story—Bierce’s greatest sheerly journalistic triumph—is the subject of a book to be published later this year, Dennis Drabelle’s The Great American Railroad War: How Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris Took on the Central Pacific Railroad.) Having by this time separated from Mollie, Bierce stayed on in Washington, contributing to Hearst’s various newspapers and magazines, dining at the Army-Navy Club, and regularly paddling a canoe out on the Potomac. An exceptionally handsome and attractive man, he also continued a series of discreet love affairs with older, experienced women. During the final half-dozen years of his life, Bierce turned his remaining energies to overseeing a twelve-volume edition of his Collected Works.
Nothing, however, in a richly colorful life became Bierce like the leaving of it. In 1913 the old gringo—as he is called in a 1985 novel of that name by Carlos Fuentes—crossed the border into Mexico, ostensibly to view the war being conducted there by Pancho Villa. He was never heard from again. His last letter home ended: “I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” For years afterward, there were rumors that he had been sighted in Mexico or that he had surfaced in Britain as an aide to General Pershing or that he’d shot himself in the Grand Canyon. As his early biographer Carey McWilliams wrote: “Nothing so augmented the interest in Ambrose Bierce as his disappearance. Obscurity is obscurity, but disappearance is fame.”
As a writer, Ambrose Bierce holds multiple claims on our interest. His fragmentary Civil War memoirs are appalling and sickeningly vivid first-person accounts of various battles; “What I Saw at Shiloh” and “A Little of Chickamauga” are particularly strong. As a journalist in the 1880s and 1890s, Bierce’s unrelenting iconoclasm earned him the nickname “the wickedest man in San Francisco” at a time when there was plenty of Bay Area competition. His snarky, blog-like “Town Cryer” and “Prattler” columns appeared three to six times a week in various newspapers and assailed the rich and respected, with particular attention to the politicians, business tycoons, and clergymen of the day. Bierce’s lifetime work for The Argonaut, The Wasp, The San Francisco Examiner, and other papers has been reckoned to total five million words, not to overlook an additional 500,000 words of correspondence. While much of this material is dated, much of it also remains intensely readable, as in the following observations (taken from a 1968 selection of the journalism, The Ambrose Bierce Satanic Reader, compiled by Ernest Jerome Hopkins). Naturally, Bierce is frequently witty, at his best in a wry, understated way:
The newspapers are publishing a story of a man who lived a week with a knife-blade in his brain. Perhaps he did, but it must have been a mean, spiritless kind of existence, wholly unenjoyable and discouraging. We would almost as lief be dead as to have knives and forks in our brain.
And he can be surprisingly heartless:
Mr. Parton says Mrs. Stowe has lived a life of heroic virtue. With her face, a life of virtue is no very difficult matter. When Nature conferred upon her her peculiar charms, we imagine the operation might have been called, “Chastity made easy.”
Yet his language is always pungent:
Ever since he [Mark Twain] left California there has been an undertone of despair running through all his letters like the subdued wail of a pig beneath a washtub.
Not least, Bierce can toss off epigrams and caustic observations with the dyspeptic exuberance of H.L. Mencken (who much admired the older writer’s wit and vituperative mastery):
Woman would be more charming if one could fall into her arms without falling into her hands.
“Bitter Bierce” eventually made a comfortable living from his columns in the periodicals owned by William Randolph Hearst, but he always viewed himself as far more than a penny-a-line hack. His animosity for Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw (who, he claimed, stole witticisms from him), his disdain for the genteel William Dean Howells, and his sense of rivalry with Mark Twain make it clear that he longed to be viewed as their peer.
Today we sometimes think of Bierce as a kind of “regionalist,” with that word’s dismissive connotation of the folksy and second-rate. But the fastidious, even dandyish writer loathed the use of dialect in fiction, and championed purity of diction and grammatical correctness. (See his “little blacklist of literary errors, Write It Right—beastly title, chosen with a naked and unashamed commercial purpose.”) He read the Bible through at least three times, all of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and much of the satirical work of Swift and Voltaire. In a letter he calls Alexander Pope’s version of the Iliad his favorite English translation; he judged Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” to be “the most nearly perfect poem in the English language.” His correspondence and journalism allude frequently to the work of Tolstoy, Hugo, Zola, Maupassant, and Poe, as well as to many American contemporaries, from Henry James down to Edwin Markham and Gertrude Atherton (who once rebuffed his advances).
While never a literary essayist per se, Bierce could nonetheless be a shrewd critic. Writing to a friend about Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, he says:
It is a most disagreeable book, as a whole. London has a pretty bad style and no sense of proportion. The story is a perfect welter of disagreeable incidents…. I confess to an overwhelming contempt for both the sexless lovers.