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Ambrose Bierce

June 24 is the birthday of essayist and short story writer Ambrose Bierce, who was born in Meigs County near Horse Cave Creek, Ohio, in 1842.  He was the tenth of thirteen children of Marcus and Laura Bierce.  Each of the children was given a name beginning with the letter "A."  Bierce's father had a large private library, and he spent a great deal of time with his books.  His name, Marcus Aurelius, was given him after the famous Roman emperor known for his devotion to the stoic school of philosophy.

Ambrose Bierce grew up on a farm in northern Indiana.  Later, in his parody of The Old Oaken Bucket, he wrote about his early years:

With what anguish of mind I remember my childhood,
Recalled in the light of a knowledge since gained;
The malarious farm, the wet, fungus grown wildwood,
The chills then contracted that since have remained.

After studying a year in high school, Bierce became a printer's apprentice on The Northern Indianan, an abolitionist newspaper.  After a term at military school, he worked in a combination store and café.

In 1861, he answered Abraham Lincoln's first call to arms and enlisted with the Federal forces during the first week of the Civil War.  He was 17.  He fought bravely and gallantly throughout the war and was severely wounded at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, taking a bullet in the temple.  His experiences there led to a story of the same name.  Published in 1889, The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain tells of a small boy who sees wounded soldiers crawling toward a creek from the bloody battlefield.  He leads them to his home, only to find the house burning and his own mother dead.

Bierce mustered out of the service after Appomattox, having risen in rank from Private to Brevet Major.  A skilled mapmaker with some military education at the Kentucky Military Institute, he became a scout and topographical engineer.

The fluidity of scouting allowed him to see more of the war than his fellow soldiers.  Engaged in mapping the movements of the enemy and finding safe passage for his own forces, he came to know the sprawling theatre of the war, which he saw as the most horrendous of human activities in the very heart of his own country.  His personal experiences ring true in his stories, today regarded as the most realistic and poignant chronicles of the Civil War ever written.

After the war, Bierce settled in San Francisco, where all the best western writers of the day lived, including Bret Harte and Mark Twain.  He contributed to a number of periodicals, including the Overland Monthly and the Californian.  In 1868, he became the outspoken editor of the News Letter.  His first story, The Haunted Valley, appeared in 1871 in the Overland Monthly.

After his marriage to a wealthy miner's daughter, Mollie Day, Bierce went to England, where he lived in London from 1872 to 1875, writing sketches for the magazines, Figaro and Fun.  During this time he published his most celebrated tale, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

Between the years of 1887 and 1906, Bierce wrote his famous column, "The Prattler," which was a mixture of literary gossip, epigrams, and stories.  His sardonic and cruel epigrams and aphorisms were gathered in The Cynic's Word Book (1906).  When he edited his twelve-volume Collected Works (1909-1912), he changed the title to The Devil's Dictionary (1911).

"HAND, n. A singular instrument worn at the end of the human arm and commonly thrust into somebody's pocket.  BRIDE, n. A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her." - from The Devil's Dictionary

Bierce was called "wicked" and "devilish," but behind the misanthropic facade was a disappointed idealist who saw marriage as "a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making, in all, two."  He once wrote a book review that concluded, "The covers of this book are too far apart." 

Late in 1913, at the age of seventy-one, Bierce retired from writing and set out for Mexico, where he sought out "the good, kind darkness." 

On the way, he stopped off in New Orleans, where he told a reporter, “I'm on my way to Mexico, because I like the game.  Various international interests are involved in some shadowy business down there.  I want to see it.  Some of these characters seem to wish our Republic ill, and I want to get at the true facts of the case.  Then we’ll see what can be done about it.  I want to take a trip diagonally across from northeast to southwest by horseback, and then take a ship for South America, go through the high valleys of the Andes, and across that continent and come back to America again.

“Perhaps after I have rested, I will work again--I can't tell, there are so many things...there are so many things that might happen between now and when I come back.  My trip might take several years, and I'm an old man now.”

A letter Bierce posted from Chihuahua was his last.  He was never seen or heard from again.  A fictional account of the writer's last days appears in the novel, The Old Gringo (1985), by Carlos Fuentes.  The book was adapted to the screen in 1989 and stars Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck.  According to one theory of the disappearance by Roy Morris (and others), Bierce never did make it to Mexico but, instead, committed suicide in the Grand Canyon.  Another even wilder tale tells of his capture and torture by a tribe of Brazilian Indians.

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