Ambrose Bierce


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Ambrose Bierce [pseudonym Grile Dod] (1842-c1914), American journalist and author wrote The Devil’s Dictionary (1906);

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.

Started as weekly installments in one of his newspaper columns in 1881, many of Bierce’s definitions were soon popularised in everyday use. The Devil's Dictionary was originally titled The Cynic’s Word Book.

CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.

First finding his voice in newspapers, Bierce became a prolific author of short stories often humorous and sometimes bitter or macabre. He spoke out against oppression and supported civil and religious freedoms. He also wrote numerous Civil War stories from first-hand experience. Many of his works are ranked among other esteemed American authors’ like Edgar Allen Poe, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. Many of his oft-quoted works are in print today and have inspired television and feature film adaptations.

BIRTH, n. The first and direst of all disasters.

Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce was born on 24 June 1842 in Horse Cave Creek, a religious settlement in Meigs County, Ohio State, U.S.A. He was the tenth of thirteen children (all their names starting with the letter ‘A’) born to Laura Sherwood (1804-1878) and Marcus Aurelius Bierce (1799-1876). Not one tending to sentiment, Ambrose was never close to his parents, devotees to the fire-and-brimstone First Congregational Church of Christ. He does use them for many of his stories including “Three and Three Are One”, but often to their peril, or the reader’s amusement. Marcus Aurelius was unsuccessful in his many pursuits ranging from farming to shop keeping, although he had accumulated an extensive library by the time Ambrose was born. In those tomes his youngest son found solace and education, and admiration for the written word.

The family had moved to Indiana when Ambrose was four, and in 1857, at the age of fifteen, he left home. For a year he was ‘printer’s devil’ at the Northern Indianian, an abolitionist newspaper in Warsaw, Indiana. He next went to live with his paternal uncle, lawyer Lucius Verus Bierce, in Akron, Ohio. Lucius had been Mayor of Akron and, as with many in the Bierce family, also had a military history. Young Ambrose respected his uncle who encouraged him, at the age of seventeen, to enroll in the Kentucky Military Institute. There Bierce studied architecture, history, Latin, and political science. After studying for a year, he left the school and started a wandering existence between odd jobs including laborer and waiter.

WAR, n. A by-product of the arts of peace.
When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Bierce enlisted in the Ninth Indiana Infantry, either by the call of his military ancestors or boredom. For the next four years he travelled to many states, fought in many of the well-known battles including Shiloh, Picketts’s Mill, and Chickamunga, and created strategic topographical maps. After a distinguished period of service, he resigned in 1865 after a bullet wound to the head continued to plague him with dizziness and black outs. The experience gave him much to write about and his future short stories based on the Civil War include “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill” (1888), “A Son of the Gods” (1888), “The Coup de Grâce” (1889), “Chickamauga” (1889), “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch” (1889), “Parker Adderson, Philosopher and Wit” (1891), “A Horseman in the Sky” (1891), “Two Military Executions” (1906), and, some say his most popular short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890). In 1891 his collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians was published.

While Bierce had started to write seriously during his war service, it was not yet a career for him. His next occupation was Treasury agent for the state of Alabama before he settled in San Francisco, California. There he worked for the United States Mint.

EDITOR, n. A person who combines the judicial functions of Minos, Rhadamanthus and Aeacus, . . . . Master of mysteries and lord of law, high-pinnacled upon the throne of thought, his face suffused with the dim splendors of the Transfiguration, his legs intertwisted and his tongue a-cheek, the editor spills his will along the paper and cuts it off in lengths to suit. And at intervals from behind the veil of the temple is heard the voice of the foreman demanding three inches of wit and six lines of religious meditation, or bidding him turn off the wisdom and whack up some pathos.

Now on the west coast living with a brother, Bierce was soon putting pen to paper, writing reviews, essays, poems, short stories, and sketches and submitting them to such newspapers as the San Francisco News-Letter and the California Advertiser. In 1868 he met Mark Twain, became editor of the News-Letter, and wrote the column “The Town Crier” in which he honed his skills of critical observation and wit in matters cultural and political. He soon became known for his biting wit and satirical exposés of public figures and while his columns were very popular they also gained him many harsh critics, one of the more notable being Oscar Wilde.

MARRIAGE, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.

On 25 December 1871 Bierce married the daughter of a wealthy miner, Mary ‘Mollie’ Ellen Day (d.1905), with whom he would have three children. The next year he resigned from the News-Letter and he and Mary travelled throughout England, settling in Bristol. That same year their first son Day (1872-1889) was born.

While writing for the humour magazine Fun as Grile Dod and regularly contributing to other such publications as Figaro and the London Sketch Book, Bierce started to have severe bouts of asthma. He often sought a cure at spas, and the long periods away from the family negatively impacted his marriage. During this time a number of his novels were published in England including The Fiend's Delight (1873), Nuggets and Dust (1873), and Cobwebs From an Empty Skull (1874). In 1874 the Bierce’s second son Leigh was born (1874-1901). Daughter Helen (b1875) was born next, the same year the Bierces returned to San Francisco. Home of the famed Bohemian Club where Bierce was a member, he met many notable authors of the day including Mark Twain and Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton. In 1877 Bierce took on the role of editor with the Argonaut. It was in this publication that he started his famous column “Prattle”.

In 1880 Bierce went to South Dakota to work with a gold mining company. As an already fierce critic of man’s greed and hypocrisies in areas of government and institutions, the mining experience provided much fodder for his future writings. In the Wasp he continued his popular column “Prattle”, where he soon started to publish entries that would be collected in his Dictionary. In 1886 left the Wasp and Bierce was approached by publisher William Randolph Hearst to write for his San Francisco Examiner. “Prattle” was resurrected and Bierce found the editorial freedom he had longed for. No one was immune to his caustic style and black humour: preachers, lawyers, bigots, politicians, racists, capitalists, poets, anarchists, and women, to name a few. While Bierce had reached the height of his fame, he also suffered losses: in 1888 he and his wife Mary separated (she died on 27 April 1905) and in 1889 his son Day died.

In 1899 Bierce moved to Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTONIAN, n. A Potomac tribesman who exchanged the privilege of governing himself for the advantage of good government. In justice to him it should be said that he did not want to.
to continue writing for the Examiner as well as Hearst’s Cosmopolitan. In 1901 his son Leigh, a news reporter, died of pneumonia. Bierce was profoundly grieved to outlive two of his children. Bierce made a couple of trips to California, and visited some of the old battlefields he had known in the war. Ending his career with Hearst in 1909, Bierce looked south and wrote to relatives of travelling to Mexico. His journey led him through Texas and while there are many rumour of his whereabouts and some alleged sightings and interviews with him along the way, his last correspondence is dated 26 December 1913. After that Bierce mysteriously disappeared.

Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Other works by Bierce include;

Can Such Things Be? (1893),
Fantastic Fables (1899),
Black Beetles in Amber (poetry, 1892),
Shapes of Clay (poetry, 1903),
The Shadow on the Dial and other Essays (1909),
Write it Right (1909), and
Collected Works (1912).

PAST, n. That part of Eternity with some small fraction of which we have a slight and regrettable acquaintance. A moving line called the Present parts it from an imaginary period known as the Future. These two grand divisions of Eternity, of which the one is continually effacing the other, are entirely unlike. The one is dark with sorrow and disappointment, the other bright with prosperity and joy. The Past is the region of sobs, the Future is the realm of song. In the one crouches Memory, clad in sackcloth and ashes, mumbling penitential prayer; in the sunshine of the other Hope flies with a free wing, beckoning to temples of success and bowers of ease. Yet the Past is the Future of yesterday, the Future is the Past of to-morrow. They are one--the knowledge and the dream.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

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