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Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?)
by Janice Albert

WOMAN, n. An animal usually living in the vicinity of Man, and having rudimentary susceptibility to domestication…. The species is the most widely distributed of all beasts of prey….

As often as I have set out to write about Ambrose Bierce as a California Author, I have turned aside from the task, principally because it's so very hard to be in the presence of his cynical pessimism for very long. Then I am reminded of the hold he has over the American imagination, and I try again to deal with the question of why we should know more about him.

Hearst building on Market Street in San Francisco

His story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," is taught to school children throughout the land. In addition, the legend of Bierce-his disappearance at age 71 near the Mexican border-continues to inspire travelers and speculators; recently, for example, "The Devil and Ambrose Bierce" by Jacob Silverstein in the February 2002 issue of the esteemed Harper's Magazine. He has inspired hundreds of articles, books and dissertations, and drawn the attention of men of letters of the caliber of Clifton Fadiman and Carey McWilliams. Besides, his vitriolic attacks were not only directed at women (see above). He attacked men and women with equal force, although perhaps more men than women because at the time they operated in a larger and more varied sphere. From 1887 to 1896, at the height of his career, he wrote as a columnist for the Sunday Edition of Hearst's San Francisco Examiner.

Drawing upon his youthful experience as a soldier in the Civil War, he wrote stories which continue to be read. This Civil War experience provides one avenue of understanding Bierce's misanthropic personality and pessimistic view of life.

Bierce enlisted in the Union Army in April 1861, following the firing upon Fort Sumter and President Lincoln's call to arms. At the time he was eighteen years old, living on his own after a desultory year at the Kentucky Military Academy. His allegiance to the Union cause was probably influenced by his uncle, an active abolitionist. The next four years were to mark him for the rest of his life. Biographer Roy Morris, Jr., says, "The whole country was about to turn into a cemetery, its best and its least lying down together on an impious altar of pride and hate. And somewhere in between, like Ishmael bobbing on Queequeg's coffin, the scarred survivor of a nightmare voyage, was eighteen-year-old Ambrose Bierce-seeing, feeling, and remembering."

In one of his stories, "Chickamauga," Bierce recounts the reality of war through the eyes of a child narrator-an innocent who sees the blood and pain for the first time. The tone and subject matter of this story are a clear link to The Red Badge of Courage, for which Stephen Crane readily acknowledged his debt to Bierce. In June 1864 Bierce was shot in the head and after a two-day train ride in an open flat car, recovered in a Chattanooga. Hospital. He returned to the fighting in September, following the fall of Atlanta, and was taken prisoner for a short time, but saved from hanging by captors who hid him on the long march to prison. Discharged from the active duty in 1865 because of his head wound, Bierce joined the Treasury Department, whose mission was to collect "captured and abandoned property," that is, hidden cotton bales, worth five hundred dollars apiece. Bierce exchanged his experience of hand-to-hand combat and mass slaughter for the chance to witness the widespread corruption and profiteering that followed the Union victory. This service ended when he was invited by his former commander to join a fact-finding tour of western forts. In 1866 he set out with the company from Omaha, Nebraska, and began the trek through the West which would bring him past hostile Sioux into the company of fabled black guide Jim Beckwourth and finally to California. Arriving in San Francisco at age twenty-four, he said goodbye to the Army and settled upon the path to becoming a writer.

His first signed essay, appearing in the December 1867 issue of the Californian, was actually a defense of women's suffrage. Within a year, he was publishing with the San Francisco News Letter and Commercial Advertiser, a sixteen-page weekly of literary criticism, theatrical reviews, and "broad-brushed" satire. Nothing could have been more perfect for Bierce. Raised in a home with an outstanding library, an avid reader, Bierce could see himself as an arbiter of taste, and his grim army years coupled with a naturally iconoclastic disposition equipped him well for satire. By December 1868, he was editor of the News Letter and author of its popular column "The Town Crier."

In December, 1871, Bierce married Mollie Day, an event that inspired a subsequent series of epigrams in his best-known work The Devil's Dictionary-

LOVE, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.
BRIDE, n. A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her.
YOKE, n. A word that defines the matrimonial situation with precision, point, and poignancy.

The Bierces left California for England where Bierce simply failed to make the impression he hoped for. They returned to San Francisco 1875, now a family of four. He found a place with the Argonaut, resumed his column of satiric commentary and within two years turned to fiction, specifically the writing of ghost stories. In January 1881 he moved to the Wasp and took on the Big Four-Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker, calling them swindlers and thieves in so many words. (JUSTICE, n. A commodity which in more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.)

Shortly after he became editor of the Wasp, news broke of the Mussel Slough Massacre, the swindling and murder of wheat farmers in the San Joaquin Valley, an injustice perpetrated by railroad interests and immortalized twenty years later with the publication of Frank Norris's novel The Octopus. By the end of the year 1881, Bierce had written and published his first reminiscence of the Civil War, "What I saw at Shiloh." Roy Morris, in his biography of Bierce, calls this "an article whose revolutionary treatment of warfare as a hallucinatory and absurd experience prefigures much of modern literature's attitude toward the subject." Clifton Fadiman evaluates with a slightly different emphasis, "He helped blaze the trail for later and doubtless better realists."

Bierce's name is among those honored by the city of San Francisco

Bierce's personal life was peopled but empty. The last of eleven children, he left home at 15 and resolutely stayed away, even avoiding his parent's funerals. (ORPHAN. n., A living person whom death has deprived of the power of filial ingratitude.) His wife divorced him after 33 years. (MARRIAGE, n., The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.) His sons died prematurely and are buried in unmarked Sonoma County graves. Eventually, Bierce grew tired of his great fight with life (LONGEVITY:, n. Uncommon extension of the fear of death.) He visited the great battle fields of his youth one last time, dressed in black and carrying a black cane. He spoke of visiting Mexico. Then he vanished. If you locate his whereabouts, let us know here at California English.

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