Ambrose Bierce, a Remarkable Writer Ahead of his Time
He was known by many names: the wickedest man in San Francisco; the devil’s lexicographer; Bitter Bierce. He was called pessimistic, cynical, morose, idealistic, frustrated, obscure, sadistic, brutal, kind. His office desk held two peculiar objects—a skull and a cigar box. If you asked him why, he’d explain: the skull once belonged to a dear friend, and the box contained the ashes of a critic. While saying this, he would neither laugh nor smile.
Ambrose Bierce was born into an Ohio farming family on June 24, 1842. There were 13 children, all of whose names began with the letter A—the first of many strict rules imposed by a stern father who believed in hellfire and discipline. According to Ernest Hopkins, who has written about Bierce, he was the only child whose spirit was not crushed by the cold, severe family life. He may have been spared by the influence of his uncle, “General” Lucius Verus Bierce, a nonconformist and fierce abolitionist who supplied weapons to John Brown for his raid on Harpers Ferry. Bierce was sent to the Kentucky Military Institute but stayed for only one term. Instead of returning home, he became a printer’s devil for a small-town Indiana paper. He enlisted in the Union Army when President Lincoln first called for volunteers in 1861. Bierce fought for three years, bravely rescuing a wounded comrade while under fire. He saw action at Shiloh, Chickamauga and Sherman’s long march through Georgia.
A turning point came when General William Babcock Hazen took Bierce under his wing. Hazen was ornery, outspoken, individualistic, one of the army’s most respected fighting generals. He would also become Bierce’s second critical influence.
Hazen brought Bierce onto his staff, promoted him to first lieutenant, and assigned him to reconnaissance duty, which was essential but hazardous. He liked working on his own, compiling reports, making maps. In 1864 he was shot in the head. This led to blackouts and dizziness, but after a few months Bierce was back on active duty, serving until Lee’s surrender the following year.
After the war Bierce was sent to the South to take part in Reconstruction, and then out West to map the frontier. By 1866 he was in San Francisco, where he took a job at the federal mint. On his off hours, he was in the public library, reading voraciously. Bierce was handsome, quite tall for his day—6’1”—with piercing blue eyes and a steady gaze. He was quick to argue, especially about, or rather against, religion. He hadn’t returned home after the war and never saw his domineering, religiously fanatical parents again.
Bierce didn’t become a writer until 1868 when he landed a few magazine items. Directly afterwards, chance intervened. He was offered a humor column in The San Francisco News Letter and Commercial Advertiser. The paper was almost exclusively geared toward land and mine speculators, of which Bierce knew nothing, and he was criminally inexperienced as a writer. Nonetheless, he flourished in this position; the publisher and editor left him alone to write what he pleased, which often meant caustic satires of local personalities.
Bierce married Molly Day, a young woman from a wealthy society family. He became something of a celebrity, befriending Mark Twain, Bret Harte and other public figures. The couple moved to London in 1872, where Bierce had three books published: Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California (1872), The Fiend’s Delight (1873) and Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874).
After three years they returned to San Francisco. Bierce was made assistant editor of a new magazine, The Argonaut. From 1881 to 1885 he served as editor-in-chief of The Wasp, which published humor and politics. Here, Bierce reached the pinnacle of his artistic powers and influence. He penned scathing political cartoons, hard-hitting editorials, his first short stories, rants about the Central Pacific “rail-rogues” and other establishment icons, and installments of his best-known work, The Devil’s Dictionary, a dark parody of traditional lexicons.
Asthma had always been a problem for Bierce. The San Francisco fog exacerbated the issue, so he moved into the hills away from his wife and three children. When The Wasp folded, he rented a room in Oakland, lived off his savings, and decided to become a master of short fiction, which he found superior to the novel.
A year later, William Randolph Hearst, a young Harvard graduate, was given The Examiner, a mediocre newspaper owned by his father. The first thing Hearst did was hire Bierce; they worked together for 20 years.
Bierce’s luck changed in the late 1880s. His older son Day killed himself after being spurned by a woman, and his younger son Leigh died of complications from acute alcoholism. Bierce became fodder for the tabloids, including The Argonaut, which blamed him for Day’s death. He separated from his wife in 1888, after finding suggestive letters from a male friend. They eventually divorced. Asthma—which was, at the time, a much more serious affliction—plagued him throughout his life, as did war injuries. His response to these troubles was, “Nothing matters,” a reasonable motto for a devout agnostic.
Nonetheless, Bierce kept writing. In all, he published around 4 million words. In his own day he was best known as a journalist, though now he’s remembered primarily for short fiction. Bierce wrote approximately 90 stories, which fall into three major categories—war, tall tales, and the supernatural. His work doesn’t mimic the popular styles or genres of the day—realism, naturalism, and western regionalism. His nonfiction is quick to lambaste corrupt politicians, greedy capitalists, warmongers, the pretentious and hypocritical, even his fellow writers. Always the individual, Bierce was a curator of unpopular opinions. He criticized “incompetent” writers such as Henry James, Jack London and William Dean Howells. Their work, he felt, was too predictable, shackled to laundry lists of what does, and is likely to, happen. Bierce was uninterested in chronicling society and its routines. He was more interested in psychological reality: “Nothing is so improbable,” he wrote, “as what is true.”
In 1896 he stopped writing fiction and moved to Washington to serve as a national columnist for Hearst. The two men butted heads over the Spanish-American War, among other issues. Despite their disagreement, Hearst was loyal. He employed Bierce for 12 more years as a columnist and literary critic for Cosmopolitan magazine.
In 1908 Bierce dedicated himself to editing his Collected Works, which took four years and ran to a million words. Afterward, he seemed to sense his own end. At age 71 he crossed into Mexico, which was in the midst of civil war. He joined Pancho Villa’s army as a neutral observer and watched the Battle of Tierra Blanca. He was with Villa at least until Chihuahua. Bierce wrote to Blanche Partington from Mexico on 26 December 1913, closing with: “I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”
From this point on, there was no trace of Ambrose Bierce. He simply vanished. No official inquiry into his disappearance was made and no decisive answers were ever found. There are many unsubstantiated rumors, however. James Lienert, for example, recorded oral statements testifying that Bierce was killed by firing squad in a Coahuila cemetery.
Bierce’s work is almost always a critique of human behavior and society. In The Devil’s Dictionary he defines peace as “a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.” He was more than a curmudgeon, however. Bierce’s stories are full of peculiar twists, always defeating expectation, rich in formal innovation. According to Cathy Davidson, only Crane and a few other contemporaries admired Bierce’s “radical experiments with the short story form.” He was a master at shaping a story, and the reader’s experience, through a manipulation of perceptive. In “Chickamauga” we witness a Civil War battle through the eyes of a deaf child, and “The Death of Halpin Frayser” is told through multiple, ever-shifting points of view. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” Bierce’s most celebrated story, is narrated through the stream-of-consciousness dream of a man who’s about to be hanged.
These stories are filled with complexity, astute structural devices and psychological insight. His technique recalls Faulkner and John Barth, anticipating both modernism and postmodernism. Even Bierce’s tall tales show formidable sophistication, these aren’t the wryly humorous tales of Twain or yarns about Paul Bunyan and Molly Pitcher, but dark twisted stories with shades of magical realism. Consider the opening of “An Imperfect Conflagration” (1886):
Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father—an act which made a deep impression on me at the time.
The compression, understatement, elegance and clinical detachment is astounding. Bierce takes a single line and packs it with a novel’s worth of tension, Oedipal resonance and deadpan black humor. It’s easy to see Kafka giggling his way through the story.
It was not until after Bierce’s death that his fiction received the merit it deserves. Each generation perceives his significance in a new way, depending on its own predilections and biases. He’s been labeled a muckraker, satirist, iconoclast, humorist, an artist ahead of his time. What’s certain is that he was never a man of his time. In one of Bierce’s final letters, he claims that he’s setting out for Mexico, and then to South America. “Naturally,” he writes, “it is possible—even probable—that I shall not return. These be ‘strange countries,’ in which things happen; that is why I am going.” Indeed, he never returned, but in the end his fiction brings these strange countries back to us.
Top Photo courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries