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Ambrose Bierce

American editorialist, journalist, short story writer, fabulist and satirist

In Introduction to the Author
by Doug Bradley

The 90 plus short stories Bierce wrote all belong to a period of about 14 years from 1882. These stories fall broadly into three categories: The Civil War; Tall Tales and Horror, which accounts for roughly half of the total.

Ambrose Bierce Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce was born on July 24, 1842,on a remote farmhouse in Ohio to God-fearing parents of the hellfire and damnation variety. Marcus Aurelius and Laura produced 13 children our author being the 10th in line upon all of whom they bestowed Christian names beginning with the letter 'A': to be precise and in birth order Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, Adelia and Aurelia.

Although he may have gained his love of words and books from his parents, he was not close to them and after he had left school and had his first brush with journalism employed as a 'printer's devil' on The Indianian newspaper, he made no further contact with them, and their deep religiosity certainly left no impression on him, other than to be inclined to argue fiercely against religion.

He enlisted in the 9th Indiana Infantry at the outbreak of Civil War and saw action at some of its most famous battles, including Shiloh, Pickett's Mill and Chickamauga.. In June 1864, at the battle of Kenesaw Mountain, he was hit in the head by a bullet a glancing blow, though Bierce would later write that it 'crushed my skull like a cracked walnut' and it left him prone to bouts of dizziness and blackouts and was sent home to recover, returning to serve with Sherman's army in Georgia until Lee's surrender in 1865.

He continued to work for the army, helping to explore and map out the newly opened West. This led him to San Francisco, where he felt he had to make a choice between the military and journalism. He decided to leave the decision to the toss of a coin. Fortunately for us, the coin landed journalism side up and, as Bierce himself commented 40 years later, 'the coin was right'.

He began to make his mark in journalistic circles and in 1868 began the first of his trademark acerbically satirical columns The Town Crier in the pages of the snappily titled San Francisco News Letter And Commercial Advertiser.

On Christmas Day 1871 he married society girl Mary Ellen Day, known as Molly. The newlyweds moved to England for 4 years, Bierce writing for Figaro and The London Sketch Book and also producing 3 novels and 2 sons, Day and Leigh. His daughter Helen was born on their return to San Francisco in 1875.

He became editor of The Argonaut where he started the most famous of his columns, known simply as Prattle, which he would take with him to a satirical magazine The Wasp and then at the invitation of William Randolph Hearst to the pages of The San Francisco Examiner in 1886. Here he let loose a series of caustically satirical cartoons lampooning almost every figure in public life, published poems, short stories and the famous laconic 'definitions' that would form the basis of his book The Devil's Dictionary. His style earned him the soubriquets 'Bitter Bierce' and 'The Wickedest Man In San Francisco'.

His darkly sparkling wit is wonderfully illustrated in an anecdote told by Cathy Davidson in her Foreword to The Complete Short Stories. 'His desk', she writes, 'held a skull and a cigar box. When asked, he ventured that the former was all that remained of an erstwhile friend while the latter contained the ashes of a rival critic. Reputedly', she adds, 'he did not smile when he said this.'

This period of his highest professional achievement was marred by a troubled personal life. Ambrose and Molly separated in 1888 (they would divorce in 1904 and Mollie died the following year) and in 1889 their son Day was shot and killed in a brawl over a woman. His second son, Leigh also died two years later.

Retired from journalism, between 1909 and 1912 he edited his own million-word twelve-volume Complete Works before adding the curious postscript to his life that has exercised as much fascination about Ambrose Bierce as his writings.

In 1913, at the age of 71, he began revisiting some of the Civil War battlefields. He made his way through Louisiana to Texas and then down into Mexico where he joined the revolutionary army of Pancho Villa as an observer, was present at the battle of Tierra Blanca and reached Chihuahua. He wrote in a letter that he planned to go through Mexico to one of the Pacific Ports 'if I can get through without being stood up against a wall and shot as an American.' And that may be exactly what happened. But we will almost certainly never know. He simply disappears from view and no amount of investigation has thus far shed any firm light on why, where, when or how he ended his days.

There have of course been theories and conspiracies: so you can take your pick as to whether he was killed at the Battle of Ojinaga in January 1894, was working as a spy for the US government the whole time and made his way to British Honduras where he purposely disappeared from the record, or that the journey into Mexico was all a bluff and that he in fact turned around and headed north to the Grand Canyon where he committed suicide.