Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842 – 1914?) was an American editorialist, journalist, short-story writer and satirist. Today, he is best known for his short story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and his satirical dictionary, The Devil's Dictionary.
The Sardonic view of human nature that informed his work – along with his vehemence as a critic – earned him the nickname, "Bitter Bierce." Despite his reputation as a searing critic, however, Bierce was known to encourage younger writers, including the poet, George Sterling and the fiction writer, W. C. Morrow.
Bierce was born in rural Meigs County, Ohio, and grew up in Kosciusko County, Indiana, attending high school at the county seat of Warsaw. He was the tenth of 13 children, whose father, Marcus Aurelius Bierce (1799–1876), gave all of them names beginning with the letter "A". In order of birth, the Bierce siblings were Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, Adelia, and Aurelia. His mother, née Laura Sherwood, was a descendant of William Bradford.
At the outset of the American Civil War, Bierce enlisted in the Union Army's 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment. In February 1862 he was commissioned first lieutenant, and served on the staff of General William Babcock Hazen as a topographical engineer, making maps of likely battlefields. Bierce fought at the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862), a terrifying experience that became a source for several later short stories and the memoir, What I Saw of Shiloh.
He continued fighting in the Western theater, at one point receiving newspaper attention for his daring rescue, under fire, of a gravely wounded comrade at the Battle of Rich Mountain, West Virginia. In June 1864, he sustained a serious head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, and spent the rest of the summer on furlough, returning to active duty in September. He was discharged from the army in January 1865. His military career resumed, however, when in the summer of 1866 he rejoined General Hazen as part of the latter's expedition to inspect military outposts across the Great Plains. The expedition proceeded by horseback and wagon from Omaha, Nebraska, arriving toward year's end in San Francisco, California.
Ambrose Bierce suffered from lifetime asthma as well as complications arising from his war wounds. For health reasons, he traveled to London, where he befriended a number of notable literary personalities..
Bierce lived and wrote in England from 1872 to 1875, contributing to Fun magazine. Returning to the United States, he again took up residence in San Francisco. From 1879 to 1880, he travelled to Rockerville and Deadwood, South Dakota in the Dakota Territory, to try his hand as local manager for a New York mining company, but when the company failed he returned to San Francisco and resumed his career in journalism.
In 1887, he published a column called The Prattle and became one of the first regular columnists and editorialists to be employed on William Randolph Hearst's newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, eventually becoming one of the most prominent and influential among the writers and journalists of the West Coast. He remained associated with Hearst Newspapers until 1906.
In January 1896 Hearst dispatched Bierce to Washington, D.C. to foil this attempt. The essence of the plot was secrecy; the railroads' advocates hoped to get the bill through Congress without any public notice or hearings. When the angered Huntington confronted Bierce on the steps of the Capitol and told Bierce to name his price, Bierce's answer ended up in newspapers nationwide: "My price is one hundred thirty million dollars. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States". Bierce's coverage and diatribes on the subject aroused such public wrath that the bill was defeated. Bierce returned to California in November.
Bierce meant his poem, written on the occasion of the assassination of Governor William Goebel of Kentucky, to express a national mood of dismay and fear, but after McKinley was shot in 1901 it seemed to foreshadow the crime:
Hearst was thereby accused by rival newspapers—and by then Secretary of State Elihu Root—of having called for McKinley's assassination. Despite a national uproar that ended his ambitions for the presidency (and even his membership in the Bohemian Club), Hearst neither revealed Bierce as the author of the poem, nor fired him.
His short stories are held among the best of the 19th century, providing a popular following based on his roots. He wrote realistically of the terrible things he had seen in the war in such stories as "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", "Killed at Resaca", and "Chickamauga".
Bierce was considered a master of "Pure" English by his contemporaries, and virtually everything that came from his pen was notable for its judicious wording and economy of style. He wrote in a variety of literary genres.
In addition to his ghost and war stories, he also published several volumes of poetry and verse. His Fantastic Fables anticipated the ironic style of grotesquerie that turned into a genre in the 20th century.
One of Bierce's most famous works is his much-quoted book, The Devil's Dictionary, originally an occasional newspaper item which was first published in book form in 1906 as The Cynic's Word Book. It consists of satirical definitions of English words which lampoon cant and political double-talk.
Under the entry "leonine", meaning a single line of poetry with an internal rhyming scheme, he included an apocryphal couplet written by the apocryphal Bella Peeler Silcox (Ella Wheeler Wilcox) in which an internal rhyme is achieved in both lines only by mispronouncing the rhyming words:
Bierce's twelve-volume Collected Works were published in 1909, the seventh volume of which consists solely of The Devil's Dictionary, the title Bierce himself preferred to The Cynic's Word Book.
Bierce is known to have accompanied Villa's army as far as the city of Chihuahua. After a last letter to a close friend, sent from there December 26, 1913, he vanished without a trace, becoming one of the most famous disappearances in American literary history.
Several writers have speculated that he headed north to the Grand Canyon, found a remote spot there and shot himself, though no evidence exists to support this view. All investigations into his fate have proved fruitless, and despite an abundance of theories his end remains shrouded in mystery. The date of his death is generally cited as "1914?".
In one of his last letters, Bierce wrote the following to his niece, Lora:
The 1962 film was also used for an episode of the television series The Twilight Zone: "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge". A copy of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" appeared in the ABC television series Lost ("The Long Con", airdate February 8, 2006). Prior to The Twilight Zone, the story had been adapted as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
But beyond that, the compression of time that is the most stunning aspect of the story has been exploited in countless movies. Terry Gilliam's Brazil is only the most celebrated example. Carlos Fuentes's novel The Old Gringo is a fictionalized account of Bierce's disappearance which was later adapted into the film Old Gringo, starring Gregory Peck in the title role.
American composer Rodney Waschka II composed an opera, Saint Ambrose, based on Bierce's life.