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Ambrose Bierce

journalist, story writer

Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born in Meigs County, Ohio, on June 24, 1842. He left his family for Indiana in 1857, and worked for a time as an apprentice for The Northern Indianan, an abolitionist newspaper. He eventually went to live with an uncle in Ohio, attended the Kentucky Military Institute for a year before dropping out, and worked a variety of odd jobs until the outbreak of the Civil War.

Bierce enlisted with the 9th Indiana Volunteers, and spent most of the war working as a topographical engineer. He fought at Shiloh, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Kennesaw Mountain, and other battles, and was seriously wounded at Kennesaw Mountain and escaped from capture in Gaylesville, Alabama. His battle injury left him unfit for active duty, so Bierce finished out the war working for the Treasury Department in the South. He quit the Army in 1865 after failing to rise higher than Second Lieutenant.

In 1867, Bierce got a job at the San Francisco Mint. By 1868 he was working for the San Francisco News Letter, writing a column titled "Town Crier." His acid wit quickly gained him great local fame and growing national notoriety. His first story, "The Haunted Valley," appeared in the Overland Monthly in 1871.

In 1871, Bierce courted and married Mary Ellen "Mollie" Day, a San Francisco socialite. A wedding gift took the couple to England, where they remained until 1875. Bierce earned his way by working for Tom Hood's Fun, and by continuing his "Town Crier" column in Figaro. His first major works were also published during this time, including Nuggets and Dust (1872), The Fiend's Delight (1873), and Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874).

Mollie and the couple's first two children returned to San Francisco in early 1875; Ambrose returned later that same year. In 1877, Bierce became editor of The Argonaut, in which he gained notoriety for his "Prattle" column. After a brief failed venture with the Black Hills Placer Mining Company in South Dakota, Bierce picked up his "Prattle" column in the Wasp, a San Francisco paper, in 1881. In 1887, he joined the staff of the San Francisco Examiner, beginning a long association with publisher William Randolph Hearst.

Meanwhile, Bierce's personal life began to fall apart. In 1888, he separated from Mollie after finding "improper" letters to her from a European admirer. His son, Day, was killed in a duel over a woman in 1889, and another son, Leigh, died of pneumonia related to alcoholism in 1901. Mollie filed for divorce on grounds of abandonment in 1904, but died the next year before the proceedings were finalized.

In 1896, Bierce moved to Washington, D.C., where he lobbied on behalf of Hearst's interests. There he became one of the very few California-based journalists to openly oppose the railroad interests, which at the time literally owned California politics. When railroad baron Collis P. Huntington appeared to be in the process of quietly slipping through legislation that would have effectively excused him from repaying his debt to the federal government until after his death, Bierce's columns in the Examiner and New York Journal brought enough public opinion and scrutiny against the bill that it was soundly defeated in Congress.

Bierce stopped working for Hearst in 1909, after being approached by Walter Neal to compile a collection of his works. The last of the twelve-volume Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce was published in 1912.

In 1913, Bierce announced to a few family and friends that he was going to tour the Civil War battlefields of his youth and then go to Mexico, ostensibly to participate in the revolution going on there. His daughter received a letter from him that was dated December 26, 1913, after which he was never heard from again. Whether he ever made it to Mexico, what happened to him when he got there (if he did), and how he died all remain mysteries.

His Major Works

Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California (1872)
The Fiend's Delight (1873)
Cobwebs: Being the Fables of Zambri, the Parsee (1873)
Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874)
The Dance of Death (1877)
The Dance of Life: An Answer to the Dance of Death (1877)
Chickamauga (1889)
In the Midst of Life (1891)
The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter (1892)
Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1892)
Black Beetles in Amber (1892)
Can Such Things Be? (1893)
Fantastic Fables (1899)
Shapes of Clay (1903)
Cynic's Work Book (1906)
A Son of the Gods and a Horseman in the Sky (1907)
The Shadow on the Dial and Other Essays (1909)
Write It Right (1909)
The Devil's Dictionary (1911)
The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce (12 volumes, 1909-1912)

Civil War

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The Robinson Library >> American Literature >> 19th Century

This page was last updated on 06/24/2018.