Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was an American journalist, satirist and writer of sardonic short stories. His reputation as a fervour and searing critic and his self-expression of ‘Nothing matters’ earned him the epithet ‘Bitter Bierce’. His work ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’, a compilation of ironic and sarcastic lexicon reflects his sardonic acrimony. He had made significant contributions as a short story writer and his short stories were mostly based on themes of war, horror and death. His most notable and widely famous short story, ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, a work par excellence is considered a flawless creation of a genius and counted among the best American short stories. Some of his other notable literary works are ‘A Horseman in the Sky’, ‘The Haunted Valley’, ‘A Watcher by the Dead’ and ‘The Moonlit Road’ among many others. He was also a famous journalist in California and never hesitated in exposing the truth. His censuring and sardonic observations of personalities and incidents also made him infamous as ‘the wickedest man in San Francisco’. Bierce disappeared mysteriously and was rumoured to be last seen travelling with a rebellious troop.
- He was born on June 24, 1842, in Meigs County, Ohio in a log cabin, in a poor family to Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood Bierce as their tenth child among thirteen children.His father was a farmer who named all his children with ‘A’ as the starting letter.He was raised in Kosciusko County, Indiana where he studied at the local high school.At 15 years of age he left home and joined a newspaper as an apprentice.In 1861 at the outbreak of the ‘American Civil War’, he was recruited in the ‘Union Army’ and commissioned at its ‘9th Indiana Infantry Regiment’. He took part in the 1861 ‘Operations in Western Virginia’ campaign and was present during the ‘Battle of Philippi’ on June 3, 1861.He worked as a topographical engineer under General William Babcock Hazen after being delegated as a first lieutenant in 1862. His responsibilities included drawing maps of probable battlefields.He fought courageously in many military engagements including the ‘Battle of Shiloh’ in April 1862 and the ‘Battle of Kennesaw Mountain’ on June 27, 1864.Bierce was discharged from the ‘Union Army’ in January 1865. However, he resumed his military career for a while in 1866 when he participated in the military expedition led by General Hazen to check for military outposts. The expedition headed from Omaha to Nebraska and finally reached San Francisco, California, at the year end.In 1867 he was awarded a merit promotion as a brevet major in San Francisco.Career
- He began his career as a journalist in San Francisco, where he stayed for several years, after resigning from the ‘Union Army’.In 1872 he moved to England where he contributed to the London magazines ‘Figaro’ and ‘Fun’ and took forward his writing career. ‘The Friend’s Delight’, a collection of his articles, was his first book that came out under the pseudonym Dod Grile. It was published in London by John Camden Hotten in 1873.His two other books published during this time were ‘Nuggets and Dust Panned Out in California’ in 1872 and ‘Cobwebs from an Empty Skull’ in 1874.In 1875 he returned to San Francisco.After a stint as an associate editor of ‘Argonaut’ from 1877 till sometime in 1879-80, he went to Rockerville in Dakota Territory where he served a New York based mining company as its regional manager. Following the failure of the company, he returned to San Francisco.He became the editor of ‘The Wasp’ magazine on January 1, 1881 where he initiated a new column ‘Prattle’. He served the magazine till September 11, 1885.One of his major short story compilation books ‘In the Midst of Life’ was published in 1892. It included his classic story ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ and other stories like ‘The Boarded Window’ and ‘A Horseman in the Sky’ among others.Other short story compilations of Bierce include ‘Tales of Soldiers and Civilians’ (1891), ‘Can Such Things Be?’ (1893), ‘Fantastic Fables’ (1899) and ‘Collected Works’ (1909).Many of his short stories like ‘Chickamauga’ (1891), ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ (1891) and ‘The Boarded Window’ (1891), considered among best literary works in America, were based on his horrific experiences of the war.He was among the first regular columnists of ‘The San Francisco Examiner’, a newspaper by William Randolph Hearst. He was associated with the paper till 1906.To construct the ‘First Transcontinental Railroad’, the US government granted huge and low-interest loans to the ‘Central Pacific’ and ‘Union Pacific’ companies. When Collis P. Huntington, a Central Pacific executive applied his influence to obtain a bill through Congress to pardon the loans worth $130 million in absence of any hearing or public notice, Hearst sent Bierce to Washington, D.C. in January 1896 to deter such a secret endeavour.When Huntington crossed Bierce and challenged him to utter his price, Bierce gave his answer through nationwide press releases, “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.” The bill was finally defeated.Over the years he emerged as a renowned journalist, editor and contributor of the West Coast working for different periodicals and local newspapers. Some of the other ones are ‘Overland Monthly’, ‘The Californian’ and ‘The San Francisco News Letter’.His work ‘The Devil’s Dictionary’, a compiled sarcastic lexicon published in 1911 reflects his sardonic acrimony. It was earlier published in 1906 titled ‘The Cynic’s Word Book’. The book that contains ironic and acrimonious definitions is remarkably humorous at the same time insightful where he had made notable indications regarding everyday life and human nature.In October 1913, he went on a tour to visit the battlefields where he had fought during the ‘American Civil War’. Around December that year he joined the army of Pancho Villa in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico as an observer and got a first-hand experience of the ‘Battle of Tierra Blanca’.He disappeared mysteriously and no trace of him was found after being rumoured to be last seen travelling with a rebellious troop. Investigations regarding his whereabouts proved futile, thus the last phase of his life and circumstances of death remain a puzzle till date.Major Works
- ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’, one of the most popular and widely read short stories, is not only considered his finest work but also enlists as one of the flawless and remarkable literary creations in the history of American literature. Adaptations of the story include a silent film, ‘The Bridge’ in 1929 and the American and French versions of ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes in 1964.Personal Life & Legacy
- On December 25, 1871, he married Mary Ellen "Mollie" Day. The couple had two sons, Day and Leigh and a daughter, Helen.In 1888, he separated from his wife after he found letters for Mary from an admirer. They eventually got divorced in 1904. She died on April 27, 1905.While Day took his life in 1889 following a romantic rejection, Leigh succumbed to pneumonia in 1901.
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