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The Life of Bierce

"He has been characterized as great, bitter, idealistic, cynical, morose, frustrated, cheerful, bad, sadistic, obscure, perverted, famous, brutal, kind, a fiend, a God, a misanthrope, a poet, a realist who wrote romances, a fine satirist, and something of a charlatan."
-- Carey McWilliams, Ambrose Bierce, A Biography

Ambrose Gwinett Bierce came into this world on June 24, 1842 in Meigs County, Ohio, son of Marcus Aurelius and Laura Sherwood Bierce. He was the youngest of a large brood of children, whom Marcus, for reasons unknown, anointed with names beginning with "A."

Details on his childhood are sketchy. He left his family in 1857 to live in Indiana, working as a "printer's devil" for an abolitionist newspaper. He eventually came to live with uncle Lucius Verus in Ohio, then attended the Kentucky Military Institute for a year before dropping out. Bierce wasn't the first in his family to have interest in the military. His grandfather fought in the American Revolution, and Lucius Verus supplied radical abolitionist John Brown with the weapons for his failed uprising, as well as personally leading a people's army to "liberate" Canada from the British.

Ambrose worked odd jobs until the outbreak of the U.S. Civil War in 1860, when he enlisted with the 9th Indiana volunteers. The Civil War would prove to be the defining episode of his life. Bierce worked primarily as a topographical engineer, where his excellent and valiant performance allowed him to rise through the ranks. He fought in several key battles in the war, including Shiloh, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, and Kennesaw Mountain. During his distinguished career, he was seriously wounded in the head at Kennesaw Mountain and escaped from capture in Gaylesville, Alabama.

What he saw and experienced in the war had the most profound effect on Bierce. In addition to the harsh realities of war, Bierce's engagement to childhood sweetheart Bernice ("Fatima") Wright was broken off during the war, adding to his disillusionment. All his experiences in the war are commonly seen as the source of his cynical realism.

After his injury from Kennesaw Mountain made him unfit for military service, he worked in the post-bellum South for the Treasury Department, a laughably corrupt organization at the time that probably did little to dissuade Bierce's cynicism. He undertook a tour of Western forts and then quit the army after he felt slighted by only earning a second lieutenant's commission.

Bierce landed in San Francisco in 1867, where he got a job working at the mint. It was then he decided on a career in journalism. Self-taught, he got a regular job as the "Town Crier" in the San Francisco News Letter by the end of the next year. Bierce's acid wit quickly gained him great local fame and a burgeoning national notoriety. In 1871, he courted and wed Mary Ellen ("Mollie") Day, a San Franciscan socialite of one of the best families of the city.

A wedding gift took them to England, where Bierce would spend one of the happiest periods of his life. He earned his way working for Tom Hood's Fun and continuing his "Town Crier" column in Figaro. During his time in England, Mollie gave birth to his first two children, Day (1872) and Leigh (1874), and he wrote his first three books: Nuggets and Dust (1872), The Fiend's Delight (1873), and Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874).

In early 1875, Mollie returned to San Francisco with their young family. Bierce reluctantly followed later that year, just before the birth of the couple's third child, Helen. In 1877, Bierce became the editor of The Argonaut, gaining notoriety for his "Prattle" column. After a brief period where Bierce pursued a failed venture with the Black Hills Placer Mining Company in South Dakota, Bierce returned to San Francisco and joined the Wasp in 1881, where he picked up his "Prattle" column.

In 1887, Bierce began his famous (and tumultuous) relationship with publishing baron William Randolph Hearst, joining the staff for the San Francisco Examiner. It was at this time that Bierce's personal life would begin being fraught with tragedies. In 1888, he separated from Mollie when he found "improper" letters to her from a European admirer, and in 1889, Bierce's pride and joy, Day, was slain in a sordid duel over a woman.

While continuing his newspaper work, Bierce began producing books in America. Between 1891-3, Bierce wrote and published The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter (with G.A. Danziger, 1892), Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1892), Black Beetles In Amber (1892), and Can Such Things Be? (1893).

A lifelong opponent of the railroad interests that literally owned the California politics of his day, Bierce was one of the few journalists brave enough to oppose them. In 1896, Bierce won his greatest victory against Collis P. Huntington, one the biggest "railrogues" in the state. Huntington was in the process of quietly slipping through legislation that would effectively excuse him from repaying his debt to the federal government until after his death. With Hearst's backing and space in the Examiner and New York Journal, Bierce single-handedly brought such public opinion and scrutiny against the bill that it was struck down, the first major defeat to the railroad interests. Most people mark this the first crack in the railroad industry's dam of political power which eventually led to its downfall.

At the turn of the century, Bierce's personal life would again fall under bad stars. In 1901, son Leigh died of pneumonia related to alcoholism. In 1904, Mollie finally officially filed for divorce for "abandonment," but would die the next year before the proceedings were finalized.

Bierce continued writing through this period, publishing Fantastic Fables in 1899 and Shapes of Clay in 1903. After Mollie's death in 1905, Bierce began working for Hearst's Cosmopolitan, and Bierce's Cynic's Work Book (later the Devil's Dictionary) was published in 1906.

Bierce became less and less involved in the world around him. When Walter Neal approached Bierce to compile his Collected Works in 1909, Bierce resigned to Hearst for the last time. That year, he also published The Shadow on the Dial and Write It Right, all while working on the Collected Works. The last volumes of the twelve-volume Collected Works set appeared in 1912.

What follows after is dealt with in its own section.

LIFE n. A spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay.