On June 23, 1864, Ambrose Bierce was in command of a skirmish line of Union soldiers at Kennesaw Mountain in northern Georgia. He'd been a soldier for three years, and in that time had been commended by his superiors for his efficiency and bravery during battle. He'd been pretty fortunate so far. Three years of hard fighting—on the ground and wielding a rifle—without serious injury. But that day in June a Confederate marksman shot Ambrose Bierce right in the head.
The bullet fractured Bierce's temporal lobe and got stuck in his skull, behind his left ear. He was sent by railroad to Chattanooga for medical care, riding along with other wounded soldiers on an open flat car for two days, their bodies covered by nothing more than a tarp. They rode this way through the June heat of Georgia, as well as drizzling rains. At night the "bright cold moonlight" gave Bierce jarring headaches. Somehow, none of this killed Ambrose Bierce—one of American literature's great stubborn bastards.
In fact, nobody knows how Bierce died. In 1913, at the age of 71, he traveled from Northern California to Mexico. He wanted to check out all the ruckus Pancho Villa had been causing. Bierce departed and was never seen or heard from again. By then he'd become famous as the caustic columnist for, among others, William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. He'd been hired personally by Hearst. Bierce's columns attacked corporate malfeasance and government incompetence, and sometimes just railed about the failings of the entire human race. Besides fiction and journalism, Bierce also wrote book reviews. He wasn't a soft touch. One of his most famous reviews is one sentence long: "The covers of this book are too far apart." By the time of Bierce's disappearance, his literary reputation had been overshadowed by writers like Mark Twain and Stephen Crane. And today, a century of reader indifference has succeeded where that Rebel sniper failed. Ambrose Bierce is long dead (probably!), and his stories have pretty much been buried. But perhaps the time has finally come to resurrect them.
Ambrose Bierce was born on June 24, 1842, in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio, a fundamentalist community not far from the West Virginia border. His parents were true believers who might've had a bit of an odd streak as well. Ambrose was the tenth child in the family, and the names of his nine older siblings were Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew and Albert. Ambrose Bierce hated his folks. He rarely depicted parents in his fiction, but if they appeared at all it was usually as having recently died—sometimes at the hands of a very Bierce-like narrator. In fact, one of Bierce's books was a collection of stories called The Parenticide Club. No one's claiming Bierce was the most likable dude in American literature.
Ambrose's father, Marcus Aurelius Bierce, held many jobs—farmer, shopkeeper and county overseer of the poor—though he enjoyed no successes in any of these professions. But he was an avid reader. His personal collection of books was possibly the largest in the county. And it was in his father's library that Bierce began his life as a serious reader. Though Bierce rarely said a nice word about his family, he never denied the great gift of his father's collection.
If Bierce is known today, it's for writing the kind of reference work he might've longed to find on his father's bookshelves. The Devil's Dictionary, published in 1911, is a collection of warped, witty and just plain cruel definitions of words in common American usage:
abstainer, n. A weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.
hearse, n. Death's baby-carriage.
heathen, n. A benighted creature who has the folly to worship something that he can see and feel.
lecturer, n. One with his hand in your pocket, his tongue in your ear and his faith in your patience.
The Devil's Dictionary goes on like this, and you can see the appeal. The definitions are short, the ideas easy to grasp, the humor reliably fierce. The Devil's Dictionary reads like a collection of great Twitter posts. And as people do with tweets, they can swipe Bierce's best lines and recite them as nearly their own. The reflected glory of reposting.
It's an understandable pleasure. A lot of these definitions are bitingly funny. And maybe The Devil's Dictionary has endured longer than Bierce's fiction because its tone seems more modern, its confluence with our time apparently easier to appreciate.
But before Bierce could write any books, he had to leave the family farm. In Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, Roy Morris Jr. notes that Bierce's family moved to Indiana when he was 4. For the next eleven years Ambrose was an isolated child, aloof from his siblings as well as his schoolmates. He didn't even like dogs or cats. His favorite animals were snakes and lizards.
At 15 Ambrose left the family to work for the Northern Indianan, an abolitionist newspaper. His father was an early antislavery advocate, but it seems just as likely that Ambrose took the job to get away from the family farm or because he liked to write. The job didn't last long; he was supposedly accused of theft and quit after his name had been cleared. Sometime after that he landed in the home of his Uncle Lucius.
Lucius Bierce was a military man who liked to argue and had an appealing swagger, a man who'd witnessed a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina, and become an even more ardent abolitionist than Bierce's father. In 1838 Lucius led a militia across Lake Erie and into Windsor, Ontario, with plans to "liberate" the town from the British yoke. The plan failed, but the legend was a hell of a lot more interesting to Ambrose than Marcus Bierce's story of poverty and piousness. The argumentative, ambitious, self-important Ambrose had found a man he could admire and emulate.
Then, on April 12, 1861, the Battle of Fort Sumter popped off in South Carolina. On April 19, Ambrose enlisted in the Union Army: Company C, Ninth Indiana Volunteers.
He was 18.