Ambrose Bierce, American Iconoclast

ambrose-bierce-at-picketts-mill

The history of American letters overflows with stories of eccentric characters, from inside the pages and out. One particular author whose unique view of the world shaped his writings and his lifestyle was Ambrose Bierce. Like Mark Twain, Bierce is usually associated with the San Francisco writing scene of the late nineteenth century. However, he spent many of his formative years in Indiana, learning about the newspaper business and ultimately enlisting in the Civil War. These early experiences not only shaped his incomparable writing style, but they influenced his distinctive views on life and religion.

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born June 24, 1842 in Horse Cave Creek, Meigs County, Ohio. His parents, Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood Bierce, were descendents of English immigrants, and his father had a love of literature.[1] Bierce’s early life in Indiana is largely shrouded in mystery. Some sources indicate that the Bierce family moved to Kosciusko County in 1846, but it is hard to verify. The 1850 Census shows them in Akron, Ohio and the earliest deed document dates their entry into Kosciusko County as 1858.[2] Bierce reportedly lived on the family’s settlement in Walnut Creek until he was 15, when he moved to Warsaw to work as a “printer’s devil” (an apprentice tasked with multiple duties) for the abolitionist newspaper, the Northern Indianan.[3] Reportedly, Bierce also traveled to Kentucky in 1859-60, learning typography at the Kentucky Military Institute.[4]

After returning from Kentucky, Bierce supposedly lived in Elkhart from 1860-1861.[5] Two newspaper articles published after his death, one from the Elkhart Truth (1922) and another from the Indianapolis Sunday Star (1923), discuss his time as a restaurant clerk for A. E. Faber. An 1860 City Directory does list an A. E. Faber, along with his eating establishment.[6]  Also, an 1881 history of Elkhart County credits Faber as one of Elkhart’s founding citizens who petitioned for its formal creation.[7] In the Star article, Bierce’s brother Andrew indicates that Bierce worked there and was liked by the staff and the clientle. However, these newspaper articles are far removed from the 1860-61 timeframe, so his time in Elkhart appears vague.[8]

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Bierce enlisted in C Company of the Ninth Indiana Regiment in April 1861 and served as a private for three months.[9] He was promoted to Sergeant in July 1861, when he reenlisted for a three year term. His upgrade in rank came as a result of his valor during the Battle of Laurel Hill on July 10, 1861.[10] He was wounded at Kennesaw Mountain in 1864 and eventually opted not to reenlist, mustering out in January 1865 with the rank of First Lieutenant.[11] Bierce’s intense and often painful experiences during his service in the Civil War provided much fodder for his literary work, particularly his short fiction and journalism.

After the Civil War, Bierce did not immediately go to California. He reenlisted in the Army, but served as a “Topographical Engineer at Brigade and Division Head Quarters, 21st Army Corps.”[12] In his essay, “Across the Plains,” Bierce refers to his role as an “engineer attaché to an expedition through Dakota and Montana, to inspect some new military posts.”[13] He worked under the leadership of General William B. Hazen, who named Bierce as an Acting Topographical Officer during the Civil War.[14] After declining a second lieutenant commission in San Francisco in 1867, Bierce formally ended his career in the military and spent the rest of his career as a professional writer.[15]

Bierce began his journalism career in 1867, writing poems and essays for the Californian and Golden Era, under newspaper editor James T. Watkins. From 1868-1872, Bierce wrote a local column for the San Francisco News Letter called the “Town Crier.”[16] One critic referred to his writing as “…humor [that] borders as nearly upon the blasphemous and sacrilegious as that of Swift or Sterne…” Another review considered his early works “The Haunted Valley” and “Broke” as offbeat pieces that showed his “capacity, acute observation, and descriptive powers of very unusual simplicity, grace, and effectiveness.”[17]

For the next three years, Bierce lived and worked in England, under the pseudonym “Dod Grile.” The origins of such an unorthodox penname came from an 1872 letter, written by a friend and early employer of Bierce in England named Tom Hood, who addressed Bierce as “Dear God Rile.” Bierce used an anagram of it, “Dod Grile,” as a penname while in England. As Biographer Roy Morris speculates, Bierce may have chosen this simple name as a way to attract readers, same as Samuel Clemens did with “Mark Twain.”[18] His columns were published in English and American newspapers. Bierce also published three collected humor works while in Great Britain; his most successful was Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, published in 1873. Prominent advertisements and reviews in This Week’s News and Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper solidified their modest success.[19]

After his time in England, Bierce returned to California and began work at the Argonaut and the Wasp and established his successful column, “Prattle.” In 1887, he was employed by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst at the San Francisco Examiner. Like in Britain, Bierce’s columns were nationally syndicated, in outlets like the Wichita Eagle, The Louisiana Democrat, and the Washington Herald.[20] Even though Hearst gave Bierce nearly complete editorial freedom in his years at his newspapers, there always existed a growing antagonism between the two. This may have been due to Bierce’s disgust with some of Hearst’s other journalists, specifically after 1906.[21] Bierce formally left the employ of Hearst in March of 1909 to focus on compiling his collected works and memoirs.[22]

His best-known work related to the civil war is Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, fist published in 1891. Literature scholar Donald T. Blume notes that Tales of Soldiers and Civilians went through multiple editions, with Bierce adding and editing stories in multiple printings through 1909. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut called the “greatest American Short Story,” is a great example of Bierce’s style and grasp of the complexities of war. [23] Many publications also praised the work during its original printing. As a review from the New York Tribune noted, Bierce’s stories are “elaborated pictures of what the American soldier actually experienced in the great war [Civil War].”[24] The New Orleans’ Daily Picayune  called Bierce a “genius” and considered Tales of Soldiers and Civilians the “most noteworthy book of stories by an American writer published in ten years.”[25]

While Bierce’s journalism and short stories garnered serious acclaim, his outspoken views on religion often made him notorious to the prevailing attitudes of his time. Bierce’s own agnosticism (the position of neutrality concerning knowledge of God and religious claims) also squares nicely with another iconoclast of the period: Robert Green Ingersoll. Known as the “Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll was a politician and lawyer who had a lucrative career in oratory.  He gave sold-out speeches all across the country, including Indiana, critical of religion, Christianity, and superstition. While there is no evidence to suggest that he and Bierce met, their paths crossed numerous times in literary endeavors, and their “against-the-grain” natures continue to influence and inspire scholars of the nineteenth century.

In volume ten of his collected works, his essay, “A Dead Lion,” defends the agnostic orator and fights back against unjustified criticism. When Ingersoll died, religious and intellectual leaders all over the country both paid respect as well as continued their criticisms. One such scholar was Harry Thurston Peck, who argued that Ingersoll’s limitations as an intellect overshadowed his prowess as a public orator.[26] Undercutting Peck’s opprobrium, Bierce defends Ingersoll with some clever barbs at religion. “If men can be good without religion, and scorning religion,” Bierce writes, “then it is not religion that makes men good; and if religion does not do this it is of no practical value and one may well be without it as with it, so far as concern’s one’s relations with one’s fellow men.” Of Ingersoll’s own wit, Bierce argues that it was, “…keen, bright, and clean as an Arab’s scimitar…”[27] While Bierce’s own pessimism may have rankled Ingersoll’s more utopian proclivities, this essay shows a deep intellectual kinship between the two.

Another interesting connection between the two agnostics was their position on suicide. Both of them favored the practice, but based on what they described as ethical and reasonable conditions. In his 1894 essay, “Is Suicide a Sin?,” Ingersoll says unequivocally that “there are many cases of perfectly justifiable suicide—cases in which not to end life would be a mistake, sometimes almost a crime.” Suicide, in Ingersoll’s estimation, is a perfectly rational response to a malignant illness, disaster, or lack of utility in one’s life. He believed that laws against the practice were “born of superstition, passed by thoughtlessness, and enforced by ignorance and cruelty.” Instead of the traditionally prohibitive view, Ingersoll offered this alternative:  “Those who attempt suicide should not be punished. If they are insane they should if possible be restored to reason; if sane, they should be reasoned, calmed and assured.”[28]

Bierce’s essay, “The Right to Take Oneself Off,” echoes many of Ingersoll’s sentiments. Bierce also believed it could an appropriate act, based on reasonable and ethical considerations. In one passage, Bierce even notes and defends Ingersoll’s position:

It was Robert G. Ingersoll’s opinion that there is rather too little than too much suicidein the world—that people are so cowardly as to live on after endurance has ceased to a virtue. This view is but a return to the wisdom of the ancients, in whose splendid civilization suicide had as honorable place as any other courageous, reasonable, and unselfish act.[29]

Bierce, like Ingersoll, saw the modern interpretation of the practice as backward and religiously dogmatic and defended its courageous nature. “…suicide does more than face death;” Bierce notes, “he incurs it, and with a certainty, not of glory, but of reproach. If that is not courage we must reform our vocabulary.”[30] In both Ingersoll and Bierce’s essays is a secular, humanistic view of ethics, one that divorces human actions and contexts from the religious beliefs of the past. In some respects, this put both men quite ahead of their time.

He also held irreverent views on life after death. In an essay entitled “Not All Men Desire Immortality,” Bierce decries the spiritualism of his time, albeit with clever quips such as this: “If we have among us one who can put over a blaze by looking at it, the matter may not have any visible bearing on the question of life after death, but it is of the liveliest interest to the Fire Department.”[31] Bierce contemplated questions of the afterlife and spirituality as a skeptic, noting that they are “still as much a matter of faith as ever it was.”[32] In other words, he had to see it to believe it.

Above all else, the lasting legacy of Ambrose Bierce’s freethought and connection to Ingersoll is arguably The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911. Originally released as The Cynic’s Word Book in 1906, The Devil’s Dictionary displays Bierce’s heretical nature in economical, but clever definitions. Some entries in his lexicon include, “Apostate: A leech who, having penetrated the shell of a turtle only to find that the creature has long been dead, deems it expedient to form a new attachment to a fresh turtle,” and, “Clergyman: A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering our temporal ones.”[33] He would often include poems or short story fragments with his definitions, with funny pseudonyms like “Father Gassalasca Jape” and “Booley Fito.”[34] Selected entries also appeared in newspapers throughout the country, and its controversial definitions even inspired lectures by clergymen.[35] This work would have a bug influence on journalist and fellow iconoclast H. L. Mencken, who would write clever “definitions” in his own columns and newspapers.

Bierce’s own mysterious disappearance in 1914 adds to his firebrand persona. After his last letters to family and friends in 1913, there is only one primary source that suggests that he went to Mexico. The only indication that he was headed that way is in other letters from the fall and winter of 1913, where he repeatedly describes his future trip to Mexico. His final letter to a family member, dated November 6, 1913, he notes that “I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much.”[36] However, a letter from December 26, 1913 to friend Blanche Partington does place him in Chihuahua, Mexico but the last sentence of the letter leaves it more ambiguous: “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”[37]

Based on the evidence of this last letter, Bierce possibly went to Mexico, but as investigator Joe Nickell notes, this supposed last letter attributed to Bierce, and preserved by his daughter, is probable at best.[38] Therefore, it is more likely that he did disappeared after 1914 (no credible primary sources appear from Bierce after that) and that the claim that he went to Mexico is plausible but not confirmed, based on his letters from late 1913.

After his disappearance, numerous newspaper articles were written that tried to explain what happened to Bierce, but most of them describe only rumors. For example, in the September 12, 1916 Fort Wayne Sentinel, some people described him as having been short by Don Poncho Villa’s forces in Mexico or laying in a hospital ward in France.[39] Since there are no primary sources to authenticate these rumors, they are at best hearsay. As in life, Bierce’s “death” was as elusive as the man himself.

Ambrose Bierce’s life and literary work speaks to an era of “lost souls,” men whose lives were shaped, or shattered, by the Civil War. Some came out of the war with a renewed interest in the spiritual, like Ben-Hur author and fellow Hoosier Lew Wallace. Others, like Bierce and Ingersoll, saw it as their life’s mission to destroy myths and comfortable illusions that crept through their society like a plague. Gifted with the power of prose, Bierce’s incisive and often tragically-hilarious writings showcase a man deeply in-synch with his own convictions. Bierce never believed in a personal immortality, but his writing’s enduring appeal has given an immortality he may have never imagined.

[1] His parents, Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood Bierce, were descendents of English immigrants, and his father had a love of literature. 1850 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.com; “Ambrose Bierce Passport Application, April 29, 1872,” Passport Applications, 1795-1905, NARA, National Archives, Fold3; Richard O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967), 10-11; “Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce,” Encyclopedia of Contemporary Authors (Volume 139), 42; Roy Morris, Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company (New York: Oxford Press, 1995), 9, Google Books; Robert L. Gale, Ambrose Bierce Companion (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), xv, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Online Library; Robert A. Wiggins, Ambrose Bierce (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964), 6, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Online Library.

[2] 1850 United States Federal Census; Deed Book 18, Kosciusko County Recorder, Warsaw, Indiana, quoted in Paul Fatout, Ambrose Bierce: the Devil’s Lexicographer (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951), 31. A local Kosciusko County newspaper, entitled the Northern Indianan, has a business listing for an “A. Bierce” in its November 20, 1857 issue. This may push the date a little earlier, but why they moved or exactly when is still not clear (“Business Directory,” Northern Indianan (Warsaw, Indiana), November 20, 1857, 1, Indiana State Library Newspaper Microfilm Collection).

[3] O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, 17; Wiggins, Ambrose Bierce, 7; Gale, Ambrose Bierce Companion, 1857.

[4] Fatout, The Devil’s Lexicographer, 392; O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, 18; “Ambrose Bierce,” Contemporary Authors, Vol. 139, 44.

[5] O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, 18; Gale, Ambrose Bierce Companion, xv; Wiggins, Ambrose Bierce, 7.

[6] “New Volume of Bierce Letters Issued,” Elkhart Truth, October 7, 1922, Indiana State Library Newspaper Microfilm Collection; Maurice M. Frink, “Little Recalled of Ambrose Bierce, Hoosier Author, in Home Town, Elkhart,” Indianapolis Sunday Star, February 16, 1923, 22, Newspaperarchive.com.

[7] History of Elkhart County, Indiana (Chicago: Chas. C. Chapman & Company, 1881), 743, Google Books.

[8] The 1860 Census still places Bierce in Kosciusko County, but his enlistment records indicate that he enlisted for the Union Army in Elkhart County in April of 1861. He may have moved in between the Census data and his enlistment date, but there are no primary sources to prove that. The earliest Elkhart City Directory available is 1874. The 1870 Census places his father in Elkhart, but again, there are few sources that document exactly when they moved. (1860 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.com; 1870 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.com).

[9] W.H.H. Terrell, Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Indiana, Volume 4- 1861-1865 (Indianapolis: Samuel L. Douglass, 1866), 41; Letters Received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant Generals Office, 1863-1870, NARA, National Archives, Fold3.

[10] “Good Boy,” Indianapolis Daily Journal, July 27, 1861, Indiana State Library Newspaper Microfilm Collection.

[11] Letters Received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant Generals Office, 1863-1870, NARA, National Archives, accessed August 28, 2015, Fold3.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ambrose Bierce, “Across the Plains,” in Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume One (New York and Washington: The Neale Publishing Company, 1909), 363, Archive.org.

[14] Owens, The Devil’s Typographer, 10.

[15] “Letter to Adjutant General’s Office, April 1867,” Letters Received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant Generals Office, 1863-1870, NARA, National Archives, Fold3.

[16] “Ambrose Bierce,” Encyclopedia of Contemporary Authors, 44-45; Gale, Ambrose Bierce Companion, xvi-xvii; Wiggins, Ambrose Bierce, 11.

[17]“The Overland Monthly,” Arizona Citizen, March 11, 1871, Chronicling America; “July Magazines,” New York Times, July 5, 1871, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[18] Morris, Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, 139.

[19] “List of New Books,” This Week’s News [London], October 25, 1873, 1356; “Dod Grile,” Elkhart Observer, June 10, 1874, 1; “Holiday Literature,” Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, November 29, 1874, 5.

[20] “Ambrose Bierce,” Encyclopedia of Contemporary Authors, 44-45; Gale, Ambrose Bierce Companion, xvi-xvii; Wiggins, Ambrose Bierce, 11; Ambrose Bierce, “At Coulter’s Notch,” Wichita Eagle, January 7, 1890, 7, Chronicling America; Ambrose Bierce, “A Comfortable Creed for Some,” Louisiana Democrat, July 1, 1891, 4, Chronicling America; Ambrose Bierce, “Wrong Rejections,” St. Paul Daily Globe, July 30, 1893, 13, Chronicling America; Ambrose Bierce, “His Human Side,” Washington Herald, November 4, 1906, 1, Chronicling America.

[21] In an March 30, 1908 letter, Bierce wrote to Hearst about his growing dissatisfaction with journalists Samuel Chamberlain, Perriton Maxwell, and Rudolph Block, whom he regarded as low-rate journalists who cheated their employer (Ambrose Bierce, A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003), 174).

[22] “Ambrose Bierce,” Encyclopedia of Contemporary Authors, 44-45. In a letter from March 23, 1909, Bierce writes that he is “no longer in Mr. Hearst’s service” (Ibid., 193).

[23] Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (San Francisco: E.L.G. Steele, 1891), 21-40, Archive.org; Donald T. Blume, Ambrose Bierce’s Civilians and Soldiers in Context (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2004), xxi; Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), 7-8.

[24] “New Publications,” New York Tribune, March 21, 1892, 8, Chronicling America.

[25] “Ambrose Bierce,” Daily Picayune, April 24, 1892, 16.

[26] Harry Thurston Peck, “Robert G. Ingersoll,” in What is Good English and Other Essays (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1899), 227-249, Google Books.

[27]Ambrose Bierce, “A Dead Lion,” in Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume Ten (New York and Washington: The Neale Publishing Company, 1909), 221-228, Archive.org.

[28] Robert Green Ingersoll, “Is Suicide a Sin?: First Letter,” in The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Dresden Edition, Volume Seven (Dresden, NY: The Dresden Publishing Company, C. P. Farrell, 1902), accessed September 23, 2015, 378, 382, 387, Archive.org.

[29] Ambrose Bierce, “The Right to Take Oneself Off,” in The Shadow on the Dial and other Essays (San Francisco: A. M. Robertson, 1909), accessed August 19, 2015, 246, Archive.org.

[30] Ibid., 247.

[31] Ambrose Bierce, Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism from 1898-1901, edited by Lawrence I. Berkove (Ann Arbor, MI: Delmas Books, 1980), 285.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1911), 24, 50, Archive.org.

[34] Ibid., 22.

[35] Ambrose Bierce, “Some Modern Definitions,” Edgefield Advertiser, December 13, 1911, 2, Chronicling America; Ambrose Bierce, “From the Devil’s Dictionary,” Washington Herald, January 20, 1907, 7, Chronicling America; Ambrose Bierce, “Queer Definitions from Devil’s Dictionary,” Hartford Republican, March 15, 1912, 2, Chronicling America; “Church Services- Continued,” San Francisco Call, June 12, 1910, 58, Chronicling America.

[36] Ambrose Bierce, The Letters of Ambrose Bierce, edited by Bertha Clark Pope (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1922), 198, Archive.org.

[37] Ambrose Bierce, A Much Misunderstood Man, 246.

[38] Joe Nickell, Ambrose Bierce is Missing and Other Historical Mysteries (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 28.

[39] “Man of Mystery,’ Thrice Reported Dead, Promises That He’ll Soon Return Once More,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, September 12, 1916, 12, Fold3.