Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (b. June 24, 1842, Meigs County, Ohio - d. Dec. 1913 or early 1914, presumably in Mexico,) was an American satirist, litterateur and critic, short story writer, editor and journalist.
Born in a rural area of southeastern Ohio, he resided during his adolescence in the town of Elkart, Indiana. At the outset of the American Civil War, Bierce enlisted in the Ninth Regiment, Indiana Volunteers, as part of the Union Army. In Feb. 1862, he was commissioned as a 1st lieutenant and served on the staff of Gen. William Babcock Hazen as a topographical engineer, making maps of likely battlefields. He fought bravely in several of the war's most important battles, at one point receiving newspaper attention for his daring rescue under fire of a gravely wounded comrade at the battle of Girard Hill, West Virginia. In June, 1864, he received a serious wound at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain and spent the rest of the summer on furlough, but returned to active duty in September, and was ultimately discharged from the army in Jan. 1865.
His military career, however, resumed when, in the summer of 1866, he rejoined Gen. Hazen as part of the latter's expedition to inspect military outposts across the Western plains. The expedition proceeded by horseback and wagon from Omaha, Nebraska, arriving in San Francisco near the end of the year.
In San Francisco, Bierce resigned from the Army and received the rank of brevet Major. He remained there for many years, eventually becoming famous as a contributor and/or editor for a number of local newspapers and periodicals, including The San Francisco News Letter, The Argonaut, and The Wasp. Bierce lived and wrote in England from 1872 to 1875, and went to Rockerville and Deadwood in the Dakota Territory to try his hand at mining in 1879-1880, after which he returned to San Francisco. In 1887, he became one of the first regular columnists and editorialists to be employed on William Randolph Hearst's newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner. In Dec. 1899, he moved to Washington, DC, but continued his association with the Hearst newspapers until 1906.
His short stories are considered among the best of the 19th century. He wrote realistically of the terrible things he had seen in the war in such stories as "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and "Chickamauga".
Bierce was reckoned as a master of "pure" English by his contemporaries, and virtually everything that came from his pen was notable for its judicious wording and economy of style. He wrote skillfully in a variety of literary genres, and in addition to his celebrated ghost and war stories he published several volumes of poetry and verse. His Fantastic Fables anticipated the ironic style of grotesquerie that turned into a genre in the 20th century.
One of Bierce's most famous works is his much-quoted book, The Devil's Dictionary, originally a newspaper serialization which was first published in book form in 1906 as The Cynic's Word Book. It offers an interesting reinterpretation of the English language in which cant and political double-talk are neatly lampooned.
Bierce's twelve-volume Collected Works were published in 1912. In October 1913, the septuagenarian Bierce departed Washington on a tour to revisit his old Civil War battlefields. By December, he had proceeded on through Louisiana and Texas, crossing by way of El Paso into Mexico, which was then in the throes of Mexican Revolution. In Ciudad Juarez, he joined the army of Pancho Villa as an observer, in which role he participated in the battle of Tierra Blanca. He is known to have accompanied Villa's army as far as the city of Chihuahua. After a last letter to a friend, sent from that city on December 26, 1913, he vanished without a trace, becoming one of the most famous disappearances in American literary history. Subsequent investigations to ascertain his fate were fruitless and, despite many decades of speculation, his disappearance remains a mystery.
H.P. Lovecraft borrowed several terms and fictional locations from Bierce.
Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote Gringo Viejo (The Old Gringo), a fictionalized account of Bierce's disappearance that was later made into a movie with Gregory Peck in the title role.
Following are some examples of entries from The Devil's Dictionary:
Accord, n. Harmony.
Accordion, n. An instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin.
Bore, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.
Custard, n. A vile concoction produced by a malevolent conspiracy of the hen, the cow, and the cook.
Marriage, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.
Neighbor, n. One whom we are commanded to love as ourselves, and who does all he knows how to make us disobedient.
Non-combatant, n. A dead Quaker.
Opportunity, n. A favorable occasion for grasping a disappointment.
Success, n. The one unpardonable sin against one's fellows.