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Ambrose Bierce

Bierce, from a sternly religious family, was born in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio. He fought with distinction in the American civil war. By 1866 he was in California and soon contributing to such papers as the News-Letter. He was part of a new breed of writers, including Bret Harte and Mark Twain; they were "a fusion of the whimsical and the bombastic."

"I care nothing for principles -- they are lumber and rubbish. What concerns our happiness and welfare, as affectable by our fellow men, is conduct. 'Principles, not men,' is a rogue's cry; rascality's counsel to stupidity, the noise of the duper duping on his dupe. He shouts it most loudly and with the keenest sense of its advantage who most desires inattention to his own conduct, or to that forecast of it, his character. As to sin, that has an abundance of expounders and is already universally known to be wicked. What more can be said about it, and why go on repeating that? The thing is a trifle word worn, whereas the sinner cometh up as a flower every day, fresh, ingenuous and inviting. Sin is not at all dangerous to society; what does all the mischief is the sinner. Crime has no arms to thrust into the public treasury and the private; no hands with which to cut a throat; no tongue to wreck a reputation withal. I would no more attack it than I would attack an isosceles triangle, or Hume's 'phantasm floating in a void.' My chosen enemy must have something that has a skin for my switch, a head for my cudgel - something that can smart and ache. I have no quarrel with abstractions; so far as I know they are all good citizens." [See O'Connor's biography (Boston: Little, Brown; 1967) at p. 161.]
In 1872, Bierce moved off to England for four years; after that back again to write for the San Francisco Examiner, which by 1887 had a new owner, a Harvard dropout, William Randolph Hearst. Hearst had an eye for, and supported, talent (Stephen Crane and Jack London were all stabled with Hearst for periods of time). During the years 1887-1906 Bierce's column was known as "The Prattler"; it is reported that Bierce did his best work during the years when he was with Hearst. In 1897, Bierce went off to Washington where he worked for another of the Hearst papers, -- "the entire capital ran for cover." He disapproved of "human institutions in general, including all forms of government, most laws and customs, and all contemporary literature"; as an editor he promised "war upon every man with a mission, and disesteem for titles of distinction"; he thought "human suffering to be contemplated with a merely curious interest, as one looks into an ant-hill." He wrote at various times in defense of the Jews, Negroes and the Chinese. "I am for preserving the ancient, primitive distinction between right and wrong." His personal life was a disaster; his eldest son at the age of sixteen committed suicide; his youngest son died of acute alcoholism at thirty (Helen, his only other child stayed by him to the end); divorced in 1904. In 1913 he disappeared into Mexico (a civil war was raging). His fate remains unknown.

The books for which Bierce is best know for are The Devil's Dictionary and Tales of Soldiers & Civilians (1891), also known as In the Midst of Life. Bierce's works are readily available on the 'NET .


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2011 (2019)

Peter Landry