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Featured Books

Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary FaultsSummary and Reviews of Write It Right: A Little Blacklist of Literary Faults
Can Such Things Be?Summary and Reviews of Can Such Things Be?
The Fiend's Delight (Dodo Press)Summary and Reviews of The Fiend's Delight (Dodo Press)
Fantastic FablesSummary and Reviews of Fantastic Fables
The Complete Original Devil's DictionarySummary and Reviews of The Complete Original Devil's Dictionary
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Ambrose Bierce

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Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?) was born into a large family in which the children's first names all started with "A."  He was unhappy growing so he left home at fifteen and went to Indiana where he worked as a printer for an abolitionist newspaper.  He soon decided to try the military as a career and so enrolled in the Kentucky Military Institute.  He dropped out within a year, but he wasn't done serving his country.

After he dropped out of military school, Bierce worked odd jobs until the military called again because of the Civil War.  He had lived with his uncle in Ohio for a while before military school, and this probably cemented the abolitionist views he learned as a printer.  His uncle, Lucius Verus, was in fact the person who supplied John Brown with the weapons to stage his slave rebellion in Virginia.  So, inheriting these staunch antislavery views led young Ambrose to take up arms to defend the Union and help end slavery.  He fought valiantly in the War in battles such as Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Kennesaw Mountain.  In fact, he was seriously wounded in the latter battle.

The Civil War defined Bierce and most likely led to the cynicism that infused in literary output.  Not only did he see terrible battle in his primary duties as a topographical engineer, but his childhood sweetheart Bernice "Fatima" Wright broke off their engagement while he was still fighting.  Finally, he left the army because his valor only earned him a second lieutenant's commission, a rank lower than he thought he deserved.

He decided after a stint in the corrupt Treasury Department of the ftime to become a newspaper man.  He was working in the mint in San Francisco when he began to teach himself the art of journalism.  He got a regular "Town Crier" job at the San Francisco News Letter where he earned a reputation as a sharp, cynical wit.

One of the happiest periods of his life began soon afterwards when he married Mary Ellen "Mollie" Day.  They went to England after their wedding, and Bierce got a job with Fun magazine in and also continued the "Town Crier" in another publication.  While he was in England, Mollie had two children, and Ambrose published his first three books, Nuggets and Dust, The Fiend's Delight, and Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, titles that reflect Bierce's growing cynicism.

Mollie had their third child while back in San Francisco just before Bierce also reluctantly returned to San Francisco.  He became editor of the literary journal, The Argonaut and began in its pages a column called "Prattle," which gave him some somewhat wide notoriety.  He continued "Prattle" in the Wasp magazine, which he edited for a time.

In 1887, Bierce became a staff member of the San Francisco Examiner, which was owned by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst.  Their relationship would be famously rocky.  This began a very bad period for Bierce in which he separated from his wife, whom he suspected of infidelity, and his son, Day, was shot and killed in a duel over a woman.

Between 1891 and 1893, while still a newspaperman, Bierce published The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, Black Beetles in Amber, and Can Such Things Be?  Also, in his newspaper columns, he very courageously opposed the political power of the railroad interests.  With his pen, he was able to alert the public that Collis P. Huntington, a railroad tycoon, was ramming through that would excuse his debt to the federal government until after his death.  The public outcry was enough to prevent its passage.

The turn of the century was not a new leaf for Bierce.  Another of his sons, Leigh, died of pneumonia caused by alcohol consumption and his wife finally filed for divorce, though she died before it was final.  Through it all, Bierce continued to publish stories of satire and biting wit.  Fantastic Fables and Shapes of Clay came around the turn of the century and finally, in 1906, his masterpiece of satire The Devil's Dictionary (originally entitled The Cynic's Word Book).

Bierce resigned from Hearst's employ in 1909, when Walter Neal asked him to compile his Collected Works.  Besides working on the definitive collection of his writing, he also published two more volumes, The Shadow on the Dial and Write It RightThe Collected Works were completed in 1912.

Soon after, following a tour of Civil War battlefields, Bierce went to revolution-ravaged Mexico.  No one saw or heard from him again, and he was mostly likely killed after somehow getting mixed up in the Revolution somehow.  It's one of the greatest literary mysteries of all time how he actually died.  There isn't enough room for all the theories here, but several fictionalized accounts of his death exist.  Among them are Old Gringo and Yellow; even comic and film creators have weighed in with the movie From Dusk 'til Dawn: The Hangman's Daughter and the comic series Lost Planet.

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