Sunday, May 13, 2018


This may sound strange, but lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ambrose Bierce. Bear with me. At my age, this makes sense, and I think it might make sense to some of you as well.
Scene from a 1962 French film adaptation of "An Occurrence at
Owl Creek Bridge" 
For those of you who don’t remember Ambrose Bierce, he was a famous nineteenth-century American writer, journalist and poet. He was an extraordinary short story writer. Perhaps his best known story—and one of the best known of all stories in modern American literature—is An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, a Civil War tale which, in short, is a description of everything that runs through a man’s mind as he is hanged from a railway trestle, from the time he is pushed from the bridge with a rope around his neck until the noose snaps his spine.
Not your lighter, more optimistic literature, mind you, but a masterpiece all the same. Published in 1890 and anthologized for the first of many times in 1891, it is also considered one of the great early examples of stream of consciousness.
Contemporary bestseller Kurt Vonnegut once described the story as “a flawless example of American genius, like ‘Sophisticated Lady’ by Duke Ellington or the Franklin stove.” He also defined as “a twerp” anyone who’d never read it. Biographer Richard O’Connor said that “war was the making of Bierce as a man and a writer.” O’Connor praised Bierce for his grim and graphic style, observing that he was “truly capable of transferring the bloody, headless bodies and boar-eaten corpses of the battlefield onto paper.” Even the often jaundiced and disdainful New York Review of Books and Washington Post critic Michael Dirda concedes, if snottily, that Bierce “is arguably the finest not-quite-first-rate writer in nineteenth-century American literature.”
There’s a substantial literary reason, then, why other later extraordinary writers (Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar and Vladimir Nabokov among them) were influenced by Bierce’s writing—just as he was influenced by Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe and other great and innovative authors who preceded him. But Bierce wasn’t just a writer. He himself was to become the stuff that fiction is made of—the subject of a mystery that remains unsolved and is the topic of vast research and speculation up to the present day.  
Like me, Bierce was born in Ohio, but on the opposite side of the state, in Meigs County, which today borders on West Virginia, an area which is part of the Appalachian region. The tenth of thirteen siblings—all with given names beginning with the letter “A”—while he was still a small child his parents moved to Kosciusko County, in north-central Indiana, where he grew into adolescence. He would eventually attend high school in the town of Warsaw, the county seat.
If he wasn’t born with ink in his veins, young Ambrose would quickly be immersed in it when he struck out on his own at age fifteen and went to work as a printer’s apprentice at an Ohio abolitionist newspaper called, oddly enough, the Northern Indianan. Working at a newspaper was not a random choice. Although he came from a home of humble means, his parents were highly literate people and obviously encouraged him in his love of books and his penchant for storytelling and writing.
Lieutanant Ambrose Bierce, 1862
From the printshop, Ambrose would edge his way into journalism, but that career ended up being interrupted by the US Civil War, in which a still very young Bierce would attain the rank of first lieutenant in the Ninth Indiana Infantry Regiment of the Union Army, and would lead his men in such famous (and infamous) confrontations as Shiloh, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, Lookout Mountain, Missionary Ridge, Resaca, Kennesaw Mountain, the Atlanta Campaign and the Battle of Nashville, among numerous others.
Bierce was cited for bravery in one of the earliest battles in which he took part (and indeed, one of the first of the Civil War) and was seriously wounded at Kennesaw Mountain. Although he spent several months in 1864 on medical furlough because of the head wound he had sustained, he returned to battle in September of that same year and was only discharged from the Army in January of 1865, a few months before the war ended. However, his former commander, General William Hazen (who had recommended Bierce for admission to the military academy at West Point) re-commissioned him in 1866 to take part in an inspection tour of Great Plains Army outposts, a journey which ended up in San Francisco, California. There, Bierce was awarded the largely ceremonial rank of “brevet major” and resigned from the Army forever.

It was there, in San Francisco, however, that Bierce seriously delved into his career as a newspaperman and writer. As a journalist, he attained great acclaim while working as a reporter and columnist for the Hearst family’s San Francisco Examiner, as well as for other publications. He would continue to write for Hearst papers until 1909, just five years before his disappearance and presumed death.
Battle scene from Kennesaw Mountain, where 3,000 Union
soldiers and a thousand Confederates were killed, and where 
Bierce was critically wounded.
Ambrose Bierce’s trenchant commentary and in-depth reporting not only brought him fame, but also the rancor of many of the powerful people he wrote about. It is to the credit of the highly controversial William Randolph Hearst—who in the 1880s inherited the Examiner at age twenty-three and with whom Bierce had an often combative relationship—that, despite what must have been intense pressure to fire Bierce with the aim of silencing him, the famed newspaper owner kept the writer on his payroll for decades. The opposition pressure on Bierce himself was such that he is said to have started carrying a pistol with him wherever he went. As I have learned in my own career as a journalist, if you please everyone with what you write, you’re not doing your job. If you write an in-depth piece or an editorial that elicits praise but no opposition, you need to ask yourself what you’re doing wrong...or find another profession. The irascible if cruelly witty Bierce was the clear embodiment of this principle.
Bierce in the early 20th century
But he was also—like many journalists who are writers first and foremost—a multi-faceted artist who also excelled in satire, short story writing, fantasy and early sci-fi, humor, criticism and poetry above and beyond his notable work as a newsman. Some of his best known work, as O’Connor points out, was based on his vast military and combat experience during the Civil War.
What I’ve been mulling over recently, however, is less about his writing than about his way of approaching life. After an admirable career as a man of letters, Bierce could easily have retired, written the odd story or commentary, traveled a bit, dabbled in his memoirs and been the toast of the town. But that would have been completely out of character for Ambrose Bierce. He was a man of action.
In 1913, at age seventy-one—in an era when the average male life-expectancy in the US was between forty and fifty—Ambrose Bierce had already lived to a ripe old age. But what was left, he must have wondered, to sit in a rocker on the porch and wait for death? Not likely. He hadn’t been a particularly good husband or father, but now even those tenuous ties were pretty much gone. His former wife, Molly Day, had passed away some time before this, but he had already been estranged from her for years by the time she died. Of his three children, only his daughter, Helen, who was nearly forty years old by this time, was left. One of his sons, Raymond Day, had committed suicide in 1889 at age seventeen, and the other one, Leigh, had died of alcoholism-related pneumonia in 1901, aged twenty-seven.     
Some accounts claim that the thought of being put out to pasture was weighing heavily on Bierce when he decided that sitting still wasn’t an option if one was alive, and set off on what was very probably his last great adventure. There are a number of conflicting accounts of where Bierce went and what happened to him, but the most plausible story appears to be that he started out from Washington DC on a research tour of Civil War battlefields that eventually led him to the Texas border with Mexico. He is thought to have crossed the border at El Paso.
Francisco "Pancho" Villa
In Mexico, Bierce supposedly gave free reign to a fantasy he had entertained for some time of catching up to famed Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and riding with him as an observer. Some accounts say that he joined up with Villa in Ciudad Juárez and was at least with the revolutionary for the Battle of Tierra Blanca, which was fought thirty-five miles south of Juárez and was considered a major win for Villa over forces loyal to Mexico’s ruler, Victoriano Huerta.
From there on, the story becomes hazy and speculative. Some versions have Bierce being executed by a detachment of federales for his relationship with Pancho Villa. Others have him being shot as a spy by a rebel firing squad. One town even claims that it was there that he died and has erected a monument that is visited by tourists. But the body of Ambrose Bierce was never found.          
Mexican military ruler Victoriano Huerta
There are strong indications that Bierce accompanied Villa’s army to the city of Chihuahua in northwestern Mexico. In a last letter to his niece, Lora, Bierce is purported to have said that he was writing to say good-bye. “What an intolerable world this would be,” he wrote, “if we said nothing but what is worth saying! And did nothing foolish—like going into Mexico and South America.”
He added that “if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs.”
His last communication read: “I don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much. Adios.”
Much of Bierce’s fiction is said by critics to highlight “the inscrutability of life and the absurdity of death.” His own disappearance and probably violent death ended up being as inscrutable as it was absurd for a man of his age and literary stature.
Whatever the case may be, while some observers have claimed it was tantamount to suicide for Ambrose Bierce to wonder into the Mexico of Huerta and Villa like some ad hoc septuagenarian foreign correspondent, I consider it a declaration of independence and freedom, and an act of uncommon courage. It was a clear choice to live life to the fullest, right up to his last breath. It’s a philosophy each of us facing the so-called “golden years” might do well to ponder and, to the extent that we can, and each in our own way, to imitate, in the interest of making the absurd worthwhile.

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