Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Notes for June 24th, 2009


This Day In Writing History

On June 24th, 1842, the writer, satirist, and journalist Ambrose Bierce was born in Meigs County, Ohio. He was the tenth of thirteen children, all bearing first names that began with the letter A. He grew up in Kosciusko County, Indiana, where his poor but intellectual parents instilled in him a deep love for books and reading.

When he was fifteen, Ambrose Bierce left home to become a printer's devil (apprentice) at a small Ohio newspaper. In 1861, when the Civil War broke out, Bierce enlisted in the Union Army's 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment. The following year, he was made a First Lieutenant and served on the staff of General William Babcock Hazen as a topographical engineer, mapping out likely battlefields. He fought in the Battle of Shiloh, which at the time was the bloodiest battle in U.S. history. Bierce used the terrifying experience as the source for several short stories and a memoir, What I Saw Of Shiloh.

Bierce continued fighting in the war and received recognition for his daring rescue of a seriously wounded comrade under fire in the Battle of Rich Mountain, West Virginia. In June of 1864, Bierce himself was seriously wounded at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain. He spent the summer on furlough and returned to active duty in September. He was discharged in January 1865, but resumed his military career in the summer of 1866, when he rejoined General Hazen on an expedition to inspect military outposts in the Great Plains.

In San Francisco, after receiving the rank of Brevet Major, Bierce resigned from the Army. He remained in San Francisco, where he became famous as both a contributor and editor for many local newspapers and periodicals. On Christmas Day, 1871, he married his girlfriend, Mary Ellen "Mollie" Day. She bore him two sons and a daughter, but the couple would separate in 1888 when Bierce discovered letters from a lover that constituted proof of Mollie's infidelity. They finally divorced in 1904. Mollie died a year later. Bierce's sons died before him; his son Day was shot in a dispute over a woman, and his other son Leigh died of pneumonia - a complication of his alcoholism.

Ambroce Bierce lived in England from 1872-75, where he wrote and contributed to magazines. He returned to San Francisco, then left again to manage a mining company in the Dakota Territory. After the company failed, he went back to San Francisco and resumed his career as a journalist. In 1887, he published a column called Prattle, becoming one of the first columnists and editorialists for William Randolph Hearst's newspaper, The San Francisco Examiner.

In January of 1896, Hearst sent Bierce to Washington, D.C. to foil the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies' plan to have a Congressional ally sneak in a bill that excused the companies from having to repay massive government loans to build the First Transcontinental Railroad. Bierce's coverage of the story - and his scathing satirical diatribes - resulted in such public outrage that the bill was defeated.

Bierce's sardonic view of human nature and scathing satire earned him the nickname "Bitter Bierce." Despite his reputation, he was also known to encourage young writers to pursue and perfect their craft, including poet George Sterling and writer W.C. Morrow.

As a writer himself, Ambrose Bierce was known for both his horror stories, which were on a par with Edgar Allan Poe, and his satircal works. His best known horror story was An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, published in 1891. It told the tale of a Confederate saboteur, Peyton Farquhar, who is caught and sentenced to be hung from Owl Creek Bridge. At the hanging, the rope breaks and Farquhar falls into the water. He escapes and makes it to dry land. From there, as he tries to get home to his family, Farquhar finds that his senses have been heightened to superhuman proportions. He also experiences visual and auditory hallucinations. When he finally arrives home and runs to his wife - just as he reaches out to her - Farquhar feels a searing pain in his neck and all goes black. It is revealed that he never escaped at all. He dreamed the whole thing just as he was hung, before the rope broke his neck.

An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge was adapted numerous times, the most famous adaptation being a French short film made in 1963 called La Rivière du Hibou, directed by Robert Enrico. It won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject and was later aired on American television as an episode of the brilliant and acclaimed 1959-64 TV series, The Twilight Zone.

Ambrose Bierce was most famous for his satirical masterpiece, The Devil's Dictionary. Published in 1911, The Devil's Dictionary was a scathing, book-length parody of Webster's Dictionary, filled with humorous definitions of various words, such as:

LAWYER, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.

PATRIOT, n.
One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.

CLERGYMAN, n. A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering his temporal ones.


The end of Ambrose Bierce's life turned out to be so strange that, had he lived, he might have written a short story about it. In October of 1913, at the age of 71, Bierce embarked on a tour of his old Civil War battlefields. In December, after visiting locations in Louisiana and Texas, Bierce crossed the border into Mexico, where he became involved with the Mexican Revolution. He joined Pancho Villa's army as an observer, and later witnessed the Battle of Tierra Blanca.

Bierce followed Villa's army as far as Chihuahua. He wrote a letter to his close friend Blanche Partington, which was dated December 26, 1913. Then he mysteriously disappeared, vanishing without a trace - one of the most famous disappearances in literary history. Some writers have speculated that Bierce headed North to the Grand Canyon, where he committed suicide in a remote location. No evidence exists to prove this theory or the countless other theories about what happened to Bierce. All investigations into his fate have thus far proved fruitless.


Quote Of The Day

"The slightest acquaintance with history shows that powerful republics are the most warlike and unscrupulous of nations." - Ambrose Bierce


Vanguard Video

Today's video features a reading of Ambrose Bierce's short story, A Baby Tramp. Enjoy!


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