Chapter One: Direst of all Disasters
In the early spring of 1882, all San Francisco was abuzz over the rarefied presence of London's reigning literary lion, Oscar Wilde, in town for a series of public lectures on the future of art in the philistine world. The flamboyant Wilde was then in the midst of a 105-city tour of darkest America, spreading his gospel of transcendent estheticism to a degraded people who could not even make a decent cup of tea. In a specially tailored black velvet dress coat, knee-length breeches, and sheer silk stockings, he was the walking embodiment of what he humbly termed "the science of the beautiful" and he inspired in his wake an army of limpid-eyed, flower-toting followers and a blizzard of favorable press clippings fit, he noted proudly, for a petit roi. Not all journalists, however, were such willing subjects, even in historically live-and-let-live San Francisco. One in particular was quite clearly not amused. Ambrose Bierce, editor of the aptly named weekly Wasp and Wilde's closest American counterpart in the near-lethal practice of aphorism and retort, noted the visit in his March 31 column."That sovereign of insufferables, Oscar Wilde," he groused to his readers, "has ensued with his opulence of twadle and his penury of sense. He has mounted his hind legs and blown crass vapidities through the bowel of his neck, to the capital edification of circumjacent fools and foolesses. The ineffable dunce has nothing to say and says it with a liberal embellishment of bad delivery, embroidering it with reasonless vulgarities of attitude, gesture and attire. There never was an impostor so hateful, a blockhead so stupid, a crank so variously and offensively daft. He makes me tired."
Wilde had unwittingly irritated Bierce from a continent away upon his arrival in New York, by calling satire an art form that was "as sterile as it is shameful, and as impotent as it is insolent." Bierce, who was neither sterile nor impotent, knew no shame, but he was nevertheless insolent enough to take offense at the new arrival's casual dig at his own preferred method of verbal warfare. "This gawky gowk," he wrote in Wasp, "has the divine effrontery to link his name with those of Swinburne, Rossetti and Morris--this dunghill he-hen would fly with eagles. This littlest and looniest of a brotherhood of simpletons, whom the wicked wits of London, haling him dazed from obscurity, have crowned and crucified as King of the Cranks, has accepted the distinction in stupid good faith and our foolish people take him at his world." Bierce's own crankiness was equally regal, and his literary eminence was at least as self-confirmed as Wilde's, but the foppish young Irishman was not alone in tiring him. Many things wearied Ambrose Bierce: preachers, politicians, doctors, lawyers, capitalists, socialists, jingoists, anarchists, immigrants, women, bohemians, and dogs. Indiana rhymester James Whitcomb Riley--a particular Biercian bete noire--was close to the point when he archly observed that "Bierce edits God."
It was not so much that Bierce edited God, as that he audited Him. In an age of gilded ritual and reflexive cant overlying a slippery social network of hypocrisy and greed, Bierce had given himself the task of telling the truth. It was a lonely and thankless role, and one that would eventually wear him (and those around him) out. But until it did, not even the perfumed eloquence of Oscar Wilde could daunt this teller of unpopular truths. For forty fierce and contentious years, as a newspaper columnist, short-story writer, and tireless moral arbiter, Bierce prowled his territory as ceaselessly and unforgivingly as a church deacon scans the pews, ever vigilant for backsliding and fallings-off. And if, in his "private system of morality," such sins were literary rather than spiritual, it was nevertheless his duty to denounce and decry. A nonbelieving puritan, he came from a long line of churchgoing New Englanders, men whose fundamental values--honesty, hard work, and personal rectitude--he consistently honored through his actions, even as he frequently mocked them with his words.
Not that Bierce looked to his ancestors for guidance. "I know a man," he once said, speaking of himself, "to whose character not an ancestor since the seventeenth century appears to have contributed an element." Given the fact that the first Bierce to walk upright on American soil arrived from England at precisely that time, he would seem to be rejecting the entire paternal branch of the family. Certainly he rejected their overt religiosity. His great-great-great-great-grandfather, Augustin Bearse (as the name was then spelled), had once carried his newborn son two miles through a swirling snowstorm to have the baby baptized in the local church to save its soul from infant damnation. Ambrose, his most famous descendant, doubtless heard the story of that wintry walk of faith, but if it was intended to instill a similar piety in him, it had rather the opposite effect. All his life, Bierce savagely skewered organized religion, which he defined in his book The Devils Dictionary as "a daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the Unknowable." Likewise, he considered faith "belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel." As for Christians, he considered them to be, his ancestors included, men who "follow the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin." Bierce himself was many things, but he was seldom inconsistent, particularly when it came to religion, or his lack thereof. He never missed an opportunity to scoff and scorn.
Had it somehow been possible for Bierce to meet the founder of the American branch of the family, Augustin would doubtless have disowned him at once. In 1638, at the age of twenty, Augustin (later shortened to Austin) Bearse had immigrated to Massachusetts from Southampton, England, the southernmost rip of Thomas Hardy's Wessex and a Royalist stronghold with little of the fundamentalist fervor that young Bearse brought with him, like a virus, to the New World. That fervor had long since abated by the time Ambrose arrived on the scene. Between Austin, described in ancient Massachusetts histories as "one of the very few against whom there was no complaint," and Ambrose, against whom there were multitudinous complaints, lay an unbridgeable gulf of philosophy and experience. Young Goodman Bearse, one of 110 passengers to sail from Southampton on Master John Jobson's good ship Confidence, was hardworking, God-fearing, and family-loving. He met his future wife, Mary Wilder, on the voyage across the Atlantic, and, in accordance with the fashion of the day, he honored his mother-in-law, Martha, by naming his second-born daughter after her. He settled on twelve acres of stony land in Barnstable, Massachusetts (on Cape Cod), and within a few years' time, he had expanded his ownership to an even fifty acres of land and two small islands, still known locally as Bearse's Islands. As a charter member of the Reverend John Lothrop's Baptist Church, Austin was said to have "brought up his family to be like himself--useful members of society." Against this backdrop of rock-ribbed New England piety (Lothrop, who was once literally thrown into the Clink for his religious views, considered Boston's flinty Puritans too liberal for his taste), Austin founded a family tradition of long lives, large families, and financial success. In the all-too-common American way, his descendants also served loyally in King Philip's War, the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, and the Mexican War, rendering unto various Caesars the same devotion to duty that they faithfully exhibited in their churches on Sunday. When the time came for Ambrose Bierce to pick up a rifle in the Civil War, he had a long military tradition behind him, and an even longer religious one to justify it.
But family traditions meant little to Bierce, and family trees even less. His one recorded bow to his ancestors reads, in part: "My country, 'tis of thee, / Sweet land of felony, / Of thee I sing-- / Land where my fathers fried / Young witches and applied / Whips to the Quaker's hide / And made him spring." Genealogy itself, the study of those fryers, he considered an "account of one's descent from an ancestor who did not particularly want to trace his own." Actually, it would have been quite easy for Bierce to trace himself back to his upright forebears; he never tried. It is safe to say that if any child could have entered the world without the unwanted encumbrance of inconvenient relatives, Bierce would have been the first. His parents were as much an embarrassment to him as he was, no doubt, a puzzlement to them--"unwashed savages," he called them. Given their strict fundamentalist upbringing and his own lifelong obsession with cleanliness, it is unlikely that they were that. Instead, they were humble, devout, sin-defying frontier people, saddled already with nine hungry children by the time Ambrose carne along on June 24, 1842, to add his somewhat dandified name to the long list of A's in the well-thumbed family Bible. His father, for unfathomable reasons probably having to do with his own extravagant name--Marcus Aurelius--amused himself by giving each of his progeny names beginning with the letter A: Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, and Ambrose.
At the time of his birth, Bierce's family was living in the ramshackle religious community of Horse Cave Creek, Ohio, having made its way across the intervening two centuries from Barnstable, Massachusetts, through Cornwall, Connecticut, to the old Western reserve of northern Ohio, and thence southward for a time to Horse Cave Creek. The region was a hotbed of revivalist frenzy, full of spirit-rappers, tongue-talkers, stump-shouters, and psalm-singers. Some early Bierce biographers have maintained that his parents somehow stood apart from the nightly open-air revels out of a more fastidious approach to the practice of religion. But this ignores the fact that back in Cornwall, where they were born, they had been raised in an equally fervid, albeit somewhat more refined, religious environment. As members of the First Congregational Church of Christ, Marcus Bierce and Laura Sherwood had regularly flinched and shied along with other Cornwallian children under the never-sleeping eye of the Reverend Timothy Stone, a Jonathan Edwards acolyte whose proudest boast was of stamping out youthful dancing for the entire twenty years of his pastorage. Stone, who labored under the rather serious professional handicap of a partially paralyzed mouth, was considered--unsurprisingly--a poor preacher. He made up for his oratorical shortcomings with ferocious week-long revivals that literally scared hell out of his young charges, many of whom would tearfully descend on the altar, begging to know what they could do to be saved. (To begin with, Stone insisted, they should remove their hats in his presence.) Given that mortifying background, and their later attendance at similar fire-and-brimstone revivals in Indiana, it is unlikely that the Bierces simply stayed home knitting when the holy spirit was working on their neighbors.
Marcus, the son of a Revolutionary War veteran who had been with Washington at Valley Forge, married well; Laura Sherwood was the daughter of the head deacon of the Reverend Stone's church and a direct descendant of William Bradford of Mayflower fame. (On Marcus's side, too, there seems to have been a Mayflower connection, through his great-great-grandmother, Experience Howland Bierce.) His marriage, unfortunately, was about the only successful event in Marcus Bierce's life. Tall, shambling. and slow to speak, he dutifully excelled at the two family distinctions: making babies and living long lives. It was the more prosaic business in between that seemed to baffle him. At various times a farmer, a shopkeeper, a property assessor, and--somewhat hilariously, given his own lifelong struggle against poverty--a county overseer of the poor, Marcus dutifully labored in the vineyards and churches of mid-nineteenth-century America. His heart, however, was somewhere else--specifically, in his library. For Marcus Bierce, calloused hands and all, was something of an esthete, at least by contemporary mid-western standards. His personal collection of books was said to be the largest in the county, and it was in that library, reading alone, that his tenth child, Ambrose, first became acquainted with the enduring consolations of serious literature. A possibly apocryphal story has young Ambrose, aged ten, poring over a copy of Pope's translation of the Iliad in his father's far meadow, the wind gently rustling his sandy blond hair. It is a pleasant, if somewhat implausible, image, more appropriate to a budding romantic poet than an unexceptional Hoosier farm boy. But indoors or out, Ambrose did avail himself of the old man's surprisingly worldly library (Marcus was a closet admirer of Byron and the reigning gothic novelists of the day). He may even have read the penny-dreadful play that gave him his name, Ambrose Gwinett: or A Sea-Side Story, by the little-known English dramatist Douglas Jerrold, since Bierce's most famous short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," shares the play's basic plot contrivance of a young man miraculously surviving--or seeming to survive--a hanging. Where his family was concerned, Bierce was notably frugal with compliments, but he later called his father, apparently without irony, "a man of considerable scholarship," adding, "All that I have I owe to his books."
His mother was another matter. Although she did, presumably, transmit some of William Bradford's writing genes to her youngest surviving child, Laura Bierce gave Ambrose little else--at least by his own after-the-fact accounting. Bierce never wrote his memoirs, and few of his acquaintances ever heard him mention his family or his childhood. But like other writers before and since, he managed from time to time to sneak into his stories certain amount of unassimilated autobiographical baggage. And judging by the psychological implications of such hair-raising tales as "My Favorite Murder," "Oil of Dog," "An Imperfect Conflagration," and "The Hypnotist," collected by Bierce under the pointed rubic The Parenticide Club, it would seem that their author was--to say the least--a man with a less-than-normal relationship with his parents. "Having murdered my mother under circumstances of singular atrocity," he starts one story. Another begins: "Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father--an act which made a deep impression on me at the time." The singularly ugly story "The Hypnotist" ends with the title character entrancing his parents into thinking they are wild stallions; they then kick and stomp each other to death while the narrator looks on impassively, noting with a certain mordant satisfaction that now "the author of the strife was an orphan." The fact that these stories were intended to be--and are, in a somewhat grisly way--funny makes them seem, if anything, even more terrible. A writer capable of turning his pious, family-centered parents into slack-jawed abortionists and child-murderers, as Bierce does in jest in "Oil of Dog," is not exactly a model of filial devotion.
Relatives of Bierce later insisted that the writer did not really hate his parents, and probably he did not, at least on an active, day-to-day basis. Instead, he seems to have held them in, or slightly beneath, contempt, blaming them for the poverty he felt he had suffered, both physically and emotionally, when he was a child. To be sure, life in Kosciusko County, Indiana, where the family removed when he was four, was hardly a soft and leisurely existence. Warsaw, the closest settlement, was three miles away, and the fledgling northern Indiana town supported only a sawmill, a log schoolhouse, the inevitable church, and a few rough cabins. (Ironically, by the time a second noted American writer, Theodore Dreiser, moved to Warsaw four decades later, the town, with its surfeit of clear lakes and good fishing, had become something of a vacation resort. This was no consolation to Dreiser: He and his family were socially ostracized after one of his sisters ran off with the local pharmacist and a second got herself pregnant by a wealthy man-about-town, the banal and sordid genesis of his great novels Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy.) Marcus and the older boys immediately took to the fields, clearing land for a permanent dwelling alongside Goose Creek, within sight of the Tippecanoe River two miles away. In the time-honored way of the American frontier, work was plentiful and luxuries scarce. Still, the Bierces lived no more meanly than most of their neighbors, and better than some. Given the fact that Bierce himself was spared much of the physical labor, then and later, and was untypically permitted to attend school until the age of fourteen, his later remark, "In the wilds of the 'Far West' we had to grub out a very difficult living," should be taken with a certain pinch of salt. His own impoverishment was more psychic than physical, and it appears to have been largely self-induced. Simply put--such things, of course, are never truly simple--Bierce blamed his mother for not loving him enough.
Feeling deprived, or at least ignored, the boy reacted in a typical fashion: He withdrew. Whereas his older brothers and sisters seemed to enjoy reasonably pleasant relations with their parents (one of his brothers, Andrew, lived with his mother and father all their lives), Ambrose gloomily kept to himself, spending as little time as possible around the family home. In a parody of the sunny tripe that fellow Hoosier James Whitcomb Riley was then foisting shamelessly on the American public, Bierce apostrophized "the malarial farm, the wet fungus grown wildwood, / The chills then contracted that since have remained. / The scum-covered duck pond, the pigsty close by it, / The ditch where the sour-smelling house drainage fell; / The dark, shaded dwelling, the foul barnyard nigh it"--and so on. Unmediated loathing of his boyhood surroundings stayed with Ambrose all his life.
His parents, no doubt, did their best by him, but they were harried by debts and grief-stricken over the deaths of their three youngest children: Arthur, who died in 1846 at the age of nine months, and the twin girls, Adelia and Aurelia, who succumbed separately within two years of their birth in 1848. Infant mortality, of course, was no stranger to American families of the time, and the Bierces, as Christians, were fully reconciled to God's inscrutable will. But the couple had never lost a child until their eleventh died, and it is likely that the household was even heavier with consolatory religion than might ordinarily have been the case. Ambrose, typically, never spoke of his siblings' deaths or admitted any sympathy for his suffering parents. Indeed, he satirized his grieving mother as the pious old lady at home after service singing "Plunged in a Gulf of Dark Despair." For his father, he had slightly more sympathy, though colored always by a contingent wit. In a later short story, "Three and Three Are One" (which ends with the hero's entire family being killed by an artillery shell), Bierce gives a thinly disguised description of Marcus; "The elder Lassiter had that severity of manner that so frequently affirms an uncompromising devotion to duty, and conceals a warm and affectionate disposition. He was of the iron of with martyrs are made, but in the heart of the matrix had lurked a nobler metal, fusible at a milder heat, yet never coloring nor softening the hard exterior." Perhaps in frustration at his son's surly nature, or perhaps in reaction to his own unassuaged grief, Marcus frequently took a rod to Ambrose's back--with the predictable result of making the boy even more fractious and slow to obey. "Disobedience," Bierce jeered forty years later, "is the silver lining to the cloud of servitude. Had not our pious parent administered daily rebukes with such foreign bodies as he could lay his hands on, we might have grown up a Presbyterian deacon. Look at us now!"
Bierce's mother, in particular; could do little right in her son's eyes. Once, when he was small, Ambrose asked her if there really was a Santa Claus. She assured him, as parents will, that there was, but he soon found out the truth, probably from his older brothers. Then, said Bierce, "I proceeded fortwith to detest my deceiver with all my little might and main. And even now I can not say that I experience any consuming desire to renew my acquaintance with her in that other life to which, she also assured me, we hasten hence." Most children do not permanently part with their mothers over the question of Santa Claus, but Bierce had a lengthy memory. John Dos Passos once said that Ernest Hemingway was the only man he had ever met who truly hated his mother, but Dos Passos never met Ambrose Bierce. Ever afterward, Bierce despised Christmas as a particularly bogus holiday. His idea of a properly festive meal, he wrote, was "just a baby's body / Done to a nutty brown," and "as to drink / About a half a jug of blood, I think." The real nub of the problem, of course, was not Christmas or Santa Claus--it was his mother. As Bierce himself described it, "The human heart has a definite quantity of affection. The more objects it is bestowed upon. the less each object will get." There were a lot of children in Laura Bierce's household.
Such intense, conflicted feelings toward one's mother must find a psychic outlet somewhere. For Bierce, his sense of familial estrangement manifested itself in a series of vivid nightmares, dreams so terrible that he could still recall them half a century later. In one, he found himself traveling at night through a fire-ravaged countryside. Pools of dark water lay on the ground, as though an apocalyptic fire had been followed immediately by a drenching rain. To the west, a crimson light burned inside a ruined fortress. Reaching the ruins, he wandered through the deserted works until he came to a large vacant room where a body lay abandoned on a bed. Gazing down, he saw with horror that the corpse's staring eyes and frozen features were his own. A second dream was even more frightening. He was walking alone--"in my bad dreams, I am always alone"--through a weird forest within which a dark brook flowed sluggishly with blood. The stream's source he traced to a white marble tank filled with blood, around which scores of dead bodies had been symmetrically arranged, each lying on its back with its throat cut, oozing still more blood. He had the unshakable sense that the murders were the direct result of some crime he had committed but could not remember, "a natural and necessary result of my offense." In such dreams, Bierce experienced the Nietzschean vision of a God-abandoned universe, one in which "Man is long ago dead in every zone, / The angels are all gone in graves unknown: / The devils, too, are cold enough at last, / And God lies dead before a great white throne!"
It doesn't take a trained psychologist to find in these dreams a deep sense of self-loathing, alienation, and unlovableness, resulting in a violent pathological reaction against one's parents for giving one birth, defined by Bierce as "the first and direst of all disasters." They are, in a way, the dreams of a serial killer, the only difference being that, in Bierce's case, the killings take place on the written page, in a succession of gory, macabre, and heartless stories in which more or less innocent people are variously hanged, strangled, shot, stomped, roasted, toasted, and boiled in oil. A few even die, perhaps mercifully, of fright. For a child such as Bierce, who had seen three younger siblings die in quick succession and his parents withdraw into broodful mourning, the sense of personal vulnerability must have been at times overwhelming.
This existential sense of aloneness carried over to his no doubt mystified family. Only his brother Albert, who was closest to him in age, became anything like a boon companion. Albert, nicknamed "Grizzly," was as easygoing and openhearted as Ambrose was closed off and wound tight. The two once scandalized their parents at an outdoor revival by draping straw over an unfortunate horse, setting the straw afire, and driving the frantic animal into the tent about the time the traveling preacher was reaching his well-practiced peroration about "Saul of Catarrhsus." In what probably qualifies as an understatement, Albert later observed that where their mother was concerned, he and Ambrose "did not make life as pleasant for her as we might have." As for his other brothers and sisters, Bierce considered them either too old, too obedient, too straitlaced, or too conventional for his own hotly blooming rebelliousness. The girls, like their mother, were the picture of virtue; one, Almeda, later became a missionary in Africa, where she died, it was rumored, after reading a collection of brother Ambrose's irreligious musings. (A second legend has it that she was eaten by cannibals--either way, it was an unlikely death.) The other boys, wrote Bierce, were "as nice, well-behaved a bevy of boys as ever you saw, They always attended Sunday School regularly, waiting with pious patience for the girls to come forth. They were an obedient seven, too; they knew well enough the respect due to parental authority, and when their father told them what was what, and which side up it ought to lie, they never tarried until he had more than picked up a hickory cudgel before tacitly admitting the correctness of riper judgment."
Not even Gus, who later topped the scales at an epic three hundred pounds, or Addison, who became a strongman in a traveling circus, much impressed their sharp-tongued younger brother. And after a third brother, Aurelius, died in a carpentering accident at the early age--particularly for a Bierce--of thirty-two, a less-than-grief-stricken Ambrose memorialized him in a newspaper column as "Mr. Bildad Snobblepopkin, whose life furnishes an instructive lesson to fast livers." Aurelius/Snobblepopkin, wrote Bierce, "never tasted ardent spirits, ate spiced meats, or sat up later than nine o'clock. [He] rose, summer and winter, at two a.m., and passed an hour and three quarters immersed in ice water. For the last twenty years he has walked fifteen miles daily before breakfast, and then gone without breakfast. Up to the time of his death he had never spoken to a doctor, never had occasion to curse a dentist. If he had not been cut off by a circular saw at the early age of thirty-two, there is no telling how long he might have weathered it through. A life like this is so bright and shining an example that we are almost sorry he died." The resemblance, both physical and spiritual, between Aurelius and their father may have prompted the heavy-handed outburst, which even for Bierce was rather excessive.
Outside the family, Bierce found the social pickings equally sparse. Although he dutifully trudged three miles to school each day from Walnut Creek in country-bumpkin brogans and homespun shirts, Ambrose made few close friends among his classmates. Even the girl who would later become his first sweetheart, Bernice Wright, could muster only a vague memory of the younger Ambrose (whom she called Bradly) during their schooling. It was understandable; in the rough-and-tumble milieu of the rustic schoolyard Bierce resolutely stood apart, taking no interest in organized athletics, autumn hayrides, or winter dances. He later observed, with a certain wistful defiance, that he could never tell the difference between "Tick-tack-toe, Blind-man's bluff, and Simon-says-wig-wag." As for baseball and other popular sports, they were merely "the last shifts of intellectual vacuity militant against the Siren song of natural stagnation." He preferred to exercise alone, taking long walks in the woods around Warsaw, where he acquired a lifelong affinity for small animals, particularly those that were typically unloved--snakes and lizards being among his favorites. Dogs, on the other hand, with their slavish need for affection and approval, he always loathed; they were, he grumbled, "reekers, leakers, smilers and defilers." Not did he much like cats. In one tall tale, "Cargo of Car," he happily dispatched six thousand of the ship's felines by drowning. In typical adolescent fashion, Bierce walked abroad, brooding about his parents, his teachers, his classmates, and himself. Fifty years later, he still recalled the overwhelming disgust he felt within for the outside world. "Youth sees the nasty world stretched out before him," he told his publisher, Walter Neale. "He can go far in no direction without stepping into a cesspool. To him it is astonishing that his predecessors had not cleaned it up." Revealingly, the only surviving relic of his isolate schooldays is a handwritten copy of a child's epitaph, taken off a headstone in the local cemetery: "She tasted of life's bitter cup / refused to drink her potion up / But turned her little head aside / disgusted with the taste and died." One senses that Bierce, like Thomas Gray, spent a lot of time in country graveyards.
When he turned fifteen, Ambrose left the family farm for good. Apparently with his parents' blessing, he moved into Warsaw and went to work as a printer's devil on editor Reuben Williams's newly minted abolitionist newspaper, the Northern Indianan. At the same time, he also moved into the Williams household, taking his meals with the family. This was a traditional step for bookish, literary-minded youths, as the fond reminiscences of Mark Twain, Benjamin Franklin, William Dean Howells, and other beginning American writers attest. It also had--for what it was worth--Marcus Bierce's wholehearted support, since Marcus was an early antislavery advocate who carefully pasted articles from other abolitionist newspapers into his homemade scrapbook, alongside such excruciatingly banal domestic verses as "Daughter's First Walking," "The Little Girl's Lament for Her Country Home," and--perhaps pointedly--"Cheerfulness in a Young Wife." Surprisingly, Bierce never mentioned his professional apprenticeship, an omission that may be explained by the local legend that he left the newspaper after being falsely accused (and subsequently cleared) of theft.
Whatever the reason for his abrupt departure from Warsaw journalism, the troubled teen was now taken in hand by his uncle, the family's resident great man, Lucius Verus Bierce. Lucius was Marcus's younger brother, but in all matters save the order of their births, Lucius was clearly the dominant male. He was the first to leave home, heading out at the precocious age of fifteen with a mere nickel to his name in search of a college education. For the next five years, he attended Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in 1822. Then, perhaps foreshadowing his famous nephew's subsequent writing career and restless, wandering spirit, he embarked on a year-long walking tour of the South, a trek he later chronicled in a book, Travels in the Southland. Returning to Ohio, he studied law, opened a practice, and entered wholeheartedly into the breezy political give-and-take of Whig-dominated upstate Ohio. By the time Ambrose turned up on his doorstep in early 1859, Lucius had been mayor of Akron four different times, and he was a founding member of the state Republican party.
Colorful, combative Uncle Lucius was everything Bierce's father was not, and it is likely that Ambrose modeled himself, at least in part, after his rowdy, larger-than-life relative. As far back as his great-great-great-uncle Joseph, who had fought with the British in King Philip's War, there was a family tradition of military service; and Lucius, despite the unfortunate handicap of living in an era of national peace, managed to find, by looking hard enough, his own war to fight, As a boy, Ambrose must have heard many times the story of Uncle Lucius's dramatic role in the abortive "liberation" of Canada. A longtime member of the Ohio militia and a leading figure in the secret military society known variously as the Hunters and Chasers of the Eastern Frontier, the Patriots, and the Grand Eagles, Lucius helped raise a ragtag force of five hundred disaffected Canadians, Americans, and Polish adventurers to invade Windsor, Ontario, and free the country from the presumably hateful British yoke. On December 3, 1838, "General" Bierce, as he now styled himself, led a contingent of volunteers across Lake Erie aboard a captured passenger steamer and set fire to the British barracks at Windsor. Then, foolishly dividing his forces, he moved into town with thirty men while the rest of the attackers incautiously bivouacked in a nearby apple orchard. Later that morning, an Anglo-Canadian militia force fell on the orchard, killing or capturing all the invaders camping there. Lucius and the others managed to commandeer a few canoes and paddle back across the Detroit River to U.S. territory, their return trip rather less grand than their embarkation.
Subsequently, five of the captured invaders were hanged, and the rest were transported to Van Diemen's Land, Tasmania, which was about as far from Lake Erie as one could physically get. Lucius himself was prosecuted for violating American neutrality laws, but the indictments were quashed by popular demand. He returned to Akron with a new nickname, "The Hero of Windsor," and a captured British officer's sword that he carried with him for the rest of his life. Politically, the fiasco did him little harm, although one unfriendly Whig newspaper later groused that the only reason he had been nominated for the post of public prosecutor was because his supporters "supposed he would run well in Summitt because he [had] run so well at Windsor."
By the mid-1850s, Lucius had another noble cause to espouse, this one somewhat closer to home: abolishing slavery in the American South. Since first seeing a slave auction in Charleston, South Carolina, on his youthful journey across the region, Lucius had been an ardent abolitionist, ever willing to put his money and his mouth to good use in the ongoing struggle against the "peculiar institution." By a curious coincidence, in 1855 he found himself in a position to aid materially the abolitionist cause. One of his friends and neighbors in Akron was a wild-haired, cold-eyed fellow-Connecticut emigrant named John Brown. As an attorney, Lucius was well acquainted with the chronically litigious Brown, who also happened to be a coreligionist in the local Congregational church (although much more fervent--fanatical, really--than the increasingly skeptical Lucius). Following passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and the subsequent outbreak of violence in the affected territories, Brown determined to follow his erratic star and join the antislavery forces there. When he left Ohio, he took with him, compliments of Lucius Bierce, a wagonload of arms and ammunition somewhat questionably appropriated from a disbanded militia store in Tallmadge. Included in the haul were the broadswords carried by Lucius and his men in the Windsor campaign, the same broadswords that Brown and his henchmen would use to butcher a family of proslavery settlers on the banks of Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, a few months hence. If Lucius felt any complicity in the crime, he never let it bother him. When Brown was hanged in December 1859 for the bloody fiasco at Harpers Ferry, Lucius urged that Akron's courts and businesses be closed, and mourning bells tolled for a solid hour across the town. At a rally that evening, he gave his old friend a rousing send-off, praising him as "the first martyr in the irrepressible conflict of liberty with slavery." Said Lucius, "Thank God I furnished him with arms, and right good use did he make of them. Men like Brown may die, but their acts and principles will live forever." Unlike, one might add, their victims.
It is unclear how long Ambrose spent with his uncle in Akron (Lucius Bierce's donated papers burned up in a fire at Buchtel College, now the University of Akron, in 1899), but by the latter part of 1859, he was away at military school in Kentucky. Somehow, Lucius had persuaded the recalcitrant youth to enroll in the Kentucky Military Institute at Franklin Springs, a few miles west of the state capital at Frankfort. The school had been founded in 1847 by Col. Robert Thomas Pitcairn Allen, an 1834 graduate of West Point whose only previous claim to fame had been to burn down an old building on Academy grounds and thus get himself expelled for his troubles. Allen managed to win reinstatement from President Andrew Jackson (he eventually married Old Hickorys' niece), and he later served without particular distinction in the Seminole War. Under Allen, KMI became one of the South's most prestigious military schools, training a number of future Confederates, including Maj. Gen. Robert E. Hoke, one of Robert E. Lee's seemingly endless legion of brave and talented junior officers.
The school featured a demanding curriculum of Latin composition, English grammar, and American history, along with supplemental courses in architecture, political science, physiology, mathematics, constitutional law, and physical education. It also advertised, as an added attraction, "the distance of its location from the tempting and corrupting influences of the city"--that is, Frankfort. It was here, presumably, that Bierce acquired his characteristic military bearing and the useful skills of draftsmanship and cartography that would stand him in good stead in the years to come. Again, however, the documentary record is blank. The school, perhaps cursed by Allen's undergraduate caper, suffered two major fires in the decade of the 1850s, the second coming in Bierce's lone year of attendance, and the only tangible record of his presence at KMI is a catalog card listing him as "Bierce, Ambrose G., Ohio." The state reference might be to his place of birth, or it might signify his last known residence with his uncle in Akron. Either way, Bierce never referred to his undergraduate days at KMI, and by the summer of the next year, he was back in Indiana, although not back with his family.
The period between his leaving Kentucky Military Institute and the beginning of the Civil War nine months later was the first of several times in his normally crowded life when Bierce, perhaps clinically depressed, drifted without energy through a series of menial--not to say demeaning--jobs. Settling in Elkhart, thirty miles due north of Warsaw, he marked time for a while as a common laborer in a brickyard, then went to work as a combination waiter and clerk at A. E. Faber's all-purpose ice cream parlor, oyster bar, dry goods store, and tavern. Serving up sandwiches and beers to the boys in the back room, and bolts of fabric, tenpenny nails, and five-cent dishes of ice cream to the more respectable citizens up front, Bierce struck his new neighbors as a "rather queer and different" young man whose future prospects were a decidedly "poor chance," according to town historian Maurice Frink. If he followed the momentous presidential election that fall and the accelerating breakup of the national union, he left behind no record of personal involvement. He must have gone back and forth between Elkhart and Warsaw several times, however, as he managed to renew his acquaintance with former classmate Bernice Wright, whose father operated a Warsaw, boardinghouse. Bernice, whom Bierce had taken to calling, for some reason, Fatima, apparently took Brady's attention a good deal less seriously than he supposed; when he later sent her a rather delirious anonymous poem extolling the paradisaical nectar of her lips, she could not for the life of her puzzle out who it was she was supposed to have kissed, as the poet made clear, "twice . . . and only twice."
How long Bierce might have drifted along, swotting out a humdrum bluecollar existence as a military school dropout turned soda jerk, is anyone's guess. But in the spring of 1864, for the first time in his life, he got lucky, even if the rest of the country did not: The Civil War erupted at Fort Sumter. Inspired perhaps by his uncle's abolitionist leanings--to say nothing of his likely desire to escape a dead-end job in a lonely new town--Bierce became the second man in Elkhart County to enlist in the Union army after Abraham Lincoln's call to arms in April 1861. On the nineteenth day of that month, he signed his name to the enlistment rolls of Company C, Ninth Indiana Volunteers, commanded by local attorney Robert H. Milroy. The jaundiced young man who disliked his parents, his siblings, his schoolmates, his neighbors, and the world at large now had found, if only temporarily, a calling greater than his own inverted bitterness. "At one time in my green and salad days," he later wrote, "I was sufficiently zealous for Freedom to engage in a four years' battle for its promotion. There were other issues involved, but they did not count for much with me." Albert, too, soon joined the fold, enlisting in the Eighteenth Ohio Light Artillery, which Uncle Lucius personally raised after his appointment as the state's assistant adjutant general.
The regiment was due in Indianapolis in a week to start drilling, and Bierce, flushed with the sort of romanticized patriotism that was inducing young men on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line to pick up a rifle and march blithely off to war, had little time for long goodbyes. He did, however, deliver himself of a transparently Keatsian sonnet that he secretly sent to Bernice Wright. It was a rather strange conjoining of love and sin, understandable perhaps in a boy who was still struggling to recover from a severe childhood bout with organized religion. No doubt he was proud of the poem, as young poets usually are of their silly and derivative verses, and Bernice was probably flattered, if mystified, to read:
Fatima, should an angel come from heaven,All across the country, thousands of would-be Sir Richard Lovelaces were similarly bidding adieu to childhood sweethearts in that first fatal season of civil war. All the young men were marching off to war--or what they naively took war to be, a kind of high-spirited shoving match between two chivalrous and sporting opponents--and the only mercy in that childish image was that none of them could know how wrong it was, or how few of them would ever come marching home again once the war was over. Bierce would, but not for years, and by then he would be another person entirely from the callow, countrified teen who had reflexively answered his nation's call to arms. In the meantime, he would undergo an all-too-familiar rite of passage for American youths, a kind of reverse metamorphosis from carefree butterfly to cocooned moth, from boys playing tag in summer meadows to soldiers stalking death on ravaged fields. Still, in a curious though not entirely unpredictable way, the war would be good for Ambrose Bierce, as other wars have been good for other budding writers--those who survive them, anyway: It would give him a voice. And if anyone may be said to have been prepared for the human catastrophe about to occur, it was the dream-haunted, God-hating, graveyard-tromping Bierce. The whole country was about to turn into a cemetery, its best and its least lying down together on an impious altar of pride and hate. And somewhere in between, like Ishmael bobbing on Queequeg's coffin, the scarred survivor of a nightmare voyage, was eighteen-year-old Ambrose Bierce--seeing, feeling, and remembering.
Bright with celestial ardor from above,
And say no sin of mine should be forgiven,
Till I should cease to sigh for thy dear love,--
Though I'd acknowledge just was the decree,
(For how can I love God adoring thee),
I'd proudly point him back, to heaven, and say
"Give me her love,--wash not my sins away
But double them upon my head, and bid me go
When life is ended to the realms below.
Thy love, dear girl, is worth eternal woe,
And wouldst thou know whose heart thus yearns for thee
And if thou knew couldst deign to pardon me
Two moments sweet I've known in paradise:
Thy lips have twice met mine and only twice.
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