Ambrose Bierce

On this date in 1842, Ambrose Bierce was born in Ohio, and left home at 15 to work as a "printer's devil" for a newspaper. At 17, he was enrolled at Kentucky Military Institute, and enlisted in the Civil War at age 19 in 1861. His experiences in that bloody war resulted in his Edgar Allen Poe-like "western gothic" supernatural stories, numbering more than 90, most set in the Civil War, which he wrote in middle age. Following the war, the young man went west, sharpening his writing skills on atheistic tracts and drawing a folio of political cartoons. Bierce was hired as a journalist for several San Francisco newspapers, writing 167 weekly, satiric "Town Crier" columns later published in book form, The Fiend's Delight (1872). Married in 1871, he and his new wife went on an extended honeymoon to England as a gift from his father-in-law. Bierce struck up friendships with the "Fleet Street Gang" and wrote for Figaro and Fun. Those columns were reprinted in book form as Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874). He and his young family returned to the United States, where he collaborated on a bestseller attacking the waltz (The Dance of Death), and wrote 87 weekly columns for the Argonaut.

After other journalism jobs, Bierce was hired by William Randolph Hearst in 1887, and worked for him for 21 years, inaugurating a column of witty epigrams. Vintage Bierce: "Camels and Christians receive their burdens kneeling." "Treat things divine with marked respect--don't have anything to do with them." Bierce's first collection of short stories, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, appeared in 1891, followed by Can Such Things Be? (1893). His ghost story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," is still anthologized. Bierce was at the height of his fame at the turn of the century, when his lobbying defeated a bill by "railroad rogues" seeking massive forgiveness of debt to the government. In 1906, The Cynic's Word debuted, to be renamed The Devil's Dictionary, his most enduring, freethought work. Bierce's personal life was rocky, with one son dying either of suicide or during a duel, another of pneumonia in his twenties, and Bierce's marriage ending in divorce, earning him the nickname "Bitter Bierce." In 1913, at age 70, he told friends during a visit to Texas that he was going South, and was never heard from again. Bierce reputedly fought beside Pancho Villa and died in battle, although some believe Villa killed him in a quarrel, and others maintain Bierce never went to Mexico at all. He is believed to have died in 1914. A novel speculating about Bierce's last days, The Old Gringo, was written by Carlos Fuentes in 1985, and was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda in 1989. D. 1914.

Christian, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ insofar as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.

Eucharist, n. A sacred feast of the religious sect of Theophagi. A dispute once unhappily arose among the members of this sect as to what it was that they ate. In this controversy some five hundred thousand have already been slain, and the question is still unsettled.

Evangelist, n. A bearer of good tidings, particularly (in a religious sense) such as assure us of our own salvation and the damnation of our neighbors.

Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.

Infidel, n. In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does.

Pray. v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.

Religion, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.

Reverence, n. The spiritual attitude of a man to a god and a dog to a man.

Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited.

—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1906)

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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