Today is the birthday (1842) of Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce, U.S. editorialist, journalist, short story writer, fabulist, and satirist. He wrote the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and compiled a satirical lexicon, The Devil’s Dictionary. His vehemence as a critic, his motto, “nothing matters”, and the sardonic view of human nature that informed his work, all earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce.”
Bierce was born in a log cabin at Horse Cave Creek in Meigs County, Ohio to Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood Bierce. His mother was a descendant of William Bradford (governor of Plymouth Colony). His parents were a poor but literary couple who instilled in him a deep love for books and writing. Bierce grew up in Kosciusko County, Indiana, attending high school at the county seat, Warsaw. Bierce was the tenth of thirteen children whose father gave all of them names beginning with the letter “A”. In order of birth, the Bierce siblings were Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, Adelia, and Aurelia. He left home at age fifteen to become a printer’s apprentice at a small Ohio newspaper.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, Bierce enlisted in the Union Army’s 9th Indiana Infantry Regiment. He participated in the Operations in Western Virginia campaign (1861), was present at the first battle at Philippi and received newspaper attention for his daring rescue, under fire, of a gravely wounded comrade at the Battle of Rich Mountain. In February 1862 he was commissioned First Lieutenant, and served on the staff of General William Babcock Hazen as a topographical engineer, making maps of likely battlefields. Bierce fought at the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862), a terrifying experience that became a source for several later short stories and the memoir “What I Saw of Shiloh.”
In June 1864, he sustained a serious head wound at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, and spent the rest of the summer on furlough, returning to active duty in September. He was discharged from the army in January 1865. His military career resumed, however, when in mid-1866 he rejoined General Hazen as part of the latter’s expedition to inspect military outposts across the Great Plains. The expedition proceeded by horseback and wagon from Omaha, Nebraska, arriving toward year’s end in San Francisco, California.
Bierce married Mary Ellen “Mollie” Day on December 25, 1871. They had three children; two sons, Day (1872–1889) and Leigh (1874–1901), and a daughter, Helen (1875–1940). Both of Bierce’s sons died before he did: Day committed suicide due to depression over a romantic rejection, and Leigh died of pneumonia related to alcoholism. Bierce separated from his wife in 1888 after discovering compromising letters to her from an admirer. They divorced in 1904 and she died the following year.
In San Francisco, Bierce received the rank of brevet major before resigning from the Army. He remained in San Francisco for many years, eventually becoming famous as a contributor and/or editor for a number of local newspapers and periodicals, including The San Francisco News Letter, The Argonaut, the Overland Monthly, The Californian and The Wasp. A selection of his crime reporting from The San Francisco News Letter was included in The Library of America anthology True Crime.
Bierce lived and wrote in England from 1872 to 1875, contributing to Fun magazine. His first book, The Fiend’s Delight, a compilation of his articles, was published in London in 1873 under the pseudonym Dod Grile. Returning to the United States, he again took up residence in San Francisco. From 1879 to 1880, he traveled to Rockerville and Deadwood in the Dakota Territory, to try his hand as local manager for a New York mining company. When the company failed he returned to San Francisco and resumed his career in journalism.
In 1887, he published a column called “Prattle” and became one of the first regular columnists and editorialists to be employed on William Randolph Hearst’s newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner, eventually becoming one of the most prominent and influential among the writers and journalists of the West Coast. He remained associated with Hearst Newspapers until 1906.
The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies had received large loans from the U.S. government to build the First Transcontinental Railroad on gentle terms, but Collis P. Huntington persuaded a friendly member of Congress to introduce a bill excusing the companies from repaying the money, amounting to $130 million. In January 1896 Hearst dispatched Bierce to Washington, D.C. to foil this attempt. The essence of the plot was secrecy; the railroads’ advocates hoped to get the bill through Congress without any public notice or hearings. When the angered Huntington confronted Bierce on the steps of the Capitol and told Bierce to name his price, Bierce’s answer ended up in newspapers nationwide:
My price is one hundred thirty million dollars. If, when you are ready to pay, I happen to be out of town, you may hand it over to my friend, the Treasurer of the United States.
Bierce’s coverage and diatribes on the subject aroused such public wrath that the bill was defeated. Bierce returned to California in November.
Bierce was considered a master of pure English by his contemporaries, and virtually everything that came from his pen was notable for its judicious wording and economy of style. He wrote in a variety of literary genres. His short stories are held among the best of the 19th century, providing a popular following based on his roots. He wrote realistically of the terrible things he had seen in the war in such stories as “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” “The Boarded Window,” “Killed at Resaca,” and “Chickamauga.” In addition to his ghost and war stories, he also published several volumes of poetry. His Fantastic Fables anticipated the ironic style of grotesquerie that became a more common genre in the 20th century.
One of Bierce’s most famous works is his much-quoted book, The Devil’s Dictionary, originally an occasional newspaper item which was first published in book form in 1906 as The Cynic’s Word Book. It consists of satirical definitions of English words which lampoon cant and political double-talk. A sampling:
Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.
Quotation, n: The act of repeating erroneously the words of another.
Sweater, n. Garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly.
Patience, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.
Egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
Selfish, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.
Scriptures, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.”
Lottery,n. A tax on people who are bad at math.
Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.
Bore, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.
Famous, adj. Conspicuously miserable.
Dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.
Homicide, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are
four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and
praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain
whether he fell by one kind or another — the classification is for
advantage of the lawyers.
Apologize: To lay the foundation for a future offence.
Positive, adj.: Mistaken at the top of one’s voice.
In October 1913 Bierce, then aged 71, departed Washington, D.C., for a tour of his old Civil War battlefields. By December he had passed through Louisiana and Texas, crossing by way of El Paso into Mexico, which was in the throes of revolution. In Ciudad Juárez he joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer, and in that role he witnessed the Battle of Tierra Blanca.
Bierce is known to have accompanied Villa’s army as far as the city of Chihuahua. His last known communication with the world was a letter he wrote there to Blanche Partington, a close friend, dated December 26, 1913. After closing this letter by saying, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination,” he vanished without a trace, his disappearance becoming one of the most famous in American literary history. Bierce’s disappearance became a popular topic, much debated. Carlos Fuentes’ novel The Old Gringo is a fictionalized account of Bierce’s disappearance, which was later adapted into the film Old Gringo (1989), starring Gregory Peck in the title role.
Bierce once mused on the English term “Welsh rarebit” for grilled cheese on toast, which was more commonly called “Welsh rabbit,” as follows: “the continued use of rarebit was an attempt to rationalize the absence of rabbit.” He wrote in his 1911 “Devil’s Dictionary”: “Rarebit n. A Welsh rabbit, in the speech of the humorless, who point out that it is not a rabbit. To whom it may be solemnly explained that the comestible known as toad in the hole is really not a toad, and that ris de veau à la financiere is not the smile of a calf prepared after the recipe of a she-banker.”
So, if you want to be quick and simple you could make cheese on toast to celebrate Bierce. In case you are more adventurous, here is a recipe for ris de veau à la financiere. It is essentially veal sweetbreads in a white sauce flavored with truffles and Madeira wine. It can be served as is or in vol-au-vent cases.
Ris de Veau à la Financière
500 g veal sweetbreads
400 g roast veal
200 g veal or chicken quenelles (see below)
400 g mushrooms
truffle shavings (optional)
¼ cup cognac
1 tbsp flour
100 g of butter
salt and pepper
For the sauce:
50 g of butter
50 g flour
¼ cup Madeira (or to taste)
100 g cream
1 egg yolk
Blanch the sweetbreads and cut into large dice.
Slice the mushrooms and sauté them over high heat in a pan with 40 grams of butter.
Cut the quenelles into slices.
Cut the veal into large dice.
To prepare the sauce, make a roux with the flour and butter, add about 1 cup of chicken broth and Madeira, and let it thicken over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon.
Dredge the sweetbreads in flour and sauté them over high heat until lightly golden. Sprinkle with brandy and flambé. Add the mushrooms, veal, dumplings and gravy. Simmer 15 minutes over low heat, covered.
In a bowl, mix the egg yolk with the cream. Add a tablespoon of hot sauce to this mixture and briefly whisk; then add it to the sauce. Stir over a low simmer for a few minutes, stirring constantly.
250 g veal
150 g bread-crumbs
2 cups milk
2 eggs, separated
salt and pepper
Chop the veal finely and then use a food processor to make it into a paste.
Soak the breadcrumbs in milk for about 10 minutes and then squeeze the excess milk out with your fingers.
Combine the breadcrumbs with the meat and add the butter.
Mix well, season with salt and pepper to taste, and add the egg yolks.
Beat the whites until they are stiff and add fold them gently, but thoroughly into the meat mixture.
Roll the mixture into small balls, and dredge them with flour. Bring a pot of water to a full boil, add the quenelles, and lower the heat to a simmer after 5 minutes. Cook for an additional five minutes.