Ambrose Bierce: Cynical Satirist and Enigma


Today is the birthday of one of my favorite American writers, the great Ambrose Bierce (1842-1913?). One thing I find very interesting about his work is that, despite the fact that it is spread across a great many genres (ghost and horror stories, Civil War tales, western yarns, and dry-as-a-bone satirical humor) , the body of work is all of one voice. In fact some of his writing embraces every one of those genres all at the same time. Long before even O. Henry, Bierce was the originator of the ironic, twist ending, typified in his most famous story “A Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, in which a condemned man on the scaffold hallucinates a lengthy escape in the split second before the noose snaps his neck. A war hero and hard bitten journalist. Bierce had a grim, cynical, no-nonsense sensibility that detested hypocrites. H.L. Mencken would have been impossible without him. Yet beyond the journalism and short stories, he also wrote the acidly humorous Devil’s Dictionary and a great deal of light verse, originally published in the Hearst newspapers for which he was employed. Here is a favorite of mine

Arma Virumque

URS is a Christian army”; so he said

A regiment of bangomen who led.”

And ours a Christian navy,” added he

Who sailed a thunder-junk upon the sea.

Better they know than men unwarlike do

What is an army, and a navy too.

Pray God there may be sent them by-and-by

The knowledge what a Christian is, and why.

For somewhat lamely the conception runs

Of a brass-buttoned Jesus firing guns.

If you’ve ever seen the 1989 movie The Old Gringo with Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck then you are aware of one of the best known aspects of Bierce’s life nowadays — his death. It may be apocryphal (there is no hard evidence one way or the other) but the legend runs that he he went to Mexico to cover the revolution in 1913 (a century ago in fact) and vanished without a trace. Amazing for such a thing to happen to such a well-known man in modern times, but many believe that he wanted it that way; it was done by design. Print the legend, say I. It’s good enough for me.


  1. Although I’ve encountered it more in intent than in reality, I’ve always been fascinated by his Devil’s Dictionary. For example:

    “ME, pro. The objectionable case of I. The personal pronoun in English has three cases, the dominative, the objectionable and the oppressive. Each is all three.”


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