The Magazine

Cynic’s Progress

The brave life and mysterious death of Ambrose Bierce.

Dec 30, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 16 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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One golden autumn morning 100 years ago, a few blocks from where I’m writing these words in northwest Washington, D.C., Ambrose Bierce said goodbye to his secretary, turned the key in the door to his apartment on Logan Circle, and went off to God knows where.

The Huntington Library

The Huntington Library

I’m not speaking figuratively: God and nobody else knows where Ambrose Bierce ended up—or when, how, or why. He had taken September and early October to settle his personal affairs, as people used to say. His literary affairs had been settled with the publication of his collected works, more than a million words packed into 12 volumes and assembled over a period of five years, which signaled his official exit from the writing life. His two sons were dead, his estranged wife was dead, and his daughter Helen, though not quite estranged, had built a life for herself a safe distance from him, in the Midwest. 

Bierce sent Helen a letter before he left Washington. He told her he wanted to walk the battlefields where he had fought 50 years before as a first lieutenant in the 9th Indiana Infantry. He wanted to look a last time at Kennesaw Mountain, Chickamauga, Franklin, Nashville, Missionary Ridge, and Murfreesboro. Then, he said, he would turn further south, into Mexico, to see firsthand the Mexican civil war and its most romantic figure, the revolutionary Pancho Villa, who had struck his interest. From there, he’d move on to South America. 

Over the next few weeks Helen, his secretary Carrie Christiansen, and a handful of friends received notes postmarked along his winding route from West Virginia through Tennessee into Alabama and Georgia. In early November a newspaper reporter caught up with him in New Orleans: “Ambrose Bierce, famed writer and noted critic, has arrived,” the young man wrote, in a breathless scoop. Bierce sat for an interview. He was off to Mexico, he said, because “I like the game. I like the fighting.” Then, the reporter observed, his “straightforward blue eyes” took on a “faraway look” as the old man mused about the journey ahead. “There are so many things that might happen .  .  .” 

He was a 71-year-old asthmatic who spoke not a word of Spanish traveling to a Mexican war zone with $1,800 folded into a bulging money belt. So yes, there were many, many things that might happen. On December 26, he sent Carrie Christiansen a letter from Chihuahua, 200 miles south of the border, telling her he hoped to hook up with Villa’s forces the next day, and disappeared.

"We have produced but one genuine wit,” H. L. Mencken wrote, in a survey of American letters: “Ambrose Bierce. And save to a small circle he is unknown today.” Mencken was writing decades after Bierce had gone off to Mexico, by which time his life was best remembered for the way he had left it. And the circle of those who read him is even smaller now, needless to say. When the Library of America finally got around to issuing a canonical selection of his writing, in 2011, the single volume (Philip Roth got nine!) was relatively slender; it was the 219th in the library’s series of great American writers. 

His fame was not general, even at its most robust. Those who admired him, mostly his fellow writers, admired him extravagantly. He was a “writer’s writer,” in the deadly phrase. The tributes from William Gladstone, Arnold Bennett, Bret Harte, and many other popular and learned literary men shared a common thread: Why, they all asked, wasn’t Bierce better known? Bierce himself ached for fame as awfully as any writer, but was, in time, amused by the strange status he had achieved: He was famous for not being famous. He wrote to a friend toward the end of his life:

How many times, and during a period of how many years must one’s unexplainable obscurity be pointed out to constitute fame? Not knowing, I am almost disposed to consider myself the most famous of authors. I have pretty nearly ceased to be “discovered,” but my notoriety as an obscurian may be said to be worldwide and everlasting.

The problem with “writers’ writers”—as many readers have discovered—is that they are seldom “readers’ writers.” It depends on the readers as much as the writers, of course, and today’s readers might find they have caught up to Bierce’s jaded view of war, politics, romantic love, religion, family life, and nearly everything else. When he is remembered these days it is usually for the short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which, until recently, was one of a handful of short stories—along with “The Lottery,” “The Most Dangerous Game,” “To Build a Fire,” and a few others—that no student could escape an American high school without having pretended to read.

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