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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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His witticisms, which were of a very high order, reappear sometimes, too. His best aphorisms in The Devil’s Dictionary are easily a match for La Rochefoucauld, maybe even Voltaire. His most reprinted book review consists of a single sentence: “The covers of this book are too far apart.” When a young mother pestered him for advice on bringing up children, he finally replied: “Study Herod, madam. Study Herod.” Democracy he defined as “four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.” At the death of a local politician, Bierce volunteered the epitaph: “Here lies Frank Pixley, as usual.” Disdainful of philosophical pretension, he rewrote Descartes’s axiom as “Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum”: “I think I think, therefore I think I am.”

But he earned the right to be read and remembered for more than his cleverness, sharp as it was—especially now, on the 100th anniversary of his curious exit and in the middle of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. He served in the war with great distinction, and, in the decades that followed, he came closer than any other American to turning the great national cataclysm into art. 

 Bierce was a journalist all his life. Like so many journalists, he daydreamed of a higher calling that might win him a place at the grownups’ table, to preen with the poets and essayists and dramatists. But he never pretended to being more than a scribbler. “I concluded one day that I was not a poet,” he wrote a friend. “It was the bitterest moment of my life.” 


He was born in 1842 and grew up on the lake-scattered glacial plain of northern Indiana. Both his parents traced their roots back to the Mayflower, but what the next century would call the “American Dream” failed to work its magic for them, and the family barely managed to scrape out a living on their hardscrabble farm. Ambrose was one of 13 children, each of whom his parents insisted on tagging with a name beginning with “A” (Aurelius, Almeda, Augustus .  .  . ). Schooling was intermittent. As the youngest child, he detached himself from his brothers and sisters, spending most of his time alone, wandering the woods and burying himself in books. For reasons Ambrose could never discern, his father, an otherwise unimaginative man, kept a bookshelf full of classics, from Addison to Cervantes. 

“All that I have I owe to his books,” he said.

At 15, Ambrose left his family to work as a printer’s helper at an abolitionist newspaper in a nearby town. A year later he joined the timeless Hoosier Diaspora of young men and women whose chief relation to their home state is an irresistible urge to leave it—a group whose ever-swelling ranks have come to include both Abraham Lincoln and Michael Jackson. He escaped Indiana for glamorous Akron, Ohio, to live with an uncle, another devoted abolitionist, who a few years before had generously provided John Brown with the broadswords he used to hack his way through bleeding Kansas. Political connections enabled the uncle to win Ambrose a coveted slot at the Kentucky Military Institute. There, the boy acquired the military skills, chiefly in map-making and ordnance, that would come in handy when war broke out, which it did at the end of his freshman year. 

Bierce returned to Indiana to answer Lincoln’s call for troops in April 1861. When his three-month stint was up, he signed on for two years more. Rising steadily in rank and cited often for valor, he remained in uniform for the rest of the Civil War. Little of the experience of war escaped him: shameless retreats, hopeless charges, courage, stupidity, confusion, terror, camaraderie, and endless slaughter. He was wounded at least twice before the battle of Kennesaw Mountain, when a bullet to the left temple lodged behind his ear, cracking his head open “like a walnut,” he wrote later, in a phrase that captures his peculiar blend of detachment and precision. Eventually he was forced to return to Indiana for convalescence. He left again as soon as he could.

By then the war was effectively over, though of course he could never quite get over it. His rise from enlisted man to officer gave Bierce a vertical view of how men made decisions of life and death under the most miserable conditions. What he saw year after year only confirmed his native cynicism. Stupidity made a deeper impression on him than physical courage, perhaps because he himself had so much more of the latter than the former. The blundering of generals fed his distrust of authority. 

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