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Ambrose Bierce

Murphy’s Law: Ambrose Bierce


Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914?) was one of the foremost writers of the 19th – century. His stories of war, of despair, of horror, of the mysterious, were epoch defining and continue to influence literature. For his wit he was called the Mark Twain of the North. He was the chum of Jack London and the mentor of H. L. Mencken. The very first tract he wrote was a defense of atheism and freethought, a theme he would never leave.

His meager childhood was brightened, and he was ultimately empowered by his father, who gave him the love of history and literature. At 19 he enlisted, and was seared by his experiences in the Civil War, where he served with distinction. Afterwards, he wrote over a thousand columns for various newspapers. William Randolph Hearst secured him as soon as he acquired the San Francisco Examiner. There he stayed for over 20 years. All the while Bierce wrote war stories, horror stories, novels, and short stories of the mysterious and the macabre. Apparently he wrote because he had to, to get it out, to deal with it, to survive the impact of the Civil War on his life – he had to tell of the headless corpses, the boar-eaten bodies of the fallen men, the blood, the screams. Bierce wrote of the insanity to keep depression from taking him. He challenged his country to become civilized enough to admit its hypocrisies, pretensions and its crassness.

He always wanted one word to do the work of four. He garnished his newspaper columns with “definitions” of various words. In 1906 he gathered them together in the Devil’sDictionary which continues to be re-published as one of the greatest in 19th century satire. A sampling –

Birth, n. The first and direst of all disas-ters.

Clairvoyant, n. A person … who has the power of seeing that which is invisible to her patron – namely that he is a blockhead.

Deluge, n. A notable first experiment in baptism which washed away the sins (and sinners) of the world.

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

Heathen, n. A benighted creature who has the folly to worship something he can see and feel.

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

Rack, n. An argumentative instrument formerly much used in persuading devotees of a false faith to embrace the living truth.

Redemption, n. Deliverance of sinners from the penalty of their sin through their murder of the deity against whom they sinned. The doctrine of Redemption is the fundamental mystery of our holy religions, and whoso believeth in it shall not perish, but have everlasting life in which to try to understand it.

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

Reliquary, n. A receptacle for such sacred objects as pieces of the true cross, short-ribs of saints, the ears of Balaam’s ass, the lung of the cock that called Peter to repentance, and so forth. Reliquaries are commonly of metal, and provided with a lock to prevent the contents from coming out and performing miracles at unseasonable times.

Revelation, n. A famous book in which St. John the Divine concealed all that he knew. The revealing is done by the commentators, who know nothing.

Saint, n. A dead sinner, revised and edited.

Scriptures, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.

Ambrose Bierce chaffed at this world as long as he could, but after losing his wife to divorce and two sons to death, the asthmatic, superstitious, bilious atheist felt compelled to write his friends of his premonition of approaching death. Soon he would vanish with few clues. Most of his biographers believe, at age 71, he went to assist Pancho Villa and his rebel army in the struggle to unseat the corrupt church-state government of revolutionary Mexico. Others claim his “life’s fitful fever” ended in a Grand Canyon suicide. His thoughts, his humor, his wit, and his social criticism remain.


“Ambrose Bierce” is copyright © 1999 by John Patrick Michael Murphy.

The electronic version is copyright © 1999 Internet Infidels with the written permission of John Patrick Michael Murphy.

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