Awesome Men Throughout History: Ambrose Bierce
This week’s installment of Awesome Men Throughout History is going to be about a writer. Again. I had a huge apology all typed up for this glaring conflict of interest, but then I saw that I’d already written one for the George Lippard article. Oops. So go back and read that, then keep it all in mind as we focus on this week’s awesomely-named Awesome Man: Ambrose Bierce. Hard not to write books with a name like that.
Anyway, Bierce was born in Ohio in 1842, but grew up near Warsaw, Indiana, which probably left him more than screwed up enough to become a successful writer. Despite this, he was your average sickly 19thcentury youth (Bierce suffered from asthma his entire life) until he left home at 15 to work as a gofer in a printing press.
Bierce also served in the Civil War as a topographical engineer, basically one part surveyor and one part cartographer, for the Union. He was shot in the head at Kennesaw Mountain, and was laid up for three months before returning to the field for the Franklin-Nashville campaign before resigning from the Army altogether due to frequent blackouts. Considering the circumstances, I don’t think anyone held it against him. I mean, this was before penicillin. You could die from stubbing your toe back then.
But Bierce’s real claim to fame was, as I mentioned earlier, writing. He published a column called “Prattle” in the San Francisco Examiner, and was one of the first such columnists employed by William Randolph Hearst. His specialty was biting social criticism (which earned him the nickname “Bitter” Bierce), and perhaps the best example of his acid pen was his part in exposing rail baron Collis Huntington.
Huntington, who’d played a big part in building up the Central Pacific railroad company, was trying to shove a bill through Congress that would have forgiven the $130 million debt he and his friends owed the government after building the First Transcontinental Railroad. Bierce was sent to Washington to throw a monkey wrench into that plan, which earned him an angry conversation with Huntingdon on the steps of the Capitol. Huntingdon told Bierce to name his price, so Bierce did. In print. “My price is one hundred thirty million dollars,” he told Hearst’s entire readership. “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.” The bill was defeated soon afterward, as its supporters had no response to iceburns of that quality, and Bierce was free to harpoon as many politicians, charlatans, and literary figures as he wanted.
Bierce’s story has no official end – he disappeared in Mexico in 1913 – but it’s still a good one. He established himself through the manly pursuits of speaking truth to power and taking no crap from anyone, and kept the greedy and duplicitous on their toes in the process. And he did all that after being shot in the head. I can’t think of any other writer who could pull off something like that and live, let alone master his craft. Look what happened to Stephen King’s work, and he just got hit by a van.
I do disagree with Bierce on one thing, though. His famous slogan was “nothing matters,” which isn’t true. He mattered, his writing mattered, his mustache definitely mattered (just look at it – you’ll see what I’m talking about), and his awesomeness matters.
About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.