Literary Daybook, June 24

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published June 24, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On June 24, the third task of the Triwizard tournament: a race through a maze.
-- "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" (2000)
by J.K. Rowling

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1842, the writer-reporter-wit Ambrose Bierce was born, in Horse Cave Creek, Ohio. Those familiar with Bierce usually approach him through his Civil War stories -- "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," "Chickamauga," etc. -- and then stay to enjoy, or at least marvel at, his celebrated aphorisms and definitions. These offer a scoff for every situation, and are so happily, thoroughly bitter that even H.L. Mencken recoiled in horror: "Opportunity: a favorable occasion for grasping a disappointment" and "Husband: one who, having dined, is charged with the care of the plate" and "Once: enough." The cap to Bierce's legendary life is the drama of his mysterious death -- at age 71, he perhaps died while attempting to get close to Pancho Villa's army in Mexico, perhaps as a suicide in the Grand Canyon. Either view conveys the impression that the cynicism by which he won fame also killed him.

Bierce's early years, and what he wrote about them, are as dark and odd as the rest of him. He was the 10th of 13 children, each and every one given a name beginning with 'A': Abigail, Amelia, Ann Maria, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur and the twins, Adelia and Aurelia. Perhaps the early death of the youngest three robbed Ambrose of victims, though he did not want. His poor, Bible-thumping parents apparently inspired his parenticide stories. One begins, "Early one June morning in 1872 I murdered my father -- an act which made a deep impression on me at the time." In another, a boy hypnotizes his parents into thinking they are wild stallions, and then watches in a clinical fashion as they stomp each other to death. When brother Aurelius, a carpenter, was killed for real while on the job, the eulogy from Ambrose included this thought: "If he had not been cut off by a circular saw at the age of thirty-two, there is no telling how long he might have weathered it through." Bierce so loathed the evangelism in his community that he tied straw onto a horse's back, set the animal alight, and drove it through a revival meeting. Nor did his ancestors -- Puritan stock, some of whom came on the Mayflower -- get much respect:

My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of felony,
Of thee I sing --
Land where my fathers fried
Young witches and applied
Whips to the Quaker's hide
And made him spring.

Nonetheless, Bierce's father had the largest library in the county, and when Bierce dropped out of high school -- he was not one for groups -- he spent much time there. It is hard to disagree with a recent biographer who sees the library as having saved Bierce from being the serial killer type, or having turned him into the prose version of it.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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