I s journalist, short-story writer, and poet Ambrose Bierce one of the biggest SOBs in American literature? He is certainly among the most successful at raising hell: The bilious bravado of his newspaper writing and his once shockingly realistic war fiction earned him such nicknames as “Bitter Bierce” and “The Devil’s Topographer.” A spirit of aggressive disdain runs through his four decades of prose, from his furious assaults in his weekly columns for William Randolph Hearst’s San Francisco Chronicle to the acid-in-your-face definitions of The Devil’s Dictionary, the startling violence of his Civil War stories, his Grand Guignol horror yarns, ghost tales, and sci-fi fables. At the time of Bierce’s mysterious disappearance in 1913 (the 71-year-old claimed he was going off to report on the Mexican Revolution), he “probably had more enemies than any man alive,” according to his most recent biographer, Roy Morris Jr.
H. L. Mencken, who carried on Bierce’s satirical tradition, argued that, deep down, the latter’s barbs were launched in defense of principle:
Doomed to live in a country in which, by God’s will, honesty is rare and courage is still rarer and honor is almost unknown…he fell upon the mountebanks, great and small, in a Berserker fury, thus to sooth and secure his own integrity. That integrity, as far as I can make out, was never betrayed by compromise. Right or wrong, he always stuck to the truth as he saw it.
Mencken’s take on Bierce is appealing: There’s much to be said for the idea of an iconoclastic cuss strafing America’s Gilded Age, slinging memorable mud at inept politicians and dissolute social institutions, lamenting the absurdity of war and the senselessness of a universe ruled by brutal chance.
Journalism was an improvisational practice in 19th-century America, and Bierce took full advantage of the freedom to guffaw and puncture in print. Unlike other popular social humorists, Bierce’s single-minded dedication to deflating the self-serving illusions of the powerful and/or the mediocre—inspired by the slice-and-dice reviewing style of Edgar Allan Poe—drove him well beyond the more moderate, some would say balanced, satire of Mark Twain and Bret Harte. There is little room for sentimentality, hopefulness, or empathy in Bierce’s fiction and journalism. His crusading sensibility anticipates the turn-of-the-century muckrackers, though Bierce was not primarily concerned with fighting for social justice or democratic equity. He wants to make his readers confront challenging, realities, and that means disabusing Americans, through mockery, of the comforting lies they tell themselves.
“Ridicule, as I venture to use it myself,” wrote the author in the Chronicle in 1890, “seems to me to be the most excellent of offensive weapons because it hurts without damaging. No man’s good reputation is permanently impaired by ridicule, yet most men would rather be slandered rather than ridiculed. It is monstrous hard to bear; it lacerates the sensibilities horribly—if artfully done.” But from Bierce’s heyday to now, many have objected to the rabid severity of his vision. For the skeptics, such as Clifton Fadiman, “Bierce’s nihilism is as brutal and simple as a blow, and, by the same token, not too convincing.” At some point, a satirist risks becoming a kind of monster verging on caricature, a scoffer who is no longer able to tell the difference between a sword and a bludgeon.
What made Bierce so damned mean and testy? Anguished disgust at a corrupt world? A morbidity nurtured by his traumatic combat service in the Civil War? A delicate moral sensitivity that defended itself through the blunt force of literary sensationalism? And how did the writer’s obsession with death fuel his acerbity? (Edmund Wilson believed death might be Bierce’s “only real character.”) For about a century, fans and foes of Bierce have grappled for an answer that satisfies doubts about Bierce’s humanity, morality, and compassion. Thus the author’s literary ranking, as both a once-influential journalist and a creative writer, has jumped about wildly since his death. Bierce is undoubtedly an original, but is he of the major or the minor variety?
The answer lies in understanding the journalistic tradition Bierce exemplifies, at times to the point of parody. He stands as an important link between fellow ink-stained incendiaries Poe and Mencken, who also used satire to rough up phonies large and small. Bierce’s envenomed brand of skepticism—expressed through hyperbolic ridicule and parody—shows his strengths and weaknesses as a writer of fiction and nonfiction. His finest work makes use of brutal comic disenchantment to break readers of their trust in the status quo, and showcases a brilliant satiric temperament, driven to distraction by human credulity, gone rude and crude in a fascinatingly American way.