Bierce’s finest thrust against Gilded Age corporate greed was his 1896 campaign, on behalf of his boss at the San Francisco Examiner, William Randolph Hearst, to stop the gigantic Central Pacific Railroad from willfully defaulting on millions of dollars in government loans. Dennis Drabelle, in his recently published The Great American Railroad War, tells the story with panache. Bierce moved to Washington, DC, and with help from a cadre of reporters, cartoonists, and assistants, wrote dozens of malicious articles accusing the railroad of greed and corruption. Before Bierce arrived, the outcome was thought to have been assured—the Central Pacific Railroad had bought all the congressmen and sycophantic newspaper coverage necessary to avoid any significant payment. But a decade after Bierce’s assaults, a reporter summed up the results: “With six months of incessant firing, Mr. Bierce had the railroad forces frightened and wavering; and before the end of the year he had them whipped.” Drabelle argues that taken together, the pieces are Bierce’s masterpiece—one of the glories of 19th-century American journalism.
Of course, not all targets are going to be as broad and dastardly as the Central Pacific Railroad. Bierce also admitted to harassing “dunces of all grades and descriptions, villains of every size, shape and hue, thieves and imposters, and all unpleasant people generally.” His derision contains multitudes—there is nothing too small or too cosmic that cannot be squashed or slapped. In his work, Bierce attacked the foolishness of Chinese missionaries and the greed of the “rail-rogues,” the “art” of horse-shoeing and the “theatrical” delusions of the afterlife, the hyperbolic “spasms” of Fourth-of-July orations and the self-righteous cant of the press, the wisdom of the public and arguments against suicide, the generosity of charities and the liberties taken by “users of asterisks.”
The problem is that Bierce’s unyielding use of shock and insult as a tool for humorous enlightenment tends to obliterate every convention in its path. Just about everything his 19th-century readership valued—religion, government, the press, corporations, literature—Bierce did not. (A typical Bierce aphorism: “The greatest good to the greatest number: Death.”) He expresses his anger through an anarchistic joy that’s so over-the-top, the satiric point is often lost. The teasing fluctuation and bewildering uncertainty of tone in Bierce’s work have contributed to his shaky critical reputation. When is he in earnest and when is he pulling our leg? At times it is hard to tell.
Bierce’s free-floating tragicomic response to America, however, is one of his enduring gifts to journalism. It inspired Mencken’s horselaughs at the expense of what Mencken called the “carnival of buncombe,” and lives on in the raucous overkill of Pauline Kael, Tom Wolfe, and the flamethrowers of today. His bedeviling ferocity, born of an excess of satiric disdain, is also the key to Bierce’s continuing appeal as a writer. The author’s reputation as a misanthrope obscures how the gauche energy of his allegories are actually their strength: His heavy hand penned wholly original stories that avoid staid moral messages or conventional intimations of the supernatural. The Civil War stories, for instance, are admired for more than just their documentary value: “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” with its death’s head japes and narrative somersaults, is considered by critics to be one of the finest “experimental” American stories of the period. The contrariness of The Devil’s Dictionary, which celebrated its centennial last year, is often dismissed as skepticism gone rancid (“Cynic, n. a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be”). But those criticisms overlook the honest illumination that Bierce’s pitiless definitions supply.
Told in a lean, tongue-in-cheek style, Bierce’s wised-up supernatural and horror stories are head-scratching hybrids, twisted bridges between Poe’s Gothic scarefests and the overripe monster mashes of H. P. Lovecraft. As a satirist, Bierce is not interested in depicting the inner lives of his characters or exploring primal spiritual conundrums. A Gilded-Age compilation of these stories sold poorly, suggesting that readers at the time didn’t know what to make of them. Many critics today dismiss them as nothing but pint-sized potboilers of the otherworldly or grisly variety.