Those who find “My Favorite Murder” a bit much should turn to Bierce’s more consistent exercises in deadpan humor, where he pulverizes the marvelous into the alarmingly mundane with breathtaking and hilarious aplomb. My favorite is his compact masterpiece “One Summer Night,” which features these brilliant opening paragraphs:
The fact that Henry Armstrong was buried did not seem to him to prove that he was dead: he had always been a hard man to convince. That he really was buried, the testimony of his senses compelled him to admit. His posture—flat upon his back, with his hands crossed upon his stomach and tied with something that he easily broke without profitably altering the situation—the strict confinement of his entire person, the black darkness and profound silence, made a body of evidence impossible to controvert and he accepted it without cavil.
No philosopher was he—just a plain, commonplace person gifted, for the time being, with a pathological indifference: the organ that he feared consequences with was torpid. So with no particular apprehension for this immediate future, he fell asleep and all was peace with Henry Armstrong.
For Poe, premature burial is a fixation that generates psychological panic once nightmare becomes reality. For Bierce, it is a relaxing experience, an invitation to take a nap. How or why did Henry Armstrong end up in a casket under the ground? Bierce offers no explanation, just proffers a tongue-in-cheek gibe at the threat of oblivion. Henry’s “pathological indifference” to ultimate reality burlesques our fear of death as well as American pragmatism: When six-feet-under, you might as well be reasonable, face facts, and not make a fuss. The best thing is to mark time before the end comes, somewhat behind schedule.
Given that Bierce inevitably assumes that mankind takes the low road, it is easy, after hundreds of pages, to tire of the predictability of his knee-jerk cynicism. And when Bierce loses his sense of humor it really becomes rough going. The Library of America volume contains a number of pieces in which the sourpuss doesn’t bother to add any revved-up comic sugar to his despair, particularly the morose “Ashes of the Beacon,” a time-tripping tale that chronicles—at irritating length and detail—the devolution of America. The piece takes the form of a rant delivered by a historian looking back at the country’s collapse:
For centuries its fallen columns and scattered stones sheltered an ever diminishing number of skulking anarchists, succeeded by hordes of skin-clad natives subsisting on offal and raw flesh—the race-remnant of an extinct civilization.
Not many smiles here. H. G. Wells brought much more pluck and complexity to the spectacle of genetic decay in The Time Machine. The intellectual limits of Bierce’s brand of satire are easy to see—the flip side of unthinking optimism is a mechanical pessimism. A lively facility for generating words of abuse, for weaving fantasias of fatalism, becomes an end in itself. The writer stiffens into an inky contraption that grinds out insults, gloom, and doom.
But when Bierce infuses his disapproval with impish whimsy, it is another matter. As he wrote in the Examiner in 1889, he was “a chap whose trade is censure; fools are his theme and satire is his song.” His mischievous lyricism resembles a primal belly laugh: Man is a creature of hapless self-deception, flip-flopping like a fish out of water in the vacuum between his narcissistic dreams of importance and an indifferent reality. Unlike his contemporaries Mark Twain and Bret Harte, Bierce doesn’t fit his condemnations into a folksy package that makes unsavory truths go down easier. You may pity the rubes in Bierce’s stories, but you rarely feel any empathy for them. There is an ornery integrity to his disdain that explains why his work is simultaneously loved by some and ignored by others.
Admirers of Bierce find evidence of loyalty, friendship, and encouragement in the writer’s letters, and argue that his fierce temperament is protective in nature; that Bierce strived to shield ideals of humane conduct from the delusions and viciousness of American life. One way a journalist/satirist preserves honest dialogue and moral values, suggest Bierce’s defenders, is to thunderously shame the bogus into defeat or oblivion. Indeed, Bierce rejoiced in meting out extreme punishment to the guilty, his high-flying demolition jobs pulling down what he saw as the false idols of American optimism and exceptionalism. What makes him frustrating is that he leaves it up to us to find new idols to put in their place.