Bierce welcomed the enmity of his victims, reasoning that the hornswoggled always despise those who show them their folly. His journalism and literary ridicule are rooted in the pleasures provided through revelatory pain—by exposing the con game at the heart of existence, the writer overturns expectations and beliefs, tears down the façade of tolerated corruption, and smacks us upside the head in an effort to enlighten us. The Library of America volume proves that Bierce’s nihilistic and tawdry short tales retain their whack today.

Furthermore, prolonged exposure to the twists and turns of Bierce’s acerbity undercuts the authorial stereotype—underneath his writing’s smug aura of hatred sits the vision of a combat veteran with a fragile belief in sanity, an artist bedeviled by the many forms of American madness.

Even the mystery of the author’s death may have been the capstone of a life dedicated to ridicule. According to biographer Morris, a reasonable case can be made that Bierce’s publicized intention to go down to Mexico to cover Pancho Villa (“To be a Gringo in Mexico—ah, that is euthanasia!”) was nothing but an exercise in fatalistic performance art, a dodge concocted to cover up the writer’s plan to commit suicide in a place where his body would never be found: Death Valley. Bierce may have plotted his demise as his final grisly farce, driving the credulous fools to distraction one last time.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

 

Bill Marx is a contributor to CJR.