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.

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.

 

Bill Marx is a contributor to CJR.