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Look back on anger

At his best, Ambrose Bierce used vicious satire to puncture the smug complacency of America’s Gilded Age
July 30, 2012

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.

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“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.

The generous gathering of Bierce’s prose in the Library of America volume, Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs, offers readers a valuable opportunity in our era of torpid humanism to discover the aesthetic value (and cerebral handicaps) of being gloriously hateful. Edited by S. T. Joshi, the collection contains Bierce’s Civil War short stories as well as autobiographical selections that touch on his four years of service with the Ninth Indiana Infantry, the full text of his satirical glossary The Devil’s Dictionary, and helpings of his supernatural yarns and futuristic fiction. (In an interview for the Library of America, Joshi wisely proposes a companion volume that would contain selections of Bierce’s first-rate journalism, speculative political fiction, and poetry.) The volume comes at a particularly salient time, as the author’s reputation is on a distinct upswing. The sesquicentennial of the Civil War has sparked wider interest in the documentary imperatives of his pioneering war stories, which influenced Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemingway, and countless other chroniclers of combat.

The only major American writer to serve in a combat role during the Civil War, Bierce was a cartographer who fought at Shiloh, Chickamauga, and Pickett’s Hill. His powerful you-are-there point of view, conveyed memorably in the sobering remembrance “What I Saw of Shiloh” remains effective, though limited, because of its clinical observation of the chaos of combat. Bierce is cruel about the horrors of battle, graphic (for the time) in his descriptions of mutilation and death, obsessed with refuting his readers’ sentimental illusions about patriotism, heroism, and sacrifice. But Bierce hated realism (“The art of depicting nature as it is seen by toads”), and rather than simply reporting the facts of warfare—which by themselves do not convey the truth of the experience—he is driven to allegorize and shock. He hammers home disenchantment because he can’t contain his disgust for those (including the pasteboard gods of religion) who justify the justice of war.

Most of Bierce’s combat stories verge on parody in their efforts to underline the inanity of fighting. In “A Horseman in the Sky,” a son must shoot his beloved father, an officer in the Confederate army, in order to protect Union troops; in “The Mocking-Bird,” a man kills himself after he shoots a soldier and discovers that it is his twin brother. The Civil War pieces offer more than reportorial verisimilitude and honesty; they also are the means to ridicule the utter foolishness of man and the universe. Whether focused on the wages of war or the supernatural, his short stories are extensions of his heated journalistic efforts to expose American delusions of grandeur and idealism.

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.

For me, the sadistic satire of the Civil War stories is pumped up into full-blown comic hysteria in these strange and fascinating tales. The use of scathing exaggeration to expose corruption and hubris becomes a muckraking weapon that forces the reader to confront the randomness of existence. In all of his writing—fiction and nonfiction—Bierce wants to wise us up (there is the implication that we are all dupes, in one way or another). His supernatural tales are part of his battle against optimism, the great American con game, with religion being among the most damaging of the country’s major swindles. Our self-serving images of war, politics, and commerce were fair game for his lampooning—why not our metaphysics?

In the stories Bierce draws on his favorite stylistic device: He artfully overplays or underplays his zesty parodic tone, often alternating between high and low registers in the same piece. The marvelously curdled fairy tale “My Favorite Murder” is told from the point of view of an unrepentant maniac. A man from an unsavory family defends murdering his mother by proudly explaining to a judge how he committed a far more heinous crime: the premeditated slaying of his uncle. The final blow is delivered to the mutilated but breathing victim while he hangs, trussed up in a sack, from the branch of a tree. His unusual executioner is an enthused ram who, to deliver the coup de grâce, leaps high into the air:

At the height of forty or fifty feet, as fond recollection presents it to view, it attained its zenith and appeared to remain an instant stationary; then, titling suddenly forward without altering the relative position of its parts, it shot downward on a steeper and steeper course with augmenting velocity, passed immediately above me with a noise like a rush of a cannon shot and struck my uncle almost squarely on the top of the head! So frightful was the impact that not only the man’s neck was broken, but the rope too; and the body of the deceased, forced against the earth, was crushed to a pulp beneath the awful front of that meteoric sheep!

Note the image of the cannon shot: For Bierce, violence is inevitably a form of combat. This story is among his most outrageous, but it is typical of the grotesque ways he battles against American expectations of good taste, ethical rectitude, prosaic reality, and the ethos of success.

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.

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.