The Sardonic Humor Of Ambrose Bierce, edited by George Barkin
I must admit, I’m a fan of the sardonic humor of Ambrose Bierce. Despite our very different religious worldviews, the author was a public enemy of cant and hypocrisy and a lot of what is included here is simply hilarious. A great many of the works here are part of the author’s political discourse, and his sometimes sour views of politicians and cultural figures. Designed as a companion volume to the author’s famous Devil’s Dictionary, this book allows the reader to see a broad degree of humorous writing from someone who was pretty savage and unsparing in his comical approach. Not everyone, then or now, is going to appreciate the way that this humor works out, but I personally did. It must be admitted that these humorous selections are short, and so the humor keeps coming, at least until one gets to the longer prose stories, and some of the stories may be familiar to the reader, like the author’s collection of his favorite homicides, a contribution to humorous as well as crime/mystery literature, but since when is it a problem to read a few stories over again when they are so enjoyable?
As the sardonic humor can be found across a wide variety of the works of Ambrose Bierce, it is no surprise that this work contains selections from a wide variety of his works. Almost half of the book is made up of verses included from the author’s works such as: Shapes Of Clay, Ante-mortem Epitaphs, The Scrap Heap, and Black Beetles In Amber. Included are his notorious slapdown of Oscar Wilde, whom he disliked for his foppery and a comment on how it was that Rudyard Kipling made himself unwelcome in San Francisco, along with some tell-off verses about mostly forgotten politicians of the Guilded Age like Elihu Root, of whom it is said that to do dirty political tricks would be a step up rather than a step down from his standard of behavior, and even a lengthy and impressive Latin poem that demonstrates some admirable linguistic ability. After this the editor includes some fables from The Mummery, Fantastic Fables, and Aesopus Emendatus. The rest of the book consists of short stories from collections like Negligible Tales, The Parenticide Club (including such classics as “My Favorite Murder,” “Oil Of Dog,” “An Imperfect Conflagration,” and “The Hypnotist”), The Fourth Estate, The Ocean Wave, and Tangential Views, which are a welcome addition to any collection of humorous tales.
What is it that make these poems and stories so funny? There are at least a few reasons. For one, the author is skilled versifier, which helps. He has a great deal of cultural knowledge (witness his skill in Latin as well as his clever fables in the manner of Aesop), and that certainly adds a lot of appeal when it comes to his intellect. For another, there is something satisfying about the way that the author skewers the self-important and corrupt politicians, of which his day and age (and ours as well) had many easy targets. For those with a cynical sense of humor about politics and culture, Bierce demonstrates how witty rhymes and clever zingers can really improve one’s feeling about the ability of people to at least state their discontent with a corrupt political system. And if this does not necessarily make for better leaders or better elite aspirants, it at least makes one feel better. That is, ultimately, why a book like this is still read and enjoyed, because it gives both timely and timeless truths about the lack of legitimacy cultural and political leaders have and the way that those who see and understand this are able to cope with the reality that we are generally governed poorly without being too despondent over such matters.