Bierce - “One of the Missing” and “The Major’s Tale”
I agree with your assessment of Bierce and think he is underrated. I’ll take a stab at the stories you mention.
“One of the Missing” – Private Searing, although a model of bravery, melted when he was forced to dwell upon what he perceived to be his certain, imminent death. The fear became so agonizing that, to escape the agony, he attempted suicide. The psychological stress of the attempt pushed Private Searing over the edge, causing him to die of fright. Adding to the irony are these facts: (1) if he had simply held on for a few minutes, he would have been rescued without injury, and (2) the fear so contorted this brave man’s face that not even his brother recognized him. Perhaps there is a lesson here: that what really matters is not simply "what happens to you," but "what you think and how you feel about what you believe happens to you."
“The Major’s Tale” – This story does not have the ironic, macabre twist that usually characterizes Bierce. It is simply a humorous tale that exposes that dishonest fronts that men will create to hide their embarrassment. The humor is not merely in the substance of the tale, but also in the digressing manner of the storyteller who deplores digression. Perhaps, like Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” it is more about the storyteller than about the story.
Why is Bierce not more widely read? Perhaps he suffered by being compared to Mark Twain, with whom he once shared a newspaper office. At that time, Twain was fortunate enough to land an opportunity to publish his western stories in eastern magazines, and his fame grew quickly. And he continued to market himself well while Bierce languished in relative obscurity. Although, of the two, I am more impressed with Bierce's style, it may be true that Twain was a writer of much greater scope and depth. But is Twain a fair comparison? Perhaps Bierce should be compared to writers of a more similar genre, e.g. Poe, Saki and O. Henry. I like them all, but if you were to put all their books on my shelf – including Twain – I would reach first for Bierce.