the Irish for rights

Mark Twain exercises the Privilege of the Grave

Mark Twain, via Wikipedia.In an article written in 1905 but published for the first time in the most recent New Yorker, Mark Twain (left) exercises the privilege of the grave: that of the expression that is really free. In his view, although we may in theory have the right to free speech, nevertheless, in practice, prudence and social convention prevent us from exercising it, so that the only time we can really exercise it is from the grave, whence we don’t care what others might think of the views which we might express.

According to Twain (official site | Mark Twain Project Online | house and museum | Stormfield Project | Time Magazine profile: The Dangerous Mind of Mark Twain | TwainWeb | UVa site: Mark Twain in his Times | wikipedia), therefore, the occupant of the grave

… has one privilege which is not exercised by any living person: free speech. The living man is not really without this privilege – strictly speaking – but as he possess it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it, it cannot be seriously regarded as an actual possession. As an active privilege, it ranks with the privilege of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences. There is not one individual who is not the possessor of dear and cherished unpopular convictions which common wisdom forbids him to utter. …

Read the New Yorker abstract; listen to Paul Auster reading extracts on npr; and check out other reaction here, here, here, here, here, and here. We have the essay courtesy of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library’s Mark Twain Papers & Project. It is one of twenty-four previously unpublished Twain essays which will appear in a book of essays Who Is Mark Twain? to be published by the project in April. Advance publicity and full text are available here.

Ever the contrarian and controversialist, Twain’s point is a strong one, but overstated. True it is that common wisdom often restrains us in our choices of what we say and when we say it, but it does not invariably do so. We may be able to say what we think from beyond the grave, and be indulged for it, but many often say what they think this side of the grave, even if they are not indulged but denounced. There’s nothing wrong with exercising a little self-restraint in speech, but it’s not a constraint, stifling expression and debate. After all, Twain may have chosen to hold some things back to be published after his death, but he said equally outrageous and provocative things during his lifetime as well. By all means, exercise the privilege of the grave, but don’t wait until then to say what you really think!

9 Responses to “Mark Twain exercises the Privilege of the Grave”

  1. […] Cearta.ie, the Irish rights blog reports “Mark Twain exercises the Privilege of the Grave.” […]

  2. Karlin says:

    Eoin thanks for the steer to some new Twain writings. Fantastic!

    I hope most of us will not wait to speak ‘after the grave’ (not least because it would be pretty creepy…!)

    This point is well made:

    “After all, Twain may have chosen to hold some things back to be published after his death, but he said equally outrageous and provocative things during his lifetime as well. ”

    Yes indeed. There is a difference between self-restraint and self-gagging…

  3. Eoin says:

    Hi Karlin,

    Thanks for the comment. The “new” Twain essay is lots of fun, and it spurred me to find out more about Berkeley’s Bancroft Project. I’m looking forward to the new book in April too. And yes, I agree that exercising the privilege of the grave would be creepy, though I am sure there is a technological way in which it could relatively easily be exercised … :-)

    Happy new year!


  4. […] Reports of My Death are Exactly Right puts a rather different spin on Mark Twain’s exercise of the Privilege of the Grave […]

  5. I used to read this quote of Mark Twain “If the good Lord wanted us to talk more than to listen, he would have given us 2 mouths instead of just one”. The point every one can understand.

  6. Carson W. says:

    Privilege of the grave journalism does not mean you just can right anything no matter how wrong and bad it is. It also comes with responsible journalism and the truth and nothing but the truth.

    Carson W.

  7. Roger says:

    I’d never heard of this phrase, but I find it fascinating that someone would want to wait until they were dead to say what they wanted to say when they were alive.

  8. Jess says:

    How much more of Twain’s writing is unpublished? Is there specific writing withheld at his request until after his demise? Now that he’s been in the grave a while, are there specified release dates?

  9. […] up on Erasmus’s aphorism, Mark Twain quipped “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society”. It […]

Leave a Reply



Me in a hatHi there! Thanks for dropping by. I’m Eoin O’Dell, and this is my blog: Cearta.ie – the Irish for rights.

“Cearta” really is the Irish word for rights, so the title provides a good sense of the scope of this blog.

In general, I write here about private law, free speech, and cyber law; and, in particular, I write about Irish law and education policy.

Academic links


  • RSS Feed
  • RSS Feed
  • Subscribe via Email
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn

Archives by month

Categories by topic

My recent tweets

Blogroll (or, really, a non-blogroll)

What I'd like for here is a simple widget that takes the list of feeds from my existing RSS reader and displays it here as a blogroll. Nothing fancy. I'd love a recommendation, if you have one.

I had built a blogroll here on my Google Reader RSS subscriptions. Google Reader produced a line of html for each RSS subscription category, each of which I pasted here. So I had a list of my subscriptions as my blogroll, organised by category, which updated whenever I edited Google Reader. Easy peasy. However, with the sad and unnecessary demise of that product, so also went this blogroll. Please take a moment to mourn Google Reader. If there's an RSS reader which provides a line of html for the list of subscriptions, or for each RSS subscription category as Google Reader did, I'd happily use that. So, as I've already begged, I'd love a recommendation, if you have one.

Meanwhile, please bear with me until I find a new RSS+Blogroll solution




Creative Commons License

This blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. I am happy for you to reuse and adapt my content, provided that you attribute it to me, and do not use it commercially. Thanks. Eoin

Credit where it’s due

The image in the banner above is a detail from a photograph of the front of Trinity College Dublin night taken by Melanie May.

Others whose technical advice and help have proven invaluable in keeping this show on the road include Dermot Frost, Karlin Lillington, Daithí Mac Síthigh, and Antoin Ó Lachtnáin.

Thanks to Blacknight for hosting.