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 It is one of twenty-four previously unpublished Twain essays which will appear in a book of essays Who Is Mark Twain?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!