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Richard Nordquist

Mark Twain's Latest Essay: "The Privilege of the Grave"

By December 15, 2008

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In the summer of 1905, Mark Twain wrote a short essay, titled "The Privilege of the Grave," in which he charged that "out of fear, or out of calculated wisdom, or out of reluctance to wound friends," the living don't dare to say what they truly think. Such freedom of expression, he said, "ranks with the privilege of committing murder; we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences."

After resting for decades in the Twain archives at the University of California, Berkeley, "The Privilege of the Grave" makes its first public appearance this week in The New Yorker magazine. The voice of the essay is unmistakably that of Samuel Clemens. Not exactly the frog-jumping, raft-riding, fence-painting Mark Twain that many of us grew up with. No, the humor is darker now, the voice more skeptical. This is Twain in his last decade, following bankruptcy and the deaths of his wife and beloved daughter Susy.

Listen as he speaks to us from the grave:

An unpopular opinion concerning politics or religion lies concealed in the breast of every man; in many cases not only one sample, but several. The more intelligent the man, the larger the freightage of this kind of opinions he carries, and keeps to himself. There is not one individual--including the reader and myself--who is not the possessor of dear and cherished unpopular convictions which common wisdom forbids him to utter. Sometimes we suppress an opinion for reasons that are a credit to us, not a discredit, but oftenest we suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth. None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned.

A natural result of these conditions is, that we consciously pay more attention to tuning our opinions to our neighbor's pitch and preserving his approval than we do to examining the opinions searchingly and seeing to it that they are right and sound. This custom naturally produces another result: public opinion being born and reared on this plan, it is not opinion at all, it is merely policy; there is no reflection back of it, no principle, and it is entitled to no respect.

Those of us who revere Mark Twain have to welcome any addition, however tardy, to his impressive body of work. But it's safe to say that "The Privilege of the Grave" is hardly a masterpiece, even in miniature. All that Twain says here he said before, and said more eloquently--in particular in the essay "Corn-Pone Opinions" (written in 1901, published in 1923). "I suppose that in more cases than we should like to admit," he wrote in that earlier essay, "we have two sets of opinions: one private, the other public; one secret and sincere, the other corn-pone, and more or less tainted."

So pick up the year-end issue of The New Yorker and enjoy "The Privilege of the Grave." It's a good short essay. But then take time to read (or re-read) "Corn-Pone Opinions." Now that's a great essay. Or at least I think that's what I think.

More Essays by Mark Twain:

Image: Who Is Mark Twain? by Mark Twain, Introduction by Robert Hirst (head of the Mark Twain Project, UC Berkeley), HarperStudio, 2009


December 16, 2008 at 4:03 am
(1) Anthony says:

Certainly both are fine riffs on the age old problem of man’s reluctance to use the only gift that separates him from other animals, reason, but why you choose one over the other is hard to see, not to mention why you think this is such a dsrk rumination on human nature. It is simply a comic philosophical observation written out in two different ways, and no doubt he write it out in many other ways too in the course of his writing. For there is little that is more ridiculous to one who has a fertile vocabulary, curiosity about the world and active imagination such as Twain that the feebleness of the average human in the department of original thought, a mental room they hardly ever visit. But it is a comedy not a tragedy, for the conformity serves society. Personally what I find shocking is that it penetrates even fields such as science, where the professional is supposed in his/her to be immune to bias of any kind but often proves to be just as much a sheep as any other species of mankind. To my mind this is really only immaturity. Every pianist for example has to learn the scales and other skills before he /she can take a work and truly make it his/her own. Every child has to imitate his elders before he grows up and forms a character of his/her own. It is just that the bulk of humanity are not leaders but followers, ie sheep not goats.
But then, if we were all leaders who would follow? What would society be like? It would not hold together for a minute.

Thats where Mark Twain is right. This follow my leader conformity is almost universal because if it were not we would all be fighting each other.

December 19, 2008 at 6:56 pm
(2) J Daniels says:

The Twain Essay that’s in the New Yorker is actually an excerpt from a collection of 24 unpublished pieces that will be published next April. It’s called WHO IS MARK TWAIN. You can check it out and even get a digital version of it at http://harperstudioekit.com/books/whoismarktwain/index.php

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