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: