Mark Twain: Speech is freer from the grave

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

NEW YORK — It only took a 100 years or so, but the world is finally getting a piece of Mark Twain’s mind on the subject of free expression and whether it’s safer for your words to be expressed after you’re dead.

“Free speech is the privilege of the dead, the monopoly of the dead. They can speak their honest minds without offending,” Twain observed in “The Privilege of the Grave,” an essay written in 1905, and long unpublished, that appears in the Dec. 22 issue of The New Yorker.

“We have charity for what the dead say,” Twain continued. “We may disapprove of what they say, but we do not insult them, we do not revile them, as knowing they cannot now defend themselves. If they should speak, what revelations there would be!

“Now there is hardly one of us but would dearly like to reveal these secrets of ours,” he added. “We know we cannot do it in life, then why not do it from the grave, and have the satisfaction of it?”

The essay is part of the Mark Twain archive at the University of California-Berkeley.

The following excerpts from the essay were read Dec. 14 on the National Public Radio program “All Things Considered”:

“As an active privilege, [free speech] ranks with the privilege of committing murder: we may exercise it if we are willing to take the consequences. Murder is forbidden both in form and in fact; free speech is granted in form but forbidden in fact. By the common estimate both are crimes, and are held in deep odium by all civilized peoples. Murder is sometimes punished, free speech, always — when committed. Which is seldom.”

“Sometimes my feelings are so hot that I have to take to the pen and pour them out on paper to keep them from setting me afire inside; then all that ink and labor are wasted, because I can’t print the result. I have just finished an article of this kind, and it satisfies me entirely. It does my weather-beaten soul good to read it, and admire the trouble it would make for me and the family. I will leave it behind, and utter it from the grave.”

Tags: , ,