16 December 2008

The Latest From Mark Twain

Samuel Clemens is one of the hardest working dead men in the literary business. Practically since he dropped 98 years ago, there has been a sporadic flow of manuscripts that still goes on. Tupac has nothing on Mark Twain. One of his plays had its New York debut just a couple of years ago. An entirely new collection of unpublished writing will be published next spring. It's become clear that Twain wrote a lot for posthumous publication, and an item that appears in this week's holiday issue of The New Yorker helps explain his motivation.

Free speech is the privilege of the dead, the monopoly of the dead. They can speak their honest minds without offending. We have charity for what the dead say. 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! For it would be found that in matters of opinion no departed person was exactly what he had passed for in life; that out of fear, or out of calculated wisdom, or out of reluctance to wound friends, he had long kept to himself certain views not suspected by his little world, and had carried them unuttered to the grave. And then the living would be brought by this to a poignant and reproachful realization of the fact that they, too, were tarred by that same brush. They would realize, deep down, that they, and whole nations along with them, are not really what they seem to be -- and never can be.

In Twain's case, the big revelation that had to wait after his death was that he was a kind of infidel, or at least far more irreverent toward God and Christianity than he thought his contemporaries could stand. He also nursed a misanthropic streak that would really have scandalized his original fans and still seems at odds with the friendly, folksy image he contrived for himself.

"The Privilege of the Grave," as this piece is called, isn't exactly a confession of cowardice. Clemens took brave public stands against American imperialism in the Philippines and other controversial issues. But despite his celebrity and the esteem in which he was held, he didn't think he could tell people what he really thought on some topics. And if he felt that way, he could imagine how others felt.

There are fewer than five thousand murders to one (unpopular) free utterance. There is justification for this reluctance to utter unpopular opinions; the cost of utterance is too heavy; it can ruin a man in his business, it can lose him his friends, it can subject him to public insult and abuse, it can ostracize his unoffending family, and make his house a despised and unvisited solitude. 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.

Are times really better now? To an extent I'd say they are. Isolated possessors of unpopular convictions have the internet to connect them to likeminded people among whom they can vent their feelings, but for many of them it's probably still too much of a risk to air them out before the larger public. There have arguably been better times between Twain's and today. H. L. Mencken could say much that Mark wanted to, and became a celebrity for doing it in the 1920s, but he didn't have to worry about contradicting a more pleasant and lucrative public image. I'm not sure that Mencken could become as popular now, or whether a living Mark Twain's popularity could today survive the appearance of such writings as have come out in the last one hundred years. But here they are anyway, and for many people they've only enhanced the great man's reputation. Might we think differently had he dared publish such stuff in his lifetime? Perhaps. But we shouldn't necessarily think worse of him for not doing so. As I said, on the current affairs of his time he spoke out in timely fashion. On deeper issues of religion and human nature the questions stay the same across the centuries, and his answers are no less relevant for coming out as late as they do. And if they disturb people that's only appropriate for the literary undead.

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