NewSouth Books, based in Alabama, is publishing a new edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. As many know, Mr. Twain has been very much in the news lately. His Autobiography is a current bestseller (NYTimes bestseller list for 10 weeks now) and is earning well-deserved praise.
Regrettably, now we must add another reason Mr. Twain is in the news. NewSouth Books plans to publish its version of Huckleberry Finn substituting the words “slave” and “Indian” for what he actually wrote. See NYTimes “Publisher Tinkers With Twain.” Twain knew well what censorship means, saying that only the dead can “speak their honest minds…” in his essay “The Privilege of the Grave.”
Given that the new year has dawned with an avalanche of censorship – from the Smithsonian’s removal of David Wojnarowicz’s video, to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles’ whitewash of an artwork which they commissioned by renowned street artist Blu, to now an expurgated version of Huck Finn, we think that it’s worth rereading Twain’s essay, originally published in the New Yorker.
The Privlege of the Grave
Its occupant 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 possesses 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. 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. There are not 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. None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned.
A natural result of these conditions is, that we consciously or unconsciously 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.
When an entirely new and untried political project is sprung upon the people, they are startled, anxious, timid, and for a time they are mute, reserved, non-committal. The great majority of them are not studying the new doctrine and making up their minds about it, they are waiting to see which is going to be the popular side. In the beginning of the anti-slavery agitation three-quarters of a century ago, in the North, it found no sympathy there. Press, pulpit and nearly everybody blew cold upon it. This was from timidity, the fear of speaking out and becoming obnoxious, not from approval of slavery or lack of pity for the slave; for all nations like the State of Virginia and myself are not exceptions to this rule; we joined the Confederate cause not because we wanted to, for we did not, but we wanted to be in the swim. It is plainly a law of nature, and we obeyed it.
It is desire to be in the swim that makes successful political parties. There is no higher motive involved – with the majority – unless membership in a party because one’s father was a member of it is one. The average citizen is not a student of party doctrines, and quite right: neither he nor I would ever be able to understand them. If you should ask him to explain – in intelligible detail – why he preferred one of the coin-standards to the other, his attempt to do it would be disgraceful. The same with the tariff. The same with any other large political doctrine; for all large political doctrines are rich in difficult problems – problems that are quite above the average citizen’s reach. And that is not strange, since they are also above the reach of the ablest minds in the country; after all the fuss and all the talk, not one of those doctrines has been conclusively proven to be the right one and the best.
When a man has joined a party, he is likely to stay in it. If he changes his opinion – his feeling, I mean, his sentiment – he is likely to stay, anyway; his friends are of that party, and he will keep his altered sentiment to himself, and talk the privately discarded one. On those terms he can exercise his American privilege of free speech, but not on any others. These unfortunates are in both parties, but in what proportions we cannot guess. Therefore we never know which party was really in the majority at an election.
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.
Now there is hardly one of us but would dearly like to reveal these secrets of ours; we know we cannot do it in life, then why not do it from the grave, and have the satisfaction of it? Why not put those things into our diaries, instead of so discreetly leaving them out? Why not put them in, and leave the diaries behind, for our friends to read? Or free speech is a desirable thing. I felt it in London, five years ago, when Boer sympathizers – respectable men, taxpayers, good citizens, and as much entitled to their opinions as were any other citizens – were mobbed at their meetings, and their speakers maltreated and driven from the platform by other citizens who differed from them in opinion. I have felt it in America when we have mobbed meetings and battered the speakers. And most particularly I feel it every week or two when I want to print something that a fine discretion tells me I mustn’t. 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. There is free speech there, and no harm to the family.