Mark Twain on honest writing … from the grave

Honest soon, as you can see

Honest soon, as you can see

Adrian Monck resurrects, as it were, some wisdom by Mark Twain about writing: The best is done by dead people.

Meaning: While they are alive, even the best writers (such as Mark Twain) are afraid to say what they really think. There is a cost for total honesty, counted in the currency of real-world consequences–offending people, upsetting them, causing outrage etc. (This dovetails with my earlier post on Einstein, who succeeded because he cared so much less than others about incurring this particular cost.)

Posthumous publication, by contrast, avoids this to some extent. So, says Twain, only the dead writer can be said to have 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.

And what is lost?

There is not one individual who is not the possessor of dear and cherished unpopular convictions which common wisdom forbids him to utter. 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, noncommittal.

And thus, power to the dead:

Free speech is the privilege of the dead, the monopoly of the dead. They can speak their honest minds without offending. 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.

And then we discover:

If they should speak, it would be found that in matters of opinion no departed person was exactly what he had passed for in life. 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.

To which Adrian, a cutting-edge blogger, adds:

Certainly, for all the words about transparency in blogging I forever think of the stuff I don’t write about, whether through wordly wisdom or moral cowardice. Probably you do too.

Well, in fact, yes. I do too.


6 thoughts on “Mark Twain on honest writing … from the grave

  1. I think blogging the perfect medium to express exactly what we think or feel, since we can blog anonymously.

    One can be a blogger without any of one’s family or friends knowing about it. Hence freedom.

  2. Twain would have approved of “online pseudonymity.”

    As we know from his major work, he loved the disguise motif. From his minor work–one of my favorites being The Stolen White Elephant–he satirized journalists, detectives, and the plain stupidity of mankind by naming his characters silly seudonyms..(sorry, couldn’t resist). Of course, the detectives, headed up my Inspector Blunt, come out as total idiots. The journalists are not far behind.

    The only sympathy we feel at the end of the story is for poor Hassan (aka Jumbo), the dead elephant.

    What would Twain have done to new media?

  3. Ah yes. Amazing that this didn’t occur to me. Mark Twain was a pseudonym, ie a nom de plume.

    Apparently Samuel Langhorne Clemens “signed humorous and imaginative sketches “Josh” until 1863″, then used the pen name “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass” for a series of humorous letters before settling on Mark Twain:

    “He maintained that his primary pen name came from his years working on Mississippi riverboats, where two fathoms, a depth indicating “safe water” for the boat to float over, was measured on the sounding line. A fathom is a maritime unit of depth, equivalent to two yards (1.8 m); “twain” is an archaic term for “two”. The riverboatman’s cry was “mark twain” or, more fully, “by the mark twain”, meaning “according to the mark [on the line], [the depth is] two [fathoms]”, that is, “there are 12 feet (3.7 m) of water under the boat and it is safe to pass”.

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