New York World, 10 December 1899
collected in —
The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg
and Other Stories and Essays
My Debut as a Literary Person,
with Other Essays and Stories
Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays,
The lie of silent assertion
"My First Lie and How I Got Out of It" is a humorous little satire, as we may guess from its title. The thorough and excellent notes in the Library of America's Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays, don't say so, but this reads like a speech, and in fact a number of internal references suggest it was a speech that Mark Twain gave in England:
Here in England they have the oddest ways. They won't tell a spoken lie — nothing can persuade them. Except in a large moral interest, like politics or religion, I mean. ... They will not even tell a lie for the fun of it ... This has a restraining influence upon me in spite of reason, and I am always getting out of practice.
Twain provides some undoubtedly factual anecdotes about his youthful and adult accomplishments in the field of lying, with theory and analysis. He also takes swipes at situations involving George Washington (the cherry tree) and Joseph Chamberlain (the Boer War), as well as proverbial sayings from William Cullen Bryant and Thomas Carlyle:
Mr. Bryant said, "Truth crushed to earth will rise again." I have taken medals at thirteen world's fairs, and may claim to be not without capacity, but I never told as big a one as that. Mr. Bryant was playing to the gallery; we all do it.
Of course, Mark Twain is not going to present a satirical speech without some sharp points amidst the fun. His principal target is not what is said out loud or even written, but the lie of silent assertion:
For instance. It would not be possible for a humane and intelligent person to invent a rational excuse for slavery; yet you will remember that in the early days of the emancipation agitation in the North the agitators got but small help or countenance from any one. Argue and plead and pray as they might, they could not break the universal stillness that reigned, from pulpit and press all the way down to the bottom of society — the clammy stillness created and maintained by the lie of silent assertion — the silent assertion that there wasn't anything going on in which humane and intelligent people were interested.
Twain also indicts the millions who silently acquiesced in the infamous Dreyfus case (1894-1899), just concluded (essentially) in France. He then contrasts provocatively what we find acceptable for individuals with what is acceptable for nations. Then, to relieve the pressure while we try to digest this bits of theory and infamy, he easily slides into some humorous anecdotes.
A powerful and funny speech of Mark Twain's, well worth enjoying and pondering.