After surviving the firebombing of Dresden during World War II and then decades as a chain-smoker, U.S. author Kurt Vonnegut’s death in 2007 felt tragi-comic since it came from tripping while walking down stairs.
In the wake of his death, the world has been offered an expanding universe of Vonnegut including an authorized biography and greater attention paid to his visual artwork, first offered as comic doodles in his novels such as Breakfast of Champions.
Vonnegut’s fame came relatively late in the 1960s and 1970s and was spurred in part because of his popularity with college students, who gravitated to his dark humor and counter-culture messages in Slaughterhouse-Five. But Vonnegut also built a career as a public speaker, notably at college graduations.
As an avid reader and occasional Vonnegut scholar, I continue to understand better the complexities of Vonnegut the person and the persona, indistinguishable in his novels and his public talks, but remain drawn to his enduring messages of love, kindness, and hope.
“You will find no lies in Vonnegut’s words of advice,” explains Dan Wakefield, writer and lifelong friend of Vonnegut, adding in his introduction to a collection of Vonnegut’s graduation speeches: “He is one of the truth tellers of our time.”
Vonnegut excelled in bending and blending genres, and in his graduation speeches, he both paid tribute to the form, mocked it, and gave it a new life, one only possible from the creator of Kilgore Trout, himself the embodiment and personified satire of pulp science fiction writers.
“If this isn’t nice, what is?”
As a writer, Vonnegut bristled at being labeled a science fiction writer, argued that no one could teach someone to write (while working at the famed University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop), and explained that he wrote by crafting a series of jokes, having developed as a child an enduring love for his sister and slapstick.
Vonnegut’s contradictions and mis-directions are on full display in his graduation speeches, where he often began by addressing directly both the purpose of commencement talks (giving advice) and the futility of such ceremonies.
“We love you, are proud of you, expect good things from you, and wish you well,” Vonnegut began at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia on May 15, 1999:
This is a long-delayed puberty ceremony. You are at last officially full-grown women—what you were biologically by the age of 15 or so. I am as sorry as I can be that it took so much time and money before you could at last be licensed as grown-ups.
If graduation speeches are meant to punctuate ceremony, then Vonnegut was going to throw cold water on ceremony.
If graduation speeches offer one last moment for sage advice from elders to the young, Vonnegut was going to say something to displease adults and disorient the young.
But always wrapped inside his curmudgeon paper was a recurring gift, one that tied all of his work together: Vonnegut was tragically optimistic and even gleeful about this world.
On cue, then, at Agnes Scott, Vonnegut rejected the Code of Hammurabi, revenge, and admitted he was a humanist, not a Christian, adding:
If Christ hadn’t delivered the Sermon on the Mount, with its message of mercy and pity, I wouldn’t want to be a human being.
I would just as soon be a rattlesnake.
Finally, to those young women, Vonnegut concluded:
I’ll want a show of hands after I ask this question.
How many of you have had a teacher at any level of your education who made you more excited to be alive, prouder to be alive, than you had previously believed possible?
Hold up your hands, please.
Now take down your hands and say the name of that teacher to someone else and tell them what that teacher did for you.
If this isn’t nice, what is?
A Socialist Non-believer Preaching Love
If Vonnegut was anything, he was a proud Midwesterner, haling from Indiana, who reveled in invoking the name of Eugene V. Debs, a rarely acknowledged voice for workers throughout the late 1800s and into the early 20th century and central inspiration for Hocus Pocus.
Vonnegut as freethinker, then, always stood before graduation audiences, disheveled and wild-haired in the tradition of Mark Twain, the embodiment of the tensions created by college education—where young people often discovered everything their parents feared young people would discover.
The great irony of Vonnegut as graduation speaker was that his perch as counter-culture icon provided him the opportunity to express the central beliefs that, in fact, were what the adult world should want from the young.
Vonnegut thanked graduates for pursuing education, but then apologized for the mess adults had left them to face.
At Butler University in Indiana on May 11, 1996, Vonnegut celebrated his homeland, where he witnessed:
People so smart you can’t believe it, and people so dumb you can’t believe it.
People so nice you can’t believe it, and people so mean you can’t believe it.
And as was typical of his joke making, Vonnegut, acknowledged atheist, turned to the Bible at the end: “As I read the book of Genesis, God didn’t give Adam and Eve a whole planet.”
He lamented, then: “There’s a lot of cleaning up to do,” and “[t]here’s a lot of rebuilding to do, both spiritual and physical.” But out of this mess, Vonnegut reminded the graduates: “And, again, there’s going to be a lot of happiness. Don’t forget to notice!”
One cannot help hearing always in the background of Vonnegut as public speaker, Eliot Rosewater from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater imploring:
“Go over to her shack, I guess. Sprinkles some water on the babies, say, ‘Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:
“‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'”
Vonnegut as a graduation speaker implored us all to pay attention to the things that matter. These moments are ceremonies, yes, but important reminders in these times we agree to pause before moving on.
“reading a biography (in the absence of you)”
Thomas, P. L. (2013, April). Looking for Vonnegut: Confronting genre and the author/narrator divide. In R. T. Tally, ed., Critical insights: Kurt Vonnegut (pp. 118-140). Ipswich, MA: Salem Press.
—–. (2013, January). 21st century “Children’s Crusade”: A curriculum of peace driven by critical literacy. Peace Studies Journal, 6(1), 15-30.
—–. (2012, Fall). Lost in adaptation: Kurt Vonnegut’s radical humor in film and print. Studies in American Humor, 3(26), 85-101.
—–. (2009). “No damn cat, and no damn cradle”: The fundamental flaws in fundamentalism according to Vonnegut. In D. Simmons (Ed.), New critical essays on Kurt Vonnegut (pp. 27-45). New York: Palgrave.
—–. (2006). Reading, learning, teaching Kurt Vonnegut. New York: Peter Lang USA.