William Kennedy, Address to Commencement

May 15, 2005

Good morning, President Sullivan, university trustees, members of the faculty, fellow honorees, my good friends Marion Roach, class of ’77, and my daughter-in-law Tracy Williams Kennedy, class of ’92.

I’d like to begin by asking today’s graduates a question once asked to students by Owen D. Young, an eminent figure in the history of this university: “Have you enlarged your knowledge of obligations…?” In reply you may ask, “What obligations?” Someone once asked my uncle if he wanted a drink and he replied, “The last time I refused a drink I didn’t understand the question.”

Most of us are in the dark about the question, and the fact is that we’re all in a conspiracy to find an answer. When we do, we either create a theory to disprove it, or we run for office to change it, or we invest our pension money in it, or we take a photo to remember what it looks like. I’ve had two careers in writing, both based on the necessity of the question, and maybe that’s useful to you who are about to be interrogated.

When I graduated from a young Catholic liberal arts college the only obligation I understood was removing myself immediately from my parents’ welfare system. I knew what I wanted to be when I was half-way through high school, and leaving college that’s what I was – a newspaperman. I never worried about making money, which was nice because you didn’t get any from newspapers. I opted for poverty, always ten paces behind my paycheck. Hemingway said if you wrote well enough the money would follow, but he didn’t say when. It didn’t matter, for I was obsessed. Since grammar school I’d read two newspapers a day and four on Sundays. My early career models were reporters who on deadline could turn out stories that read like literature – H.L. Mencken and Westbrook Pegler before he became a fascist and Heywood Broun and columnists like Red Smith and Damon Runyon, who could make me laugh three times in one sentence. I wanted to write like that and in college I was writing – journalism and short stories, a duality I didn’t take seriously. I considered fiction a left-handed avocation to pursue while becoming a foreign correspondent, preferably in Paris. As an English major I was getting to know Swift and Blake and Coleridge, and never got to moderns such as Joyce or Kafka or Faulkner; but I came to understand that the obligation to emulate them was implied in my education. Joyce and Faulkner had written for newspapers as young men, and Hemingway, John O’Hara, Graham Greene, Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser had been reporters.

My obligation to literature emerged slowly, for life as a newsman was rich. I was never bored, often ecstatic, and from early on my editors let me write my way, even gave me a column. I believed reporters lived at the center of the action, and could behave in reckless, even heroic ways, in service of humane values, or a good story. Ernie Pyle became a journalistic saint for writing about front-line troops in the Second World War. Edward R. Murrow became a national hero for taking on the reptilian Senator Joseph McCarthy. I saw that the reporter’s job came with implicit moral resonance and also an explicit code of ethics: tell the truth or you’re fired; be objective as far as possible, which isn’t very far; be fair, even to criminals, fatuous movie stars and lying politicians. Some clever writer once said that what newspapers publish is a first draft of history. I love that first draft but as my reporting grew complex I realized I wasn’t at all the center of the action, only the fringe. I couldn’t use the language I felt necessary. Sex was taboo and so was candor, especially if it was true. I wanted to write a second or third draft of history that included motives. I couldn’t reflect the hypocrisy of the racists and plunders I was writing about, and as my rage at social inequity grew I turned into a muckraker, and some politicians and slumlords actually feared what I wrote. It was a heady time and for a few minutes I felt I was in the footsteps of Mencken, the scourge of tub-thumping moralists and boobs at all levels of society. I revered Mencken’s eviscerating talent and I still consider his advice to reporters that they should be “querulous and bellicose” as enduring watchwords for the journalist’s obligation, especially in this age when the Bush administration is treading on the individual rights and creating the most secret government in modern history. I thought that the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, which Mencken covered with such brilliant bellicosity, had heralded the well-earned death of that absurd anti-Darwinian evangelism that took the bible to be scientific truth. But I was wrong. Creationism is alive and well within the electorate that put George W. Bush in the White House. The Scopes Trial stories could be rewritten tomorrow about what’s going on in Kansas and the other red states where the bible booboisie from Mencken’s time is back, trying to outlaw the teaching of evolution. This is a reconvening of the Flat Earth Society, but we do move through cycles of history, often with bitter irony. Al Smith lost the 1928 Presidential election because voters feared he’d go to war to support the Pope. George Bush won in 2004 because the Pope preferred a Bush victory and raised John Kerry’s stance on abortion to the level of serious sin.

Just mentioning George Bush raises obligatory questions as to what’s going on in his mind. Does he actually have a mind? If he does why don’t we detect it? Is America better off if he has a mind, or if he doesn’t have one? Even Mencken couldn’t answer these questions journalistically. George Bush deserves to be in a novel – not my novel, but somebody’s. I’ve already got my hands full with Fidel Castro.

I’ve been talking today about this odyssey I’ve been on since my youth, but not because it’s valuable but because it may be instructive to somebody. Many people have taken heart from the story of my long perseverance and the eventual success I’ve had with my novels. But I never cease to remind myself of what Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, said about success. “It’s a short walk,” he said, “from the hallelujah to the hoot.”

My odyssey, my walk, is a story of intuition and it comes with some obvious arrogance to believe that you have something worth writing. Saul Bellow, in his wonderful Nobel Prize acceptance speech, said that writers are greatly respected. And I’m delighted that somebody thinks so. He went on to say, “the intelligent public… is waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science… a more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are and what life is for.” My experience tells me that that is why serious writers write what they do. Shelley wrote that poets – and by that he meant all artists – accumulate power and receive intense, passionate conceptions of man and nature, and then they write poetry that changes opinion and institutions beneficially. He called the writers “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” but he also said that they are astonished by their own power, for he sees that power derived less from the writers’ own spirit than from the spirit of the age working through them.”

The spirit of the age -- I think Shelly was on to something. And I relate it to Owen Young’s notion that we must enlarge our knowledge of obligations, which is where we began. The obligation is to know who we are and where we are. Indirectly here today I’ve given an account of who I am and how I got here by doing it my way. I think Owen Young might approve. I know Frank Sinatra would. And so on that note I send my wish to today’s graduates that you all figure out how to become yourselves. If you do that the money will follow. Hemingway told me that. Congratulations to you all.