Perhaps the most telling incident in Kurt Vonnegut’s life was one that never took place.
A decade ago, stories began spreading via the Internet about Vonnegut’s extraordinary commencement address at MIT. “Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '98 – wear sunscreen,” was his memorable opening, and the talk only got zanier from there. He praised the benefits of flossing and dancing in your living room; told the graduates to “do one thing every day that scares you”; and he admonished them to “keep old love letters, but throw away old bank statements.”
The only problem was that the famous Vonnegut address never happened. The comments had been lifted from a newspaper column by Mary Schmich in the Chicago Tribune. MIT had not even invited Vonnegut to give the commencement speech that year; instead offering its podium to Kofi Annan, whose talk (according to a MIT spokesperson) was "a lot longer and maybe not as clever."
But the fact that the public associated this delightful and touching example of truth-telling to the youth of America with Vonnegut tells you much about the aura surrounding the great writer. For millions of his readers, Vonnegut was the father-figure – or as time passed, the grandfather-figure — they longed to have. He combined all the attributes you wanted in a mentor: honesty, humor, wisdom, compassion and a dose of unpredictability that kept you on your toes.
We think of Vonnegut as one of the great figures of the 1960s counterculture, and his most famous works, such as Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle, date from that era. But Vonnegut wrote his first novel, Player Piano, while Harry Truman was in office. And though he peppered his books with futuristic ideas and concepts drawn from science fiction, Vonnegut spent most his career looking backward, especially at the events of World War II, which figure prominently in much of his writing.
Many of his generation wrote war novels, but in Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut re-invented the genre. His experiences as a POW, captured behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge, left Vonnegut with searing memories of Dresden in the aftermath of its firebombing. But while other authors might have addressed this subject in the context of an historical novel, only Vonnegut could conceive of optometrist Billy Pilgrim kidnapped by aliens, becoming “unstuck in time,” and thus forced to relive his imprisonment in a slaughterhouse in Dresden.
American writing was in good hands in the 1960s. The boundaries between fiction and non-fiction were blurring under the assaults of Ken Kesey, Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson and others. Vonnegut played an important role in this transformation, mixing autobiography and social commentary into his novels, refusing to accept the neat categories that had previously separated literature into isolated neighborhoods and enclaves. At a time when science fiction was dismissed as a lowbrow genre, Vonnegut revealed that its fanciful, speculative character made it an ideal means to re-examine the pieties and commonplaces of our day-to-day lives. Perhaps only George Orwell did more in this regard.
We will miss Vonnegut much. And not just for advice about sunscreen and flossing. He expanded our horizons, opened up our hearts and taught us some truths. And in the process he did something even more potent – he showed us that this growth could also be fun, could be in fact the only way to have fun. MIT missed out when they didn’t sign him up as commencement speaker.