On May 21, 2005 David Foster Wallace delivered the commencement address at Kenyon College. In the years since, the speech has come to play an important role in the way Wallace’s work is received and remembered. Depending on who you ask, the speech is the clearest distillation Wallace ever gave of the themes that run through his fiction, or it is a powerful practical guide for how to live a good life, or—in the way the speech has been marketed since—it’s an example of how a vibrant, challenging artist can be packaged for mainstream consumption.
Or it’s a chilling precursor to Wallace’s suicide. On a hot Ohio morning, Wallace described for the Kenyon grads the day-in-day-out difficulties of grown-up American life. He beseeched his audience to fight hard to remain conscious and alert through the long slog of adult life; he urged them to be vigilant about exercising control over what they think and how they construct meaning from experience. These, maybe, are some of the challenges that Wallace himself ultimately could not bear.
The portable wisdom of the speech, layered with Wallace’s complex and tragic pathos, landed the address on Time Magazine‘s best commencement speeches of all time list, and caused it to be reproduced as a book, This is Water, which was published a year after Wallace’s suicide and achieves book-length by dedicating a page to each line of the 22-minute address.
I recently began to wonder: What did the Kenyon grads think when they heard Wallace deliver it on that hot Ohio morning? I was curious whether Wallace’s speech seemed important in real time or whether it was hard to perceive amid the hurrah of a graduation weekend. This is a question to ask of any event that grows in significance over time, but it seemed particularly relevant here given the themes Wallace spoke about. “The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see,” Wallace said in a slow, even voice. I wondered if this same idea might have described the reception of Wallace’s speech as it echoed over the gathered crowd.
To answer my question I reached out to Kenyon grads through friends of friends and through the Class of 2005’s Facebook page. “I’m a journalist writing a piece about the commencement speech David Foster Wallace delivered to your graduating class and I’m wondering if you’d be willing to answer a few short questions,” I said in my introductory email. After hitting send, I often had the odd feeling that I was badgering these people. I worried that they were tired of talking about an event that maybe had become more important to the rest of us than it had ever been to them.
What do you remember about your reaction and the reaction on campus when Wallace was announced as the commencement speaker?
Jackie G.: I was on the committee that decided to ask him to be our speaker. I had no idea who he was until one of my friends on the committee told me about him. We wanted to focus on a meaningful message. This was much more important to us that having a big name everyone would know. We wanted a speech with a message that was personal to our class. So I guess it would be more accurate to say we wanted our class to be the intended audience of the speech.
Megan H.: I had not heard of David Foster Wallace before the announcement that he was to be our commencement speaker.
Gabe S.: I personally knew nothing of him. A couple friends of mine had heard of him and read a couple of his works. The feeling I got from people was “huh, this could be interesting.”
What was your impression of Wallace as he delivered the speech?
Mike L.: The one emotion I remember is intensity: he was clear, driving, and inwardly focused. He also didn’t say anything dismissively. Whether it was his technique or his real feeling I have no idea, but he read the speech like he was passing on a message of importance. Sitting here, I picture a guy at a radio in a bunker intercepting a message, then reading it off to someone else, wasting no time and enunciating every syllable.
Jackie G.: He seemed a little nervous at first. He also seemed like someone who had something to say that was worth hearing. He was a little disheveled and didn’t stand up straight when he spoke. He seemed earnest, like he really wanted to say something to us. Hoped he could say something meaningful or useful to us.
Gabe S.: This guy was peculiar, in the most captivating way. I remember he held his head at a slight angle, so that his hair (which was pretty long) would sort of droop over half of his face. It wasn’t in a pretentious way at all, but also not entirely shy — it seemed like in a way he just didn’t care about where his hair was: He was concentrating way too hard to notice maybe. He had a very level, even voice. Slow and deliberate and thoughtful. He seemed like he didn’t do anything without first thinking about it.
What was your reaction immediately after the speech? Was it clear you’d heard a better than average commencement address?
Mike L.: For the next few hours, we were graduating. Ceremony, cap-throwing, photographs. No one changed their day over the speech or got distracted from their graduation emotions for very long. The first people I clearly remember saying anything about the speech were the parents. It looked like an ice-breaking thing. Hey, I’m ____’s mom, our kids know each other. Wasn’t that a good speech? There were shared affirmations about the grocery store story.
Megan H.: I don’t remember if I spoke much with anyone about it that afternoon. It was a whirlwind trying to find friends, and parents and professors for pictures before it was our time to leave for good. But I knew after that what I had heard was pretty special.
Gabe S.: My reaction immediately after the speech was “Holy crap that was awesome.” But what hit me the hardest about his speech was that it contained zero crap, zero preaching or ideology or politics or really anything at all that could even be taking as a suggestion. He stood there in front of us as one of the most humble people I’ve ever seen in front of an audience, and talked about life. The fact that he prepared this speech for us made me feel incredibly honored.
Since graduation, have you returned to the speech or read any of Wallace’s other works?
Mike L.: There were four of us who all read Infinite Jest that year after graduation. We e-mailed each other constantly about the book and our thoughts and our jokes about the book. I read it mostly in bars, after work in Manhattan. I can remember which stools I chose for IJ time.
Jackie G.: I kind of surprise myself when I say that I have not. I do spend time thinking about his speech, particularly the part about being at the checkout counter and remembering that you don’t know the context of other people’s lives. I remember this part a lot in my daily life, particularly when I’m annoyed or frustrated with other people who I don’t know well or at all.
Gabe S.: I re-read it once. Embarrassingly, it was when I was moving, and I was packing a bookshelf. I have my printed copy (which we were given post-graduation) with me still, and I don’t plan on ever giving it up. I know it’s in book form, but that’s not the same. Mine is “original” and I intend to have my kids read it when they go off to college, and when they are done.