In January 2013, Donald Farber, the literary executor of Kurt Vonnegut’s estate, asked Vonnegut’s long time friend, the author Dan Wakefield, to come from Indianapolis to New York City to sift through cardboard boxes full of the late writer’s belongings. Among the stack of papers, which included rejected short stories from the 1950s, were speeches from the many commencement addresses Vonnegut delivered in his lifetime.
Wakefield compiled and edited the speeches, and wrote an introduction, for an e-book called If This Isn’t Nice, What Is? published by RosettaBooks last April. Now, a year later, Seven Stories will be releasing the book in hardcover on April 8, just ahead of graduation season, updated with illustrations from Vonnegut’s journals.
“He always responded to those invitations [from universities], and always liked speaking to young people, to college graduates and reminding them what they accomplished,” said Wakefield, who also edited and introduced Kurt Vonnegut Letters, released in 2012 by Delacorte.
Vonnegut and Wakefield are "kindred spirits," according to Seven Stories publisher Dan Simon. "There a lot of people after the fact that have something to do with Kurt, and I think Dan [Wakefield] is the best of the bunch.”
“Seven Stories had a complete free hand with the blessing of Kurt’s estate," Simon continued. They turned to the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington, which houses a collection of Vonnegut’s manuscripts and memorabilia, to see what art was available to illustrate the work. Eventually, the publisher re-purposed art found in notebooks Vonnegut filled out while writing his 1973 novel, Breakfast of Champions.
If This Isn't Nice, What Is?, a nod to a family anecdote Vonnegut often referenced, consists of nine speeches, seven of which were delivered at university commencements. Wakefield also incorporated a speech Vonnegut gave at the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana in 2000 entitled “Why You Can’t Stop Me From Speaking Ill of Thomas Jefferson,” and one delivered when he received the Carl Sandburg Award in 2001 called, “Don’t Despair If You Never Went to College!” The latter is a significant inclusion, as Vonnegut himself wasn’t able to complete his college degree at Cornell, withdrawing in 1943 to join the army in World War II. (He was given an honorary degree by the University of Chicago in 1971).
“This is a side of Kurt that we’re introducing for the first time,” said Simon. “Different from the Kurt of novels, plays, and short stories. The Kurt of the speeches is ‘particular,’ very intimate, very tender, and a little bit sad. I believe that comes from the fact that, here he is speaking to college graduates and college students, and [he] never graduated. His experience was crowded by the war, and crowded by his mother’s suicide.”
Despite the fact that Vonnegut created a newly-minted talk for each engagement, “there’s a few things that run through all of them,” said Wakefield. “He always asked the class to turn to the person next to them and tell them the name of one teacher that made them feel better about themselves, or more interested in life, or more anxious to learn. And one of the themes of his talks [was] always mercy.” Although he wasn’t a Christian, Vonnegut “probably quotes the from the Sermon on the Mount more than anything,” added Wakefield.
Naturally, the inherent value of writing is another unifying theme of Vonnegut’s speeches. “He talks about how people everywhere need art, because everybody is hungry for a message, which is, you are not alone,” said Wakefield. “That there are other people who think and feel the same things that you do.”
While some of the talks in the collection were given as recent as 2004, others are older, from 35 years ago. Still, both Wakefield and Simon touched on the the evergreen interest in Vonnegut’s thoughts and writings. In his introduction, Wakefield writes that a professor at the University of Massachusetts told him that, “It’s hard to get students to read Updike and Bellow anymore, but they still love Vonnegut.”
“His words don’t get old,” added Simon. “I don’t know that there’s another writer whose words don’t get old like Kurt’s don’t get old.”