Charge to Jonathan Franzen '81
Honorary Degree Citation
Jonathan Franzen, you are an internationally acclaimed novelist and essayist, named by The New Yorker as one of the "twenty writers for the twenty-first century." Your novels combine brilliant storytelling with shrewd exploration of character, and subtle tracing of the intimate connections between the life of the mind, the 'vortex' of happy and unhappy family relations and, as one critic put it, "the swarming consciousness of a whole culture, our culture." You follow, as another critic put it, "in the great American moralist tradition... with a fierce imagination... and distinctive serio-comic voice... as a brilliant interpreter of American society and the American soul."
You grew up in a suburb of St. Louis, and in 1981 graduated from Swarthmore with High Honors, a major in German, and a minor in English. Following a Fulbright scholarship at the Freie Universitat in Berlin, you worked in a seismology lab at Harvard, while at the same time honing your craft.
In 1992 and again in 1994 you returned to Swarthmore to teach the Fiction Writer's Workshop with formative impact on your students, and last spring delivered here a stunning reading of your work in honor of your esteemed teacher, George Avery. You have been a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and were recognized, in 2000, with the American Academy's Berlin Prize.
From your first novel, The Twenty-Seventh City, published in 1988, through Strong Motion, The Corrections, to your recent collection of essays How to be Alone, praise of your work has been breathtaking.
27th City explores a political and economic conspiracy that twists lives and turns the city of St. Louis into a testing ground where personal ambition and moral considerations do battle. It has been described as a work "permeated with intelligence, beauty, and subversive humor, teeming with life, [and] always on the edge of igniting, from its own repressed energy."
Strong Motion tells the story of a young couple who discovers family secrets about a chemical company drilling deep wells which pump toxic waste underground and destabilize the earth's crust. An impending earthquake threatens both the environment and the sense of family trust. Responding to this "lyrical and fearless work," Ephraim Paul compares you to Dreiser, Twain, and Sinclair Lewis.
The Corrections, published in 2001 offers an insider's view of a family unraveling as the father succumbs to Parkinson's, the children slide into depression and chaotic desire, and the mother struggles both to liberate herself and to bring the family home for one last Christmas. Everything from the stock market to affairs of the heart veers toward both breakdown and necessary correction. In Poets and Writers the novel is described as "... offering up pleasures that are utterly Franzenian; a sense of exhilaration which is, in part, the exhilaration of a writer who has broken free of his masters." David Foster Wallace praised it as a testament to the range and depth of pleasures great fiction afford; and Josh Rubins wrote with prescience in The New York Times Book Review "his will be a career to watch".
The Corrections, translated into 28 languages, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and received the National Book Award.
How To Be Alone, whose topics range from your father's struggle with Alzheimer's to the fate of the American novel, dramatically portrays, in critics' words "the erosion of civic life and private dignity and the hidden persistence of loneliness in postmodern, imperial America."
Jonathan Franzen, you are an internationally distinguished writer of extraordinary talent and vision. This College is deeply proud that you nourished your skills, and cultivated your complex and acutely penetrating imagination here.
Upon the recommendation of the faculty, and by the power vested in me by the Board of Managers of Swarthmore College and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I have the honor to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.