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Commencement Address -- Jonathan Franzen '81

29 May, 2005

I find myself so unexpectedly moved that I'm sorry, now, that I don't have any advice, or instructions, for the graduating class. Just this deepening confusion...

When I came to Swarthmore in 1977 I thought I might want to be an investigative journalist. I volunteered for The Phoenix, and I got assigned to investigate why the College's housekeepers didn't belong to a union. To do the story, I had to interview the College's financial vice president, Ed Cratsley, but one of my defects as a journalist, it turned out, was that I was afraid to do interviews. So I made a deal with my friend Tom Hjelm: I would write the entire story, and Tom would get half of the byline in exchange for doing one interview with Mr. Cratsley.

The interview went horribly. Tom came out of it with his hands shaking and tears in his voice. And so, to get even with Mr. Cratsley, whose stonewalling reminded us of Richard Nixon, we printed a highly selective transcript of the interview:

THE PHOENIX: What is the college's policy on maid unionization?
CRATSLEY: [Off the record]
THE PHOENIX: Why does the College have maids?
CRATSLEY: I don't have to answer that, do I?

Mr. Cratsley called us to his office a few days later. He had a strident voice and an aura of authority that I was helpless not to rebel against. He said he was entitled to an apology and a retraction, but he would settle for a promise to be better journalists in the future. Didn't we agree that it was important to be fair and accurate?

"That would be like disagreeing with motherhood," I said.

My next — and last — investigative story for The Phoenix was about an alleged gender imbalance in the Honors program. I was very proud of my bravery in actually interviewing the program's leading student critic; but the story drew a blizzard of angry letters in response. The worst of them began, "I did not expect to be the only person interviewed for Mr. Franzen's article."

Soon after this, I decided I should be a fiction writer. The great thing about fiction — I remember actually thinking this — was that you got to invent all the quotes.

The next time I did journalism was sixteen years later. The New Yorker had taken a chance on me and sent me to Chicago to write about a postal scandal there. The World Cup was in progress, and I ended up in a hotel room that cost three hundred dollars a night. I would watch TV all morning, and when it was lunch hour I would finally make one phone call and leave a message, knowing that the person was out to lunch, and the person would call me back at three or four in the afternoon and refer me to somebody else, and I would then watch TV until it was too late in the day to make another call. I stayed in the hotel room for three weeks, just under seven thousand dollars worth, during which time I managed to do six interviews. By sheer dumb luck, one of the six was with a local reporter who gave me a source who had a great story to tell.

It happened that I was staying in Swarthmore that summer. I wrote the postal story in a beautiful office that the English Department lent me in the new Performing Arts Center. The College was thriving, and its vitality owed a lot to the amazing size and health of its endowment — which, I now learned, was the fruit of Ed Cratsley's foresight and labors in the seventies. Mr. Cratsley, it turned out, was the one of the true heroes in the College's history — famous both for his financial genius and for his personal devotion and unflagging loyalty to the school. His only offense against Tom Hjelm and me, it now seemed, had been to expect us to behave like adults.

Which brings me to my first comment to the graduating class: It's good to be an adult. Our consumer culture may tell you otherwise, but being an adult is actually better than being a kid.

Although, actually, when I think about it, I could be wrong about that.

My most recent attempt to be a journalist was two summers ago, when I volunteered to go to Washington to do political reporting for The New Yorker. I spent two months in a series of expensive Washington hotel rooms, staring at the telephone, unable to pick it up, watching immense quantities of TV, averaging less than one interview per day, hating every minute of it, wondering why on earth I had gotten myself into this yet again, and knowing that this time, too, however much I hated it, would probably not be the last.

Which brings me to my second comment: you may be wrong about a lot of stuff now, wrong about almost everything, wrong about the Mr. Cratsleys in your life, but you might as well get used to kind of person you are right now, because that person isn't going anywhere.