The real story on Kurt Vonnegut’s MIT Address

"Words of Wisdom from Mary Schmich"

 

On August 8, Freethinkers published the MIT commencement address given by famous author Kurt Vonnegut. The only problem is that Kurt Vonnegut has never given a commencement address at MIT. Read on:


Vonnegut? Schmich? Who can tell in cyberspace?

by Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune

I am Kurt Vonnegut.

Oh, Kurt Vonnegut may appear to be a brilliant, revered male novelist. I may appear to be a mediocre and virtually unknown female newspaper columnist. We may appear to have nothing in common but unruly hair.

But out in the lawless swamp of cyberspace, Mr. Vonnegut and I are one. Out there, where any snake can masquerade as king, both of us are the author of a graduation speech that began with the immortal words, "Wear sunscreen."

I was alerted to my bond with Mr. Vonnegut Friday morning by several callers and e-mail correspondents who reported that the sunscreen speech was rocketing through the cyberswamp, from L.A. to New York to Scotland, in a vast e-mail chain letter.

Friends had e-mailed it to friends, who e-mailed it to more friends, all of whom were told it was the commencement address given to the graduating class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The speaker was allegedly Kurt Vonnegut.

Imagine Mr. Vonnegut’s surprise. He was not, and never has been, MIT’s commencement speaker. Imagine my surprise. I recall composing that little speech one Friday afternoon while high on coffee and M&M’s. It appeared in this space on June 1. It included such deep thoughts as "Sing," "Floss," and "Don’t mess too much with your hair." It was not art.

But out in the cyberswamp, truth is whatever you say it is, and my simple thoughts on floss and sunscreen were being passed around as Kurt Vonnegut’s eternal wisdom.

Poor man. He didn’t deserve to have his reputation sullied in this way.

So I called a Los Angles book reviewer, with whom I’d never spoken, hoping he could help me find Mr. Vonnegut.

"You mean that thing about sunscreen?" he said when I explained the situation. "I got that. It was brilliant. He didn’t write that?"

He didn’t know how to find Mr. Vonnegut. I tried MIT.

"You wrote that?" said Lisa Damtoft in the news office. She said MIT had received many calls and e-mails on this year’s "sunscreen" commencement speech. But not everyone was sure: Who had been the speaker?

The speaker on June 6 was Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, who did not, as Mr. Vonnegut and I did in our speech, urge his graduates to "dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room." He didn’t mention sunscreen.

As I continued my quest for Mr. Vonnegut — his publisher had taken the afternoon off, his agent didn’t answer — reports of his "sunscreen" speech kept pouring in.

A friend called from Michigan. He’d read my column several weeks ago. Friday morning he received it again — in an e-mail from his boss. This time it was not an ordinary column by an ordinary columnist. Now it was literature by Kurt Vonnegut.

Fortunately, not everyone who read the speech believed it was Mr. Vonnegut’s.

"The voice wasn’t quite his," sniffed one doubting contributor to a Vonnegut chat group on the Internet. "It was slightly off — a little too jokey, a little too cute . . . a little too `Seinfeld.’ "

Hoping to find the source of this prank, I traced one e-mail backward from its last recipient, Hank De Zutter, a professor at Malcolm X College in Chicago. He received it from a relative in New York, who received it from a film producer in New York, who received it from a TV producer in Denver, who received it from his sister, who received it. . . .

I realized the pursuit of culprit zero would be endless. I gave up.

I did, however, finally track down Mr. Vonnegut. He picked up his own phone. He’d heard about the sunscreen speech from his lawyer, from friends, from a women’s magazine that wanted to reprint it until he denied he wrote it.

"It was very witty, but it wasn’t my wittiness," he generously said.

Reams could be written on the lessons in this episode. Space confines me to two.

One: I should put Kurt Vonnegut’s name on my column. It would be like sticking a Calvin Klein label on a pair of K-Mart jeans.

Two: Cyberspace, in Mr. Vonnegut’s word, is "spooky."

E-mail Mary Schmich at mschmich@tribune.com

Mary Schmich’s articles can be read online at: http://www.chicago.tribune.com/news/current/schmich.htm


My Response

Of course, I had to track down Ms. Schmich. Our email correspondance follows:

To: Mary Schmich mschmich@tribune.com
Subject: Completely unrelated to Kurt Vonnegut.

Ms. Schmich,

I have confession to make. I lied. I will refer to Kurt Vonnegut in
this message, but only in passing.

I was not the originator of the prank, and, frankly, I don’t think
I’d like to meet the person who was. Like most people, however, I was
completely taken in by it. In fact, I even sent it out to a
semi-private distribution list, and it is now installed on a web
page. I’ve asked the web page’s author to add an addendum to that
particular part with a link to the REAL story of what happened.

When you say that putting Vonnegut’s name on your article is
like putting a Calvin Klein label on a pair of K-Mart Jeans, you’re
being much too hard on yourself. When people buy Calvin Klein jeans,
they’re paying for the label. A pair from K-Mart would probably be
just as good. The same is not necessarily true of Vonnegut. People
may buy his books because his name is on the cover, but they get a
quality book that costs about the same as most other paperbacks.

What I’m driving at is this: the woman who said "dance, even if you
have nowhere to do it but in your living room" should not turn around
and say she doesn’t deserve to be compared to Kurt Vonnegut. It
sounds hypocritical. If your name had been left on the piece, it
probably would have made it at least as far around the world as it
did with Vonnegut’s name on it. It was a wise, witty, brilliant piece
of work, and you should be happy that, while the association with
Vonnegut has made the work infamous, its simple, quiet wisdom has
made it famous. For years to come people will probably comfort their
friends by saying, "Wear sunscreen", and when they do, they’ll think
of you.

I thank you very much if you have read this far, and I apologize once
again for lying to you. Please believe me when I say I was sincere in
every other way.


From: Mary Schmich mschmich@tribune.com
Subject: Re: Completely unrelated to Kurt Vonnegut.

The lie worked. Thanks for the kind message. MS

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