He Was Water: Kenyon Grads Remember David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech

May 9, 2011 | 1 book mentioned 21 5 min read

coverOn 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.

coverThe 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?

coverMike 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.

, a staff writer for The Millions, writes the Brainiac ideas column for the Boston Globe and blogs about fatherhood and family life at growingsideways.wordpress.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @kshartnett.


  1. I was there at this speech, even though I wouldn’t graduate from Kenyon until the following year. But anyone who was there remembers the burly guy with the sweat dripping down his neck, speaking words to us as crisp and clear as ice water. As I listened to our graduation speaker the following year (a less-than-stirring John Kerry, though he did his best), I realized what made DFW’s speech so special–there was nothing remotely self-promotional about it. DFW was always uncomfortable with the spotlight that his genius put him in, and his best writing was always remarkably humble despite its crystalline intelligence. (The biggest problem with his buddy Franzen is that he never writes anything without simultaneously patting himself on the back.) He was focused, he was in the moment with the graduates, he appreciated the reasoning behind putting oneself on a little hill in Ohio to discover our intellectual passions…and he knew how dangerous it could be to live in a bubble of self-satisfaction. So basically he had the same joys–and doubts–as all of the pending graduates. He knew he was capable, but of what, he still wasn’t sure…

  2. Wow, this is fantastic & I wish / hope you’ll provide a more complete version of this. The oral history quality is really interesting, esp. the way it’s presented – pls consider expanding.

  3. A 22 year old college grad in 2005 not knowing who David Foster Wallace is is like a 22 year old college grad in 1965 not knowing who Joseph Heller is. Shameful.

  4. Hey Joseph- Based on the attitude DFW suggests that his audience take when interpreting the behavior of people shopping in the supermarket, I’m pretty sure he’d be against calling “shameful” someone who in 2005 happened to have different reading tastes than you do.

  5. I attended, but didn’t graduate until the next year. From the six graduations I have attended, that was the only one that made a lasting impression. I too carried the message of thinking of the context of other people’s lives with me in the years to come. It always amused my husband (I often make up stories about why people do the things that infuriate him), but now that he has read the speech he understands it much better. I have reread it several times in the intervening years, and definitely identify with it more now that I thought I did then. The friend I attended graduation with mailed me a copy of the book when it came out; it made a similar impression upon her.

  6. I was a graduate that year, and I don’t remember how long the speech was, or how hot we were sitting in the May sun with our caps and gowns, which is really what I remember from other graduations I had and have been to. What stayed with me was DFW’s presence and his ability to relay his message to the audience. I know my entire family remember that commencement speech clearly, and even my little sister commented that her commencement speaker four years later (Laura Bush) didn’t come close.

    Even if the speech didn’t have an immediate enlightening effect on the people attending, it definitely stuck, and I have returned to it time and again when life gets rough or I am facing a major transition for a sort of re-grounding. DFW wasn’t just an excellent speaker at a commencement–over the years he has become a major influence in my life, and I wish I could thank him for that.

  7. Just this year my father asked me about the speech again. Somehow the suicide had come up and he recognized the name, despite the fact that graduation was years ago and I’ve rarely seen him read fiction. I confirmed what he had heard and said he must have a really good memory for names, but he was thoughtful for a moment and replied that it had been pretty memorable for him. Maybe that’s because his firstborn graduated that day, but I think the nature of the speech had something to do with it as well.

    I was another college kid who didn’t know who he was when the selection was announced (I had been rooting for Carol Spinney, aka the muppeteer behind Big Bird) but I knew a number of English majors who were excited. Kenyon produces lots of English majors, so probably a fair chunk of the student body was familiar with his reputation. I remember a sense of recognition and pleasure as the speech got under way. He came across as an immensely thoughtful man, with an eerie ability to dig into platitudes, distill out the nuggets of honest truth, and present them clearly and conversationally.

    I re-read the transcript when it was published online, and again when we were given print copies to keep, and again when his name was in the news after he ended his life. His choice doesn’t diminish the message for me, but it does highlight exactly how far away people can be from one another, even when sharing the same space.

  8. Thank you so much for posting this. To echo other comments, I would also love it if you could expand this piece with other students’ responses. This speech is a piece of thought/writing that resonated with me like few things have. It’s incredibly fascinating to see the reactions of people who experienced it in person.

  9. As a Kenyon ’05 graduate, I was stunned by the speech at the time. The moment I remember most clearly from that whole day is shaking DFW’s hand and thanking him quickly as they shuttled me along the the diploma assembly line. I sent it to several of my friends and family; many of my Kenyon friends were very excited by his selection as speaker, and I’d like to thank Jackie G (now Jackie G-H) for her help in creating this experience for the class.

    I can perhaps describe him a little more clearly on that day. It was beautiful; the sun was bright and Kenyon, renowned for being beautiful, looked all the more triumphant as we marched down middle path. DFW himself looked more like a man swept up by a tornado of pomp and circumstance. As your picture hints, everything about him was disheveled, even when clad in the finest robes Kenyon could supply on an hour’s notice.

    He was drawn in on himself; he read from his pages more like a coffee shop poetry reading than an inspirational speech. It was almost as if he spoke more to himself than to us. But, of course, the speech was to us — and for those of us busy listening instead of perspiring, it was a fitting culmination of what I will forever cherish as my four most manically educational years.

    With way more than luck,

  10. Being in the second row on the morning of my College Graduation and hearing this speech was hands down one of the more moving moments of my life, thus far.

    DFW’s delievery captured our attention instantly, and the words he read resonated with me from the very beggining in a way that few people ever had up until that point, or have since.

    The whole concept of my “Commencement”, and all that it meant with where I was at that point in my life, didn’t really hit until the last words he said, which to this day still give me goosebumps:

    “I wish you way more than luck.”

  11. Had not read his speech before–blown away.

    Two things that stood out:

    1) The applause at his comments on SUV drivers, followed by his pointing out that the students were engaging in exactly what he was warning against. Irony.
    2) His description of worship. We all worship something, but some things eat us alive. Incredible.

    I will be sending this speech to many friends.

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