So It Goes For Vonnegut

At 78, Still Shaking up the Establishment

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  5/05/2001

NORTHAMPTON -- He should be dead by now.

America's most cheerfully dour author is instead sitting anonymously on a stoop, staring blankly as a stream of tongue- and eyebrow-pierced students shuffle past, few of whom seem to recognize the old man bundled this spring morning in a rumpled trench coat and wool cap pulled over his ears.

Kurt Vonnegut survived the Allied firebombing of Dresden, Germany, in World War II and a fire last year that gutted his apartment. Now the craggy-faced novelist is whiling away his time at Smith College, teaching undergraduates not yet born when his novels, plays, and short stories began setting the standard for skewering authority and mocking the self-important.

For much of the past year, for a few hours a week, the grouchy hero to generations has sat in a small, dreary office hidden in the stacks of Smith's main library and waited for students. The only clue the old man inside might actually be the author of "Slaughterhouse Five" and "Cat's Cradle" is a red bumper sticker taped to the door that reads: "God is coming and is she pissed."

Despite his apparent anonymity, Vonnegut - whose term as writer-in-residence ends this month - has managed to raise a bit of a ruckus on campus. Many schools, including Smith before he arrived, he grouses, "have a most incomplete collection of my wonderful work." The author has since done his best to fill the gaps. Over the past year, he has spontaneously presented librarians with specially bound books, refusing to fill out the typical paperwork and declaring, "I'm Kurt Vonnegut and this is a book by Kurt Vonnegut."

There was some ambivalence at Smith before the college invited him for the academic year. A few English professors wondered what they would do with him. Could he teach a regular class? Would he ridicule the faculty? Would 18- to 22-year-old women who've grown up with the Internet relate to a 78-year-old man whose worldview was shaped by the barbarism of World War II?

"There was some doubt that we could find a traditional role for him," says Dean Flower, an English professor who has since befriended Vonnegut. "He's so famous for his irreverence. Some on the faculty worried he would satirize us and mock the value of classroom teaching."

The concerns proved unwarranted - more or less. Vonnegut certainly has derided the English department. In a public lecture to thousands of students and faculty, he joked, "You can't tell where a writer is going to be, except it's unlikely it will be in the English department."

But he has also spent hours with students, critiquing their stories, dishing out unsolicited advice on life, and answering questions about his work, which some of their professors have spent careers trying to understand.

Now, as he prepares to return to New York, the campus oddity lights up one of the day's many Pall Malls and jokes in his own morbidly slapstick way about a lawsuit he's planning. It's against the tobacco company that makes the unfiltered cigarettes he smokes with such conscious abandon: "They promised to kill me on the package," he complains with a smile, "and they haven't done it yet."

They almost did. The prisoner of war who survived the incineration of Dresden nearly died in a blaze of his own making last year. A cigarette he left in an ashtray torched much of his East Side Manhattan brownstone.

The fire, which the one-time volunteer firefighter tried to extinguish on his own, left Vonnegut in a hospital bed for nearly three weeks suffering from smoke inhalation. Needing time to recuperate, the author moved to Northampton, where several of his children and grandchildren live, and accepted an offer to spend two semesters at Smith.

Academia may not be the ideal place for a crotchety writer waiting to die. In fact, Vonnegut has never been fully accepted at the nation's elite schools. His books are often pigeonholed as "too popular" or "too easy," he says, and there are few college courses that treat his work with the weight conferred upon contemporaries such as John Updike and Saul Bellow.

But for all those at Smith who may scoff at his work, this is also a man who has charmed readers by making them laugh about horrors like the Holocaust or the Vietnam War.

For Nora Crow, an English professor who teaches satire at Smith and has been assigning Vonnegut to students since 1971, the opportunity to have Vonnegut visit her class is like a basketball coach bringing in Michael Jordan for a practice or a historian having Winston Churchill over to chat with students.

Ksenija Broks, a senior, chased Vonnegut down after he spoke at one of her classes. "It took a couple of beers and a few cigarettes in me before I had enough nerve to go up to him," she says. "The prospect of talking to Kurt Vonnegut was nothing other than scary."

The English major wanted to know what he meant when, just after leaving her satire seminar, he popped his head back in the door and gave students this cryptic message: "It's all a practical joke."

Eventually, with a slight buzz, she got her answer. "Literature is, and all the arts are, and even the Mona Lisa is a practical joke - there's no woman there, and yet, people care," Vonnegut told her in a meeting. "The practical joke is making people think something is going on which isn't really going on. A book is a practical joke or it doesn't work."

Mary Ann Krisa, another senior majoring in English, didn't resort to drink before meeting Vonnegut. But that didn't mean the 21-year-old wasn't nervous to hear one of her favorite authors critique her story. "I couldn't have been more intimidated," she says. It didn't help when she found his office. It was eerie. The lights were off, the shades down, the walls completely bare, and all he had in the room was a copy of her paper and a pencil.

When she walked in, Vonnegut said, "I'm glad you showed up. It seems the students aren't interested in meeting me."

They discussed her story for a while, an autobiographical piece she describes as a heart-rending account of her grandmother's death. Vonnegut found it too gushy. He gave her this advice: "Did you ever think of making your grandmother insane?"

Not every aspiring writer has been starstruck. Like a lot of students at Smith, MaryAnne Van Tyne barely knew Vonnegut's work before he came to campus. The 21-year-old junior applied for one of the few spots in his class at the last minute.

But she quickly realized her new professor was different, a bit more blunt than other professors, and definitely not an old windbag. "He talked a lot about drinking and bars," she says. "It was really refreshing because he's not PC at all. At Smith, there is an idea that you don't want to offend a woman's image. I guess he's reached a point in his life where he doesn't care and he'll just say whatever."

Of course, age has nothing to do with it. Vonnegut has always found a certain poetry in vulgarity, and his language hasn't been muted by the tacit taboos of the ivory tower.

And that has stirred a bit of discomfort at Smith. During his public lecture last fall, which he titled "How to get a job like mine" or "A performance with chalk on blackboard," Vonnegut strayed into forbidden territory. After getting laughs mocking the National Rifle Association and drubbing the Internet, the legendary technophobe told a self-effacing story about how he lusts for an Indian woman who works at a Manhattan grocery store and wonders whether, like dentures, she puts the jewel she wears between her eyes in a glass of water at night.

More than a few students gasped. The mix of laughter and shock sparked a staff editorial in the student newspaper headlined "Deify Celebs Much, Smith?" "Why did offended audience members feel compelled to tolerate Kurt Vonnegut saying such things, however the statements were intended, when they would have walked out on anyone else who uttered the same things?" the paper fumed, adding: "How many of you read your first Vonnegut book in August?"

Smith's writer-in-residence laughed when asked about the tizzy his comments caused. Then he got serious. "I'll say whatever I want; that's the price of my freedom," Vonnegut says. "If it hurts someone's feelings, too bad! That's the way it goes."

It isn't just students who have grown uneasy with the novelist's impolitic anecdotes. When he showed up in an old sweater with holes in the elbows to lecture in Elliot Fratkin's anthropology class, the professor remembers squirming a bit when Vonnegut said beauty is everywhere, including "a young coed leaning over to grab a book."

"A lot of us just looked down on the ground and wondered, `Where is he going?' " he says. "At Smith, it's not especially popular to talk about the beauty of the opposite sex."

Vonnegut has made more of his time at Smith than stirring up trouble. Over the past year, the author has read poems and told jokes at local cafes, scatted as the lead vocalist of a band he called "Special K and His Crew" in the city's annual talent show, exhibited what he calls his "new-cubist" artwork at a local gallery, and helped a local bar brew a beer his grandfather made more than a century ago. He has also been doing something he promised not to do: writing a new novel he's calling "If God Were Alive Today."

Vonnegut has written a last novel before - he even vowed in the prologue of his 1997 novel "Timequake" that he was finally finished. "Johannes Brahms quit composing symphonies when he was 55. Enough!" he wrote. "American male novelists have done their best work by then. Enough! Fifty-five is a long time ago for me now. Have pity!"

One recent morning, after lecturing a class reading about the absurdities of religion in "Cat's Cradle," the scraggly-haired author lights up another Pall Mall and explains in his half-joking, half-serious way why he broke his pledge in "Timequake."

"I didn't know," he says with a dose of light-hearted melancholy. "I thought I was going to die."

Many of his friends and family are now dead - and that has deeply affected him. But there is a more honest reason why Vonnegut is writing another book: He can't stop writing. If he did, it might really kill him.

"Writers are very lucky. They can treat their neuroses every day," he says. "When writers crack up, when they really end up in the nut house, is when they can't do it anymore. The treatment stops."

David Abel can be reached at
Copyright, The Boston Globe

The Nonbelievers

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  9/16/2007

Rosy-cheeked angels smile from stained-glass windows, and crucifixes hang on the granite walls. The vaulting stone arches lend voices a holy echo. A chandelier-illuminated red carpet leads to the large casket, which is covered with white roses.

When the balding man walks into the 165-year-old Gothic chapel, he greets mourners warmly, solemnly, with reverent words and tender handshakes, like a rabbi or a priest.

But the well-wisher in a pin-striped suit is no man of the cloth. He doesn’t wear flowing robes or a skullcap, and instead of a Bible or other sacred text, he carries a book titled Funerals Without God.

"This is Reverend Epstein," says a friend of the deceased, a physician who considered religion a pernicious fiction. Epstein interrupts: "It’s chaplain. . . . It’s OK. A lot of people aren’t sure what to call me."

Over the past two years, Greg Epstein, 30, has become a kind of ministerial paradox, a member of the local clergy who disavows God, preaches to atheists and agnostics, and seeks to build the equivalent of a church for nonbelievers and others skeptical of or alienated by religion. A former lead singer of a rock band, he now serves as the humanist chaplain at Harvard University, one of a small but growing number of such chaplains for nonbelievers on college campuses.

In his position, which is endowed, he has helped marry and bury fellow atheists. He has presided over baby-naming ceremonies and organized a "coming out" ceremony for a congressman, Representative Pete Stark of California, one of the few public officials to acknowledge he doesn’t believe in God. He also counsels students and approximates evangelizing by handing out pamphlets with the question: "Are you a humanist?"

From the pulpit at Bigelow Chapel in Watertown, speaking with the slow cadence of a clergyman delivering a sermon, Epstein tells those gathered not to expect a traditional service. "We intend, of course, no disrespect to those who have religious beliefs. . . . We hope and believe you will find the occasion dignified and acceptable."

He continues: "A religious funeral is a celebration of a particular faith, giving homage to God. A humanist funeral is a celebration of the individual human life and his contribution to humanity."

Later, after delivering a homily that might have been heard on a Sunday morning, he explains the contradictions of his role. "I have a religious personality, without a scintilla of religious belief," he says. "If it’s an oxymoron to believe that people who have ceased to believe in God still need caring and community, then I’m proud to be a walking oxymoron."

In a world where zealots crash planes into buildings in the name of God and politicians use the Bible to craft public policy, Epstein sees himself as in the vanguard of an emerging movement fueled by the rise of skepticism, advances in science and technology, and a spreading aversion toward radical religious ideologies and traditions.

He and other humanists, who also call themselves atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secularists, or brights, point to a survey published in January by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, which found that 20 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 and 25 say they have no religious affiliation or consider themselves atheists or agnostics – nearly double those who said that in a similar survey 20 years ago.

Another Pew survey in March concluded the nation is witnessing a "reversal of increased religiosity observed in the mid-1990s." Today, 12 percent of Americans surveyed age 20 and older describe themselves as not religious, up from 8 percent in 1987. "This change," the survey’s authors wrote, "appears to be generational in nature, with each new generation displaying lower levels of religious commitment than the preceding one."

Epstein, a Jew from New York City who trained as a "humanist rabbi" after becoming disillusioned by the music industry during a year and a half crooning for a band called Sugar Pill, embodies that generational shift. He calls himself a humanist, because he sees it as a more embracing term than atheist. "Atheism is what I don’t believe in; humanism is what I do believe in," he says. He defines it as a "philosophy of life without supernaturalism that affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment aspiring to the greater good of humanity."

His deepening involvement in humanism has mirrored a rising interest in nonbelief throughout the country. Books about atheism have become a publishing phenomenon in the past few years, with five of the most popular combined accounting for more than a million copies in print. Some have spent weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, such as Sam Harris’s 2004 The End of Faith. The publisher of Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything had printed some 300,000 copies less than two months after it went on sale this year. Other popular titles include evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, of which there are more than a half million hardcover copies in print; Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Tufts University philosophy professor Daniel Dennett; and God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor J. Stenger.

The spike in interest in atheism can be attributed to a backlash against militant Islam and a response to the faith-based initiatives and religiosity of the Bush administration, says Steven Pinker, the cognitive scientist at Harvard whom the American Humanist Association last year named its Humanist of the Year. But he says interest in the new literature also reflects how science is increasingly displacing religion as a way people understand the world.
"Aside from fundamentalists, most people [outside the United States] have given up on creationism and seeing the Earth as the center of the universe," he says. "More and more of what used to be the domain of religion has been ceded to science. It’s the trend of modernity. I think this is a tide. We’ve seen it happen everywhere else in the developed world. This is the direction of history."
Students on college campuses and others have begun to organize nonbelievers. The number of campus groups affiliated with the Secular Student Alliance, for example, has increased by more than 50 percent in the past two years, to more than 80 groups, says August E. Brunsman IV, executive director of the Albany, New York-based alliance. Since January, the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York, a science-promoting umbrella group, has sponsored or helped organize more than 50 atheist outfits on campuses from the University of Georgia Law School to the University of Texas at Austin to Kent State University in Ohio, says D.J. Grothe, the center’s vice president of outreach.

The MySpace atheist and agnostic group has grown by about 10,000 members a year since it began in 2004 and now is about one third the size of MySpace’s largest Christian group, says Bryan J. Pesta, an assistant professor of management at Cleveland State University, who moderates the group.
"We need to get visible and let people know that we’re much more like [believers] than different from them," Brunsman says. "By banding together under the umbrella of nontheism, we can show the country that we are a sizable part of the population, and we can show closeted nontheists that they are not alone."

Five years ago, to try to change the low opinion many Americans have of atheists (a national Gallup poll this year found more than half of those surveyed would not vote for an atheist for president), a group of four organizations started the Secular Coalition for America. Now, the coalition employs a full-time lobbyist in Washington, regularly issues press releases about everything from stem cell research to religious language used by politicians, and represents eight national organizations with more than 25,000 members, more than a third from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Lori Lipman Brown, the coalition’s director, acknowledges they have a long way to go in a country where, polls show, two-thirds of the population still believes in God. But the venom she used to hear has faded.

"When I’m on right-wing radio or Christian radio, I no longer hear people say as much that I’m immoral or liable to commit murder," she says. "Now, it seems, they acknowledge it’s possible that I could be a good person."

Humanists trace their roots to the ancient Greeks, among them philosopher Diagoras, who burned images of the era’s gods. Their apostate forebears include the philosophers David Hume, who promoted skepticism and logical reasoning during the Enlightenment; Karl Marx, who likened religion to opium; Friedrich Nietzsche, who gained infamy by declaring God dead; and novelist Ayn Rand, who argued that reason is our only guide to action. Even Mother Teresa doubted the existence of God, according to a new book that unveils her private journals and letters. Humanists align themselves with more recent proponents of ridding society of God, including the author Dawkins, the popular astronomer Carl Sagan, and the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who in 1980 asked a Unitarian congregation in Cambridge: "How on earth can religious people believe in so much arbitrary, clearly invented balderdash?"

Today, Americans appear to be following a larger trend of people around the world abandoning organized religion, particularly those in wealthier, more educated countries. In the 2007 Cambridge Companion to Atheism, Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, studied religion surveys in some 50 countries. Over the past 50 years, according to a 2004 survey he cites, the percentage of people believing in God has plunged in Sweden, where as many as 85 percent of the population now say they don’t believe in God; Australia, where about 25 percent are nonbelievers; Canada, where as many as 30 percent don’t believe in God; and Japan, where about 65 percent are now nonbelievers.

Overall, according to 2007 World Almanac, there are nearly 1 billion nonbelievers in the world, which would make them the world’s third-largest persuasion, after Christianity and Islam.

While the ranks of nonbelievers are increasing, they likely account for a decreasing percentage of the world’s population, as religious nations tend to have higher birth rates, Zuckerman notes. In India, for example, he cites surveys that show between 3 percent and 6 percent of the population say they don’t believe in God. In the Middle East, where Islam – the world’s fastest-growing religion with about 1.3 billion adherents (about 800 million fewer than Christianity) – thrives, Zuckerman cites surveys showing that fewer than 1 percent of those in countries including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Syria say they don’t believe in God.
"Making definite predictions of the future growth or decline of atheism [is] difficult," Zuckerman writes. "What is clear is that while most people continue to maintain a firm belief in deities . . . in certain societies, nonbelief in God is definitely increasing."
Here in the United States, where atheism remains a relatively weak current against the tides of religion, the rising interest in Godlessness is most visible on college campuses and among recent graduates. Many of them regard religion as the perpetuation of superstitions and mythology and see the world’s largest faiths as sowing division and enmity more than the peace they profess.

Nina Lee, president of the Tufts Freethought Society, says a university survey of the Class of 2009 showed nearly one-third of her fellow students cited no religious affiliation – equal to those identifying themselves as Christian. Many of those who listed a religion, she says, are not actually religious. "I don’t think people are taking religious beliefs as seriously as they used to, but they still go through the habit of using religion as a way to meet people and as a social space," says Lee, 22, a senior majoring in psychology who was raised by Chinese Buddhists but who embraces humanism today. Lee studied religion but says she found no evidence to support it – her prayers to Jesus and Buddhist deities went unanswered, she says – and faults religion for standing in the way of science.

"I oppose any ideology that motivates people to ignore or deny scientific evidence, especially when that evidence is crucial for improving people’s lives," she says.

David Rand went to Hebrew school until he was a senior in high school. But the 25-year-old graduate student at Harvard never really believed in God and was excited to find like-minded students when he left home. "I don’t think religion is the source of all evil, but I think it can be a source of division in a world that does not need division," says Rand, who studies biology. "I don’t find the answers offered by religion satisfactory. Trying to find answers rationally is much more satisfying. . . . I think there’s also pleasure and beauty in natural explanations."

Zach Bos, 25, who works at Boston University and serves as director of the group Boston Atheists, grew up going to Sunday Mass, was active in his church’s youth group, and was confirmed as a Catholic. But now, he says, "my atheism is sustained by the continual absence of evidence for a single supernatural event. You might as well ask if my belief in gravity is sustained; it is only insofar as I haven’t seen any apples falling up off the tree today."

Still, for Bos and the others, there’s something missing, and it’s a void Greg Epstein wants to fill.

From his office in Harvard Yard, where the shelves are crammed with hundreds of books including Who’s Who in Hell, Politics at God’s Funeral, and Losing Faith in Faith, Epstein can’t escape the religious. He works in the bowels of the Memorial Church, where prayers literally seep through his walls and an organ groans from above. Crucifixes abound, and the surrounding offices are filled with Harvard’s faith-oriented chaplains.

But unlike other humanists, many of whom argue that acceptance of even moderate views about religion legitimizes religious extremists, Epstein is more ecumenical in his atheism. He has even sparked controversy by criticizing more militant, religion-bashing atheists – in a press release promoting a conference on humanism last spring, his office referred to that group as "fundamentalists."

His goal is to prod nonbelievers to go beyond denouncing religion and denying the existence of God; he wants them to focus on what they value, what unites such a disparate array of people and views. "Life can be lonely, challenging, and we need community," he says. "We do want to be part of something bigger than ourselves."

In the office of his chaplaincy, which has an endowment worth more than $2 million and pays him a salary of $20,000, Epstein keeps a stack of cards printed with a summary of the American Humanist Association’s Humanist Manifesto III, a successor to a draft from 1933. The foldout card lists maxims such as "Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis"; "Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience"; and "Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness."

Epstein wants those bullet points to be more than bromides. Ironically, he would like humanism to share some of the accouterments and traditions of religion, sans notions of heaven and hell, of course. He envisions common songs, rites for weddings and funerals, and common spaces that might substitute for churches. "We have this critical mass of people that need more," he says, adding that nonbelievers need to build humanism so that it’s thought of as beautiful and inspiring. "You should be able to get out and say, ‘I did humanism.’ "
But Epstein’s vision and criticism of fellow atheists has angered some of the very people he wants to unite. R. Joseph Hoffmann, a senior vice president at the Center for Inquiry , argues that Epstein has "abused" his links to Harvard "as a shortcut to the legitimacy he craves."

In a letter that has made rounds in the blogosphere since last spring, Hoffmann wrote: "If the word spiritual works, they wear it; but if they need to spin things in a secular direction to win friends and influence people, they spin away like sodden spiders. This is Gen-X humanism for the Passionately Confused, and owes almost nothing to philosophy, intellectual commitment, or serious political involvement. It’s about bringing people to the table because eating together is always nice. Family-time, yes?"

The letter added: "What makes Epstein special is his determination to turn his role into that of World Leader of the New Humanism, using the Harvard name as a whip to bring recalcitrant or struggling humanist groups into his new order."

In one posting on his popular atheism blog, Brian Flemming, the director of the film The God Who Wasn’t There, called Epstein a "train wreck" who "seems determined to take the worst possible approach in his response to the controversy he started" when he used the "fundamentalists" label, which atheists consider a religious epithet.

"The accusation that blunt but reasoning atheists . . . are equivalent to the dogmatic fundamentalists on the other side is false, quite dumb, and constantly deployed by their enemies to derail useful conversation," Flemming wrote. "And that is not something of which you want to be part."

In response to his critics, Epstein – who speaks softly and has a gentle, rabbinical way about him – says the "fundamentalist" label was misinterpreted but that he has no intention of curtailing his efforts to promote a more communal humanism. "I’m proud to say I want and need to be part of a supportive community. Sadly, this can stir up the emotions of a few atheists who have been wounded by religion and want to distance themselves from it. . . . It’s true that religion has done some terrible, irrational things, but the key question for a humanist isn’t ‘Who am I angry at?’ It’s ‘How can I make this world a better place?’ "

On his blog at Harvard, Epstein wrote that he hopes atheists avoid vilifying believers as they have disparaged atheists. "I don’t even have a problem with all the people who are blogging about me right now and slamming me as some kind of representative of ‘appeasement,’ " he wrote. "We want to be treated as equals? Let’s raise hell about it, fine, but perhaps think twice about slamming me so hard as some kind of Uncle Tom (I definitely heard that one on a few blogs) if I want to speak for myself, and for the millions of atheists and Humanists out there who actually *like* and care deeply about a lot of religious people and don’t feel the need to hurt their feelings in addition to disagreeing with them."

The rift occurred as Epstein was about to assume a much larger mantle. After months of planning – arranging satellite links, choreographing schedules, and securing speakers such as the novelist Salman Rushdie, the Pulitzer Prize-winning scientist E.O. Wilson, and Nobel laureate and economist Amartya Sen – Epstein used his perch at Harvard to host more than a thousand nonbelievers at the humanism conference in Cambridge in April.

As a jab at his critics and to draw a distinction between their views, he titled the gathering "The New Humanism."

The conference, which featured speakers including Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and a performance by the folk singer Dar Williams, was so packed that organizers had to turn people away. The panel discussions, stamped with Epstein’s agenda, had titles like "Toward an Abrahamic Humanism" and "Dialogue Among Religions, Cultures, and Civilizations." There was even an invocation read for the dead.

The most attended event was at Memorial Church, beneath a large crucifix, where Rushdie received an award. As the author of The Satanic Verses spoke amid the surrounding emblems of religion, he joked: "Thank you all for coming to this little Black Sabbath." Rushdie talked about growing up without religion and said his family celebrated holidays from many religions. But he later wondered: "Where’s the one for the unbelievers? Where is the Kwanzaa for the atheists? Surely we could make one of those up, [like] Atheismas."

The allusions to religion upset some atheists, a few of whom described events at the conference as "religious humanism." Rebecca Watson, the editor of Skepchick magazine who spoke at a panel presentation titled "The Next Generation of Humanism," says she supports the building of a support network for humanists. But on her blog, she wrote about the conference’s "disturbing trend of kowtowing to religion." She cited a teleconference Epstein organized with the Southern Baptist Convention and his dubbing the earth "The Creation," which Epstein later explained was a reference to the title of E.O. Wilson’s latest book.

"A number of the talks were sermons," she wrote. "I mean, they were really, really sermons, just without the god. The syntax, the tone, and some of the message (such as pleas for money) made many in the audience noticeably uncomfortable."

A few weeks later, while working on a book about what he calls "cultural humanism" and planning a class at Harvard Divinity School he has titled "Humanist Polity: Building a Community for Atheists, Agnostics, and the Non-Religious," Epstein learned of the death of 66-year-old physician Don Burke. He had attended the conference and helped support the humanist chaplaincy, which was founded in 1974 by Catholic priest turned atheist Thomas Ferrick and endowed in 1995 as part of a $100 million gift to Harvard by the philanthropist John L. Loeb.

Leading the service for Burke was a chance to act on his vision, to begin filling the emptiness inherent in atheism. So Epstein, who succeeded Ferrick as humanist chaplain two years ago, began perusing Funerals Without God to prepare for this day, his first humanist funeral. Standing at the pulpit of the ornate chapel in Watertown, Epstein delivers a eulogy that could be appropriate in any tradition. He reads a poem, Wendell Berry’s "The Peace of Wild Things," about the beauty of nature, asks those gathered to stand in honor of the man, and provides time for silent prayers (or reflection).

Epstein relays a story Burke told him of how he came to identify as a humanist after growing up in Ireland, where some people believed in ghosts. He "could not believe in such unseen things and was outraged by the way such beliefs terrified people into living their whole lives in unnecessary fear," Epstein says. "And so from his early boyhood he sought a more rational, scientific way of life."

Then he addresses death by quoting Sherwin Wine, a humanist Epstein considered a mentor. "It is so overwhelmingly final that it fills our lives with dread and anxious fear," Epstein says. "We cry out at the injustice of destiny and wait for answers that never seem to come."

To cope with it, he says, humanists need a certain courage. "Courage is loving life, even in the face of death. It is sharing our strength with others, even when we feel weak. It is embracing our family and friends, even when we fear to lose them. It is opening ourselves to love."

Before closing with a meditation on the precariousness of life, Epstein offers lines adapted from a familiar Christian burial rite.

"His body we commit to be burned and returned to the cycles of nature," he says. "Earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes."

David Abel can be reached at

A Plummet from Grace

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  4/09/2002

A stately man in a black fedora and charcoal overcoat solemnly steps off a trolley, thrusts his hands to the sky, and squawks to a swarm of pigeons swooping down from nearby rooftops: "Come'ere Wingtip . . . come'ere Speckles . . . come'ere Checkers."

On cue, scores of plump birds surround the gray-haired former professor, hunting for the scattered presents of cracked corn he's tossing along a corner of Boston University's windswept Marsh Plaza.

"When they're in flight," he says as pigeons hover over his head, "there's no more beautiful bird in the world."

This is a good day for John Kidd. The 49-year-old made it out of bed.

A decade ago, scholars around the world lauded Kidd as a brash, young intellectual who - like a "scholarly version of General Norman Schwarzkopf," as one writer called him after the Gulf War - was destined for academic glory.

At 32, as a lanky postdoctoral student at the University of Virginia,
he exposed a raft of errors in what many established scholars accepted as the definitive edition of one of the most renowned and controversial novels of all time, James Joyce's "Ulysses." Ultimately, his critique won over literary critics, and Kidd quickly earned a name as a leading authority on Ireland's literary giant. The academic triumph also earned Kidd a six-figure advance from W. W. Norton & Co. for his own edition of "Ulysses," as well as a job directing a new research center on Joyce at Boston University.

Two years ago, however, the quirky son of a Navy captain quit academia amid allegations that he sexually harassed and unfairly failed some of his students and concerns about his propensity for befriending a range of creatures, from worms to rats to pigeons.

Now, Kidd is broke, jobless, and in such poor health, he says he has trouble writing more than a few sentences. At times it's a struggle just to read the newspaper, he says.

After delays in delivering his manuscript and a host of copyright problems, W. W. Norton indefinitely delayed the publication of his edition of "Ulysses." Once the subject of flattering profiles and a contributor to prestigious literary magazines, he hasn't published a paper in years.

And with a worsening "neurological disorder" that causes him tremors, seizures, and chronic fatigue, Kidd lives mainly off disability checks, spending his days either in bed, watching movies, or, whenever he can, trekking a few blocks from his Brookline apartment to feed the pigeons.

Although he no longer teaches at BU and the school closed down the James Joyce Research Center in 1999, Kidd hasn't really left the campus along Commonwealth Avenue - and his lingering presence from the student union to outside his old office occasionally causes a stir.

For one thing, campus officials say the former professor owes the university about $25,000 for storing thousands of his books, a personal library of Joyce's work that Kidd says is the largest individual collection of one author anywhere. The debt, which he disputes, is on top of more than a half-million dollar investment BU lost in the professor's failed project developing a CD-ROM on the Irish author.

Administrators say school staff members have complained that Kidd follows them around campus, harangues them, and, as recently as a few weeks ago, "verbally abused" one university employee.

"John is a very savvy, literate, and courageous guy who goes off half-cocked sometimes, talks too much, and rubs a lot of people the wrong way," says Roger Shattuck, a retired BU university professor who persuaded school officials to hire Kidd after the two met at the University of Virginia in the early 1980s. "I think a lot of people felt that his style was too excessive and too aggressive."

Kidd's 'Joyce Wars' cement his reputation

Kidd earned his reputation quickly. In 1985, while still in Virginia, he delivered a scathing paper in New York, repudiating at least half of the 5,000 "corrections" made by the acclaimed German scholar Hans Walter Gabler in his 1984 Random House edition of "Ulysses." The 240,000-word novel, riddled with errors, was published in 1922 by French printers who didn't speak English.

Three years after Kidd's paper, and not long after he wrote an essay titled "The Scandal of Ulysses" in the New York Review of Books, Random House acknowledged Gabler's edition appeared "seriously flawed" and the publisher reissued an earlier edition of Joyce's novel.

To this day, Kidd's victory in what became known as the "Joyce Wars" has Gabler bristling. He contends that Kidd's attacks "put Joyce scholarship back by 10 years" and that "his criticism was valid in a half-dozen minor points, but they were not at all valid at-large."

But the German scholar says he takes no pleasure from the failings of his former adversary. "I'm just sorry to see that he won't be able to put those criticisms to the test by an edition of his own," says Gabler, reached at his home in Munich. "I find it very sad, a very tragic development, but I do not find it very surprising. I think it's a symptom of having got himself into the trouble of the expectations he raised."

Unfortunately for Kidd, W. W. Norton's president, Drake McFeely, says it's unlikely the publisher will release Kidd's "Ulysses" anytime soon. Because of extentions to the copyright in the early 1990s, he says, Kidd's edition can't be published for two decades.

"It's not out of the question we won't publish it then. But that's a long time from now, and we have a lot of other projects," says McFeely. He said his company paid Kidd only a portion of the $350,000 advance it reportedly gave him in 1988.

The option of returning to a career teaching at a major university doesn't look promising either.

Toward the end of his time at BU, colleagues say Kidd became "estranged from the community of academics" and obsessive about Joyce, even affecting the novelist's appearance.

Administrators also say they were frustrated by the professor's failure to deliver.

"John's early work, his command of such a complicated writer as Joyce, seemed to promise great scholarly work," says Dennis Berkey, dean of arts and sciences and provost of BU. "It may have been the case of a relatively young scholar taking up an overwhelmingly large project. But some people have the ability to conceive work and bring it to conclusion. John didn't."

Former educator's vow of comeback in doubt

Spreading the remains of a bag of corn along the stones outside Marsh chapel, and pointing out which birds are a couple and which he has brought home on occasion, Kidd promises a comeback. He contends that the publishing companies have conspired against him to block the release of his manuscript, which he vows will be printed sometime soon.

First, he has to fight an illness, which he kept secret throughout his career, though it steadily eroded his strength. He won't say exactly what it is he's suffering from, but he shows prescriptions for drugs to treat seizures, narcolepsy, and Parkinson's.

"I'm not a basket case," he says. "I'm planning to get well and to retire in my 70s."

At least one of his old friends, a benefactor who continues to help Kidd amass a collection of some 10,000 Joyce books, is not as optimistic about the professor's prospects.

"I'm very concerned about him," says Decherd Turner, a retired director of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin. "He's so valuable as a scholar, but he's paying the price now for rocking the boat. John Kidd never had any use for the establishment."

So, for now, the unmarried professor spends his good days reading a few newspaper articles, warding off the hawks that prey on his pigeons, and plotting his next moves.

As the sun sets and the birds fly back to their perches from the windy plaza, he describes a bad day like this: "I'm just like a brain in a jar . . . I can't do anything."

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe

The Duke Walks the Walk

By David Abel  |   Globe Staff  |  5/11/2003

There, at the edge of the grassy field, it glints in the morning sun, beckoning the well-dressed man with the furry eyebrows. It mars his way to work. To him, it's an egregious sight in an otherwise pristine part of the park.

At 69, he doesn't move as fast as he used to, but he won't let this one get away, no matter what the muddy grounds may do to his penny loafers. With a canvas Amtrak bag in one hand and a fistful of garbage in the other, the son of Greek immigrants darts toward the purple candy wrapper, chasing after it as a sudden breeze lifts it just beyond his reach.

"I mean, look at this crap!" he growls, finally snaring the offensive refuse. "It's appalling, disgraceful. There's just no excuse for it."

It might strike some as laughable that a man who once ran for president and held the highest office in Massachusetts now spends his morning commute indignantly collecting other people's trash and cursing a decade's worth of politicians and bureaucrats.

But for former Governor Michael Dukakis nothing has changed: When you leave office, he says, you don't stop caring.

There are many issues the former governor gets passionate about - teaching, high-speed rail - but this morning, it's all about litter.

"It's enough to drive you out of your mind," he says. "You see it all over the place and you have to ask: Why isn't anyone dealing with this?"

The governor has met with his successors about it. He has harangued officials at the Metropolitan District Commission, which preserves parks in the Boston area, as well as local park administrators.

Frustrated with government excuses about budget cuts and bureaucratic delays, Dukakis tries to lead by example - every weekday he's around when it's not raining or snowing.

At 7:30, two hours after rising, ripping through two newspapers and devouring slices of his own homemade bread, he sets off from his Brookline home for Northeastern University, where he has been teaching government for a decade. If he doesn't take a bag with him, he either finds one along the way or just collects what he can hold until finding a trashcan.

On a recent morning, dressed in a jacket and tie for a conference featuring the current governor, it takes only a few paces past his driveway for him to barehand an old, soggy newspaper, a used tissue, and a leaky styrofoam cup. The stench doesn't faze him.

"This is nothing," he says.

Down a stairwell and trotting the banks of the Muddy River, he points to reeds and junk waiting to be dredged. "I left a plan for [former Governor William] Weld 13 years ago to do this, and only now are we getting to it," he fumes.

As people pass, some smile but many don't seem to recognize him. If they're younger than 25 years old, he says, it's likely he's a nobody to them.

Seeing the governor gather trash, Dukakis says one man recently told him: "We had higher aspirations for you once."

But picking up trash is what it's all about - doing what you can, he says. Of course, that doesn't mean he can't complain. Upon seeing graffiti scrawled on a mailbox, he carps: "Who is this idiot? What is this? What kind of gratification do they get from this kind of thing?"

Then there are the leftover encampments from people who have burrowed homes in wooded areas along the way. Seeing all the mangy blankets, old clothes, and cracked bottles in dense piles riles the governor.

He would clean it up, he says, but sometimes there's too much stuff for one person. It would take a truck, he says, adding that the Metropolitan District Commission is not doing its job. Then he points to a bag sitting next to a bench in the Fenway. Filled with sludge he gathered two weeks ago, he says it hasn't moved since.

More proof: a collection of bottles and cans in one swampy section of the Muddy River. It's where Dukakis draws the line. "I don't go into the water," he says. "Someone else has to do that."

Closer to Northeastern in Clemente Park, he sees a sign of hope: a man raking. As if still campaigning, he walks toward the worker and in his signature baritone says: "Mike Dukakis, how are ya?"

Gerard Recupero smiles and identifies himself. "Sure I recognize you," he says. "Good to see you, Mr. Dukakis."

The two chat about litter for a minute, but Dukakis has to go. There's more trash to pick up, and he's running late.

An hour after he started, the two-mile journey ends at Northeastern's Meserve Hall. He finds a receptacle and drops in his last pile of trash - a stuffed plastic bag. All done without a smudge on his navy blazer. His perfectly combed hair hasn't budged during the commute.

Before taking off for his morning class, he parries questions about whether he's depressed by the way things have turned out. Politically, he says: "This is the worst national administration I've lived under." A conservative Republican also now holds his old job. And, recently, in the course of a week, he lost his mother and father-in-law.

Yet with teaching going well, calls each day from people interested in hearing him speak, and four grandchildren, he insists: "I feel like a million bucks."

For the city's necklace of parks, however, he says things are coming apart. "There's just too much neglect," he says. "Things are worse than when I was governor."

So these days, in the evening, if the weather's right, he may be back out there, picking trash on his way home.

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe

A Life's Work

David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  6/12/2001

Herb Adams freely admits he's a lunatic.

A mixture of madness and obsession, after all, is essential to carry out the kind of laborious life-long mission the 77-year-old so relentlessly set out on after returning to Boston from World War II.

"It's true, I'm as crazy as a hoot owl,'' he says. "They should've put me in a nuthouse a long time ago.''

Ever since accompanying his fiancée on May 18, 1946, to the wedding of a cousin who descended from one of the nation's oldest colonial families, the Tufts, Adams has had one all-consuming hobby. An amateur genealogist, who as a boy proved his parents were both related to the nation's second and sixth presidents, Adams resolved to find the link between his bride-to-be and the family who founded Tufts University.

Fifty-five years later, long after he and his wife divorced, the grizzled veteran is still plugging away at a pastime that has evolved into a mammoth project tracing the history of the Tufts back to the 5th century and linking nearly 50,000 descendants into two annotated, yet-to-be-published 1,250-page books. "This is going to be one of the largest most complete genealogies of any family in the world,'' he says.

Yet the stooped septuagenarian is running out of time. Slightly deaf, his eyesight fading, and an old limp from a war wound getting worse, Adams has spent nearly every day of the last two decades in the same seat at the Boston Public Library working at a furious pace to publish his work by Christmas 2002.

Craning over a pile of books and peering through a large magnifying glass, the short man in a hole-riddled sweater and well-shined shoes has become such a fixture in seat 267 of Bates Hall that librarians and security guards get nervous on the rare occasion he doesn't show up 9 a.m. sharp. Adams now even informs librarians, many of whom he drives crazy with requests to locate as many as 700 books a week, when he takes a day off to work at home.

"We're afraid Mr. Adams won't finish,'' says Patricia Feeley, one of several librarians who has known him for more than a decade but still address him formally. "He's such a perfectionist. He doesn't want to miss anyone before the book is published. The problem is he isn't getting any younger.''

To the skeptics, and there are a few in the Tufts family, the retired Massachusetts tax assessor says even though he now spends as much as 20 hours a day on the project, the serious legwork is already done.

Over the years, Adams has visited every cemetery and grave in New England east of the Connecticut River, read through tens of thousands of books, deeds, and official notices at nearly every library and town hall in Massachusetts, Maine, and New Hampshire, and he has perused just about every obituary, birth, and wedding announcement published in a New England newspaper since 1704.

In pursuit of all the descendants of Peter Tufts, the family's US patriarch who arrived in Charlestown around 1638, Adams has united thousands of Tufts relatives by organizing reunions and circulating a newsletter since 1975. In all, he maintains contact with some 4,000 descendants, some of whom were slaves, from all 50 states and countries including India, Cuba, and Great Britain.

"There are those who say I'm a liar, that I'm an idiot if I think they'll believe I have 48,000 names in the index of my book,'' says Adams, a mostly self-taught man who says he dropped out of MIT because he couldn't do logarithms. "But everything in my book is scrupulously researched. Everything has a citation for where it was found.''

To meet his timeline, Adams says he begins his work at 4 a.m., spends the day at the library, and then returns home and continues his work until midnight. Using a computer recently donated by a Tufts descendant, he spends his time reviewing records, writing letters in search of lost Tufts, and, among other tasks, completing the biographies of those he has found. Much of the work takes place in his paper-strewn apartment in Mattapan, which his wife complains "looks like the devil walked through in a mad rage.''

The mess has taken on such a proportion that the Adams' landlord is now trying to evict the couple because of the threat of a fire. "There's not much we can do,'' says Adams' wife of the past 32 years, Sylvia. "I gave up long ago telling him to get rid of the papers. He has boxes and boxes of stuff from god knows when. I don't believe we'll be able to find another place to store it all.''

The couple's precarious living situation is not the first problem to result, at least in part, from Adams' tunnel vision. For years, the two have lived on very little income (Adams says he hopes sales from the book will eventually make life easier), they have few friends, and Adams hasn't spoken to his oldest son in more than 20 years.

While Sylvia has learned to live with her husband's monomania, his first wife couldn't. Adams tells a story about one weekend jaunt with the Tufts descendant: "She blew her stack,'' he says. "Apparently, she wasn't interested in waiting outside a cemetery while I looked at gravestones.''

There have been problems with his work, too. In the early 1970s, Jay Franklin Tufts, a retired salesman and an amateur genealogist from Cleveland, Ohio, sued Adams for infringing on the copyright of his 1963 book, a "Tufts Family History.'' Tufts dropped the suit, according to Adams, after he realized his work was but "a silly rendition'' compared with Adams' "massive compilation.''

Three decades later, William Sanford Tufts, a cousin of the late Jay Franklin, says the only reason Tufts withdrew his lawsuit was because a genealogy can't by copyrighted. Ironically, Adams later accused William Sanford of the same offense. In a letter several years ago, Adams denounced William Sanford for posting early versions of his work on the Internet and called him "an evil plotter with an underhanded scheme to destroy confidence'' in his research.

The two, who once collaborated, haven't spoken in years and William Sanford now wonders if anything will ever come of the thousands of dollars Tufts family members have sent Adams. "He's been going to publish his work for the last 20 years,'' he says. "I don't think it's ever going to be published. It's like the old guy who fishes in the lake for the big fish and realizes his life's over if he actually catches it. What else is he going to do if he publishes the book?''

Adams shrugs off such doubts. "They'll see,'' he says, adding about 1,000 Tufts have already requested a copy of his book. "I have no plans on dying soon.''

The delay in completing his half-century effort that traces Tufts as far back as 20 generations has had more to do with technological glitches and financial constraints than legal and personal spats, he says.

It wasn't until the early 1990s, after decades of hunting and pecking on seven typewriters and a word processor, that Tufts relatives bought him a computer. Yet the new hardware was anything but an elixir; a decade later, Adams says he still has no idea how to use it. Occasional computer malfunctions have been the source of depression, he says, and have brought his book to a "screeching halt'' for months at a time.

"Herb's of a generation who's not into machines,'' says Terence Tufts, an engineer from Arlington Heights, Ill., and vice president of the Tufts' family association. "He doesn't have the education to do what he's doing, either. But he's a workaholic and a meticulous researcher. He isn't the type to quit. In fact, I think someone once told him he couldn't do it. After all these years, maybe he's just trying to prove them wrong.''

The financial pressures have been just as infuriating. In an effort to offer family members an early peek at his work, Adams once locked himself in a friend's office and spent 12 hours a day over several weeks doing nothing but making some 35,000 photocopies. But his free printing plan failed. Adams overloaded the machine and his friend asked him to stop.

Then there are the thousands of dollars he has spent over the years in postage. "I am not a phone person,'' he says. "It's not cheap communicating with all the Tufts. For a while, my greatest worry had been how I would pay for the postage to notify them when the book is published.''

In the scheme of things, of course, the technical and financial pressures mean little. The more serious concern for many in the Tufts family is Adams' health.

Less than a year ago, on Halloween, an ambulance ferried Adams to a local hospital after arteries in his bad leg clotted. It was the first time the old soldier had seen a doctor since he was shot in the war. Now, he says, "I'm taking pills for all kinds of things.''

While Adams jokes about his health, many longtime supporters are worried he won't see the fruits of his labor. "No one knows the Tufts family better than Herb,'' says Donald Tufts, a past president of the family association who lives in Savannah, Tenn., and would take over for Adams if something happens. "I'm confident he'll get it done. The only reason he won't finish is because he dies -- and that would be terrible, terrible for Herb and the family.''

Between trips one recent morning from the copy machine to the computer in Bates Hall, the old man with slicked gray hair and sharp blue eyes settles into his corner seat next to shelves of New England history books. When asked why he has stuck it out all these years, his raspy voice rises louder than his neighbors would like as he quotes one of his relatives, Helen Adams Keller: "We can do anything we want to do if we stick to it long enough.''

And no matter how much work he has left -- there is a lot, he says -- Adams is doing what he has always wanted to do. His first wife and the archivists at Tufts University may be oblivious to his work, but he couldn't care less. Lugging a ratty canvass bag stuffed with book request forms and a sheaf of random pages from his 4-inch-thick opus, the genealogist heads off to find a few more books.

He turns back, and whispers: "Whatever anyone says about Herb Adams, 'I did it my way.''

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe

Torture at Commencement

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  6/05/2000

Senator Edward M. Kennedy delivers a dense speech on health care policy to the hundreds of students graduating Bentley College.

At the Berklee College of Music's commencement ceremony, John Sykes, the president of the music video channel VH1, spends a good chunk of his speech reciting the channel's achievements.

And after receiving his first honorary degree from a US university, Northern Ireland's Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams stands before thousands graduating the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and briefs them on the latest intricacies of the peace process.

Commencement speeches have long been the realm of inspiration, including exhortations for graduates to fulfill their potential, advice on the dos and dont's of adulthood, and other wisdom to chew on as students depart the shelter of ivory towers.

But not every student is graced by such rousing rhetoric. Most colleges even prefer prominent people, such as a president or a Nobel laureate, to make memorable policy announcements, as did former secretary of state George C. Marshall in 1947 when he announced the Marshall Plan at Harvard.

Yet, commencement speeches, all too often miss the point, students say, with scientists detailing arcane theories, politicians promoting party platforms, and corporate executives touting products.

After Kennedy outlined the proposed "Paycheck Fairness Act," one graduate said, "It felt like this was just another chance for him to get before a microphone." At Berklee, after Sykes's speech, a student groused: "Did he have to sell his product to us during the ceremony?" And at UMass Lowell, the friend of a graduate wondered why politicians are invited to speak at commencements, "It's about them and their cause, not the students."

In attacking "trite, empty, long-winded orations" in the introduction of his new book "Onward! Twenty-Five Years of Advice, Exhortation, and Inspiration From America's Best Commencement Speeches," Northampton writer Peter J. Smith spells out clear rules of such addresses.

The speeches, he says, should be no longer than 15 minutes. They should be witty and amusing. They should avoid the minutiae of policy as well as "then-now" statements, including, "When I graduated the price of milk was . . . and now you all have webs to deal with . . ."

A speech should not be a screed, advertisement, recycled by the insertion of a few current references or one better delivered on the floor of the Senate, Smith said.

"Many speeches deserve their crummy reputation," he said. The political cartoonist Garry Trudeau, Smith writes in his book, once said, commencement speeches "were invented largely in the belief that outgoing college students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated."

Three years ago, a now famous Chicago Tribune columnist felt students' pain. So, she decided to offer her own advice. In an attempt to sum up her life's lessons, Mary Schmich wrote a mock speech advising students, among other things: "Wear Sunscreen." After someone credited the speech to Kurt Vonnegut, it quickly gained fame on the Internet. Now, people call Schmich for advice before speaking at graduations.

"Until I wrote that, I never gave commencement speeches much thought," she said. "I just put myself in the place of the listener. The last thing I would want is to be instructed on some arcane topic."

"Inside every adult," she wrote in her 1997 column, "lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out, some world-weary pundit eager to pontificate on life to young people who'd rather be Rollerblading."

Now that Schmich is one of the pundits, preparing for her first live graduation speech this week at a community college outside Chicago, she is trying to figure out how to rise above the pomp and circumstance to hold the attention of an antsy crowd of caps and gowns. Learning from the mistakes of others, she says, she'll talk to students directly, not as a generic crowd. Also, she hopes to impart some wisdom.

"Ideally, you want to give people some thoughts that they will take out of that room and carry with them the rest of their lives," she said. "It's just a thought or two that might come back to them on a hard day."

Unfortunately, many students have to suffer through long, abstract speeches that have little to do with celebrating their academic achievements. In protest, or out of boredom, large beach balls can often be found bouncing through the rows of seated graduates.

Garrison Keillor, the author, culture critic, and veteran commencement speaker, is harsh in his criticism.

He compares most speakers to a "small, dark cloud passing through" an otherwise joyous public occasion. And he believes "the large cheeses and gray eminences and gasbags who go around and get hooded" should stay home and leave the day to the graduates and their families.

"The function of the speaker is similar to that of the harpist at the wedding reception: It's not a performance, it's to provide atmosphere," he wrote in an e-mail. "About nine out of 10 speakers forget this, and what you get is an elephantine ego coming up and doing headstands. The audience is high as a kite and most speakers take the excitement personally and talk a little longer. They shouldn't."

Asked for his thoughts, Noam Chomsky, the outspoken MIT linguist, also responded in an e-mail: "I am often invited to give commencement speeches, but refuse when I can - sometimes it's uncomfortable to do so. It's not the sort of thing I like to do."

Whether students would rather be Rollerblading, or anywhere else not sweating under a June sun wearing a black gown, John C. Hoy, president of the New England Board of Higher Education, says commencement speakers have a duty to convey certain ideas.

"It's probably the last rite of passage that young Americans go through," said Hoy, also a commencement veteran. "It should welcome them into the mature society as full-blooded adults. The pitch should be: Life is more than making money, shouldn't be confined to a narrow specialization, and should be lived fully."

Beneath the neoclassical columns at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Friday, Carly S. Fiorina, the CEO of Hewlett Packard Co., delivered a version of that message.

But before stepping to the podium, she was careful to consult the graduates. After exchanging e-mails with scores of students, she said, she learned some wanted her to address the future of technology, women in the workplace, and the direction of Hewlett Packard, while others said they preferred she didn't discuss those subjects.

In the end, she said, the students made several things clear: "You wanted this address to be based on my life experience, not esoteric theory. You wanted to know the best way to make the decisions you'll need to live life . . . and on one point there was complete unanimity: Please don't run over your time."

At Hampshire College in Amherst last month, George Plimpton, editor of the "Paris Review" and veteran of more than 20 commencement speeches, delivered an itinerant speech, laden with humor, advice, and curious anecdotes about everything from the Earl of Chesterfield to the woes of the Red Sox.

"Maybe the best advice I've given," Plimpton said, "is telling students: ‘Go back to your rooms and unpack.’”

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe

Harvard 'Dream Team' Roiled

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff   |  12/22/2001

Over the past decade, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has risen to stardom in academia and beyond by turning Harvard University's listless Afro-American studies department into a group so studded with star faculty that he fondly dubbed them his "Dream Team."

Now, six months after Lawrence H. Summers
took over as president of Harvard, Gates and at least two other nationally known members of his department - Cornel West and Anthony Appiah - are considering leaving for Princeton University, according to senior black faculty members.

The reason is a falling out with Summers, who they say has acted abrasively toward many members of the faculty and criticized West for acting in ways unbecoming of a Harvard professor.

This week, West abruptly announced he would take a leave of absence, his second leave in two academic years.

In a phone interview yesterday, Summers said he didn't intend any offense. "It's a very unfortunate misunderstanding if my views have been perceived in other ways," he said.

According to interviews with more than a dozen faculty, staff, and administration officials, complaints about Summers began surfacing when he declined to make a strong statement in support of affirmative action at a meeting this summer with members of the Afro-American studies department.

After the semester began, other senior black professors began complaining that the new president had acted like "a bull in a china shop" and that he spoke dismissively of some professors, calling their ideas "stupid."

Others complained that Summers did not speak out in support of diversity and that he has not emphasized its importance as clearly as Harvard's recently retired president, Neil L. Rudenstine, who helped bring Gates to Harvard and build his team.

Gates declined to talk about the complaints from members of his faculty. Of his own plans, he said only: "I do not have an offer from Princeton."

He also said the departure of any members of the department would be a blow.

"It would be devastating to Harvard and the department of Afro-American studies, which Cornel and Anthony Appiah have helped to build brick by brick, for them to leave and go anywhere," said Gates, who took over as chairman in 1991, when the department consisted of only one white male professor and a small number of students.

This week, Gates and Appiah visited Princeton and met with the provost and other campus leaders, several sources at Harvard said. West, who spent years teaching at Princeton before Gates persuaded him to come to Harvard in 1994, did not make the trip, but has spoken to officials there, too, senior black faculty members said.

Reached on a cell phone yesterday, Appiah, a nationally respected philosopher who co-edited "Perseus Africana Encyclopedia" with Gates, said he preferred not to comment about his meetings. But of West's meeting with Summers, he said: "I don't think university presidents should lecture faculty on their political positions. If he did it, he shouldn't have."

In the meeting, according to senior faculty members who spoke with the Globe, Summers rebuked West for recording a rap CD, for leading a political committee for the Rev. Al Sharpton's possible presidential campaign, and for writing books more likely to be reviewed in The New York Times than in academic journals. He also reportedly criticized West for allowing grade inflation in his introductory course on black studies. Grade inflation has been a contentious issue this year at Harvard, which recently reported that nearly half of all grades given are A's.

West declined to be interviewed, and Summers - who insisted he supports affirmative action - said he wouldn't discuss a private conversation with a member of the faculty.

He said he believes "professors should be free to engage in any type of political activity they choose, that grade inflation is a general issue in the university that should be considered by faculty members in all departments with no specific focus, that many mediums of intellectual expression are appropriate and not for the university to judge, and that . . . public intellectual debate on many issues, including race, is a great strength of Harvard."

After hanging up, a senior administration official called the Globe and released this statement: "Summers views this very seriously and as a huge misunderstanding and is working extremely hard to keep each of these faculty members at Harvard."

The official added that Summers will "make certain that Harvard responds very aggressively to Princeton's challenge."

A spokesman for West - one of the first black scholars to be named a university professor, Harvard's highest faculty post and a designation held by only 14 of its 2,200 faculty members - also declined to speak about the specifics of the meeting between West and Summers. But he said the professor, who's scheduled to have surgery for prostate cancer next month, isn't taking a leave merely for health reasons.

"It would be a shame and a miscarriage of justice if for any reason Cornel were no longer at Harvard," said Charles J. Ogletree, a professor of law at Harvard who called West "my client in these matters." West is "a nationally respected scholar and a phenomenal teacher. . . . We hope that this is a place he will decide to spend the rest of his academic life."

Neither Ogletree nor other senior black faculty would say whether it's likely that West or other professors in the Afro-American studies department would choose to leave, but they acknowledged that the tensions have reached a boiling point.

Several faculty and staff members also said that word has gotten out and several universities have been calling senior black professors at Harvard and asking them to consider visiting their campuses. "If Harvard lets these people leave, and they don't make an all-out effort to keep them, I would really have to think about whether to stay," said one senior black professor.

Another senior black faculty member said: "People are willing to give a new president a grace period, but if in that time he acts like a bull in a china shop, it makes people very worried. It appears as if he has deliberately set himself on a collision course with faculty members."

Still, with the right statements and actions, other faculty members said Summers could keep the Dream Team at Harvard. Since Gates took over in 1991, the department has grown to 16 professors and has been immensely popular with students. West, the best-selling author of "Race Matters," teaches an introductory Afro-American studies course that's one of the most popular on campus, with more than 600 students enrolled this semester.

If Summers and the department can't come to terms, some faculty members might start brushing up their resumes.

"It is highly disturbing that things are so amiss here," said Randall Kennedy, a law professor. "That colleagues of mine may feel impelled to leave, it certainly raises anxieties."
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe

Being Cornel West

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff |  1/20/2002

He's the pre-eminent black intellectual of our time, admirers say, a peripatetic philosopher whose dissident wisdom was refined as much by his time at Harvard as by the angst of growing up a black man in a white-governed America.

To his critics, he's a charlatan in a three-piece suit, an academic poseur who speaks in grandiloquent tones that obfuscate more than illuminate.

Here's how he describes himself at the end of a recent book: "A dark voice that combines the blood-stained way of the cross in the funky Christianity of the spirituals with the tear-soaked tragicomic laughter in the funkier blues in order to enhance the art of wise living and enlarge the scope of democracy."

At 48, Cornel West has spent his life fighting for his ideas in academia and politics. Now the popular Harvard professor is waging a more personal battle - for his life and his reputation.

Over the past several months, West, who will have surgery for prostate cancer at the end of the month, has had his scholarship questioned by everyone from Harvard's new president, Lawrence H. Summers, to a growing chorus of conservative commentators. Some have even argued his distinction as one of only a few "university" professors at Harvard owes more to affirmative action than academic prowess.

The criticism has taken a toll. In recent weeks, the author of more than 20 books, a lecturer who gives more than 150 speeches in a year, and a philosopher so eager to spread his ideas that he recently recorded some riffs on a hip-hop CD, has become reclusive. He has granted only a few interviews and now frequently speaks through friends and colleagues. He declined comment for this story.

"This is the most difficult time in his life," said Charles J. Ogletree, a law professor at Harvard acting as a spokesman for West. "He has reached the pinnacle of his academic career, and it's amazing that he would face challenges at an institution he loves dearly. But he is resilient, and this too shall pass."

In October, West told colleagues that Summers called him to his office in Massachusetts Hall and offended him so much that the professor told colleagues he thought about quitting on the spot. Last month, West announced he was taking his second leave of absence in two years and that he's considering a long-standing offer to return to Princeton University, where he taught before coming to Harvard.

His possible departure, as well the potential exodus of other senior black professors who have rallied around West, has sparked an onslaught of news coverage - some harshly critical of West. The criticism has ranged from vituperative and racist talk-show rants to more thoughtful assaults on his scholarship.

"My question about Cornel is: What's his point?" said Shelby Steele, a noted black conservative author who in the Wall Street Journal recently called West an "academic lightweight."

"If you're at all objective about it, his weakness is obvious. There's no systematic thought, no thread, and a cacophony of ideas that aren't coherent. Cornel's work is not remotely on the same level as Nobel Prize winners, those who usually receive university professorships. The discrepancy is screaming," said Steele.

For a philosopher who says he "lingers on the night side of the human predicament," West insists he doesn't mind criticism of his work. It's the personal attacks he won't stand for.

In a recent interview on National Public Radio, West said Summers unfairly disparaged him in their meeting.

"I do not tolerate disrespect, being dishonored, and being devalued," he said. "I love to be criticized. Sometimes it's a little painful and hurtful. But when it comes to disrespect and being dishonored, it's the only thing one has as a human being, let alone as a black person in America."

West has long bridled at those who don't show him respect. When he was in the third grade growing up in suburban Sacramento, his teacher hit him for refusing to stand up and salute the flag with the rest of his class. The 9-year-old hit back, and the incident got him thrown out of school.

But it also set him on a path to Harvard. His dad, a civilian Air Force administrator, and his mom, an elementary school principal, encouraged West to steep himself in books - and he did. It was from a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, a Harvard graduate, that he first got the idea to apply to Harvard.

He entered Harvard in 1970 and graduated three years later - magna cum laude. One of his professors, Martin Kilson, recalls the Near Eastern studies major as "the most intellectually aggressive and highly cerebral student I have taught."

With a recommendation from Kilson, West was accepted to study for a doctorate in the renowned philosophy department at Princeton. The bright black student stood out in a sea of white students. He also stood out for the breadth of his reading, said Richard Rorty, a philosophy professor at Princeton at the time.

"He just read a lot more than most students and he was really the only one writing about political subjects," said Rorty, who favorably reviewed West's dissertation, "The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought."

After finishing his doctorate in 1980, West held teaching positions at Columbia and Yale, where he taught courses that touched on philosophy, religion, sociology, and history. In 1988, after publishing several books exploring connections between Christianity, Marxism, and the philosophical schools of existentialism and pragmatism, he returned to Princeton as a religion professor and chairman of the Afro-American studies program.

By the time he was 42, West had published 11 serious academic books and scholars were increasingly citing his work. He also had made a name for himself as a popular teacher whose spellbinding lectures would draw on a dizzying range of sources, from Erasmus and Nietzsche to Toni Morrison and John Coltrane.

In 1993, with the publication of "Race Matters," West made the leap from the academic world and achieved the rare status of a celebrity philosopher. The best-selling book, a collection of essays he wrote after the riots that followed the Rodney King trial, explained the roots and depths of racism in America and made West arguably America's best-known black intellectual.

Shortly after, Harvard snatched West from Princeton and in 1998 he became one of the first black scholars to be named a university professor - Harvard's highest distinction and a title held by only 14 of 2,200 faculty members. At the time, Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of Harvard's Afro-American studies department, called West "one of America's most important public intellectuals, and a formidable scholar by any measure."

Not everyone agreed.

"West's elevation to university professor was certainly controversial," said Glenn C. Loury, a university professor at Boston University and another black scholar who has frequently criticized West's work. "There was a lot of grousing. He had not yet established himself in the scholarly realm to deserve such a distinction at the time. If you were to take an objective look at Cornel's work as a philosopher, he clearly didn't break out and distance himself from the field."

Over the years, West has attracted similar critics, some from the left. In a 1995 cover story, the New Republic's literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, reviewed West's canon and called his work "almost completely worthless" on race issues and "noisy, tedious, slippery . . . humorless, pedantic, and self-endeared."

As more critics in the past weeks have pooh-poohed the professor's work, many colleagues have risen to his defense.

"This has been a very, very difficult time for Cornel," said William Julius Wilson, another university professor in Harvard's Afro-American studies department. "He's been the victim of blistering, ad hominem attacks . . . To call him a lightweight in view of his prodigious scholarship is just really dishonest."

Wilson also points to West's record as a teacher. In the fall, West had so many students enroll in his introductory Afro-American studies course he had to move it to a nearby church.

"He's the best teacher I've ever seen," said Martha Jane Nadell, the head teaching fellow for West's introductory course. "Students come up to me years after his class and say it was the best class they've ever taken at Harvard - and that it inspired them to think critically about race. What more could you want from a professor?"

To show their support, some students have recently hung posters around Harvard Yard telling the professor: "Harvard thanks you . . . We all feel that you have changed the Harvard community for the better."

As much as students beseech him to stay, West has hinted that he has already made his mind to leave Harvard for Princeton.

While his colleagues say he won't make any decision about his future until after the operation, he sounded in the interview on NPR as though he was already growing nostalgic.

"In a deep sense, I weep for Harvard, because Harvard has meant much to me," he said. "It's not simply a sense of turning away from Harvard . . .it's also a turning toward something that is positive, something that is visionary, something that is appreciative."
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe