Honoring the Humanities: Kurt Vonnegut

Collage of flyers and photos from the Humanities Series Director's Records Collection, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Collage of flyers and photos from the Humanities Series Director’s Records Collection, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

This week’s blog post (below) on Kurt Vonnegut is drawn from the exhibit Honoring the Humanities, which is on display through June 2014 in the O’Neill Library Reading Room.  The exhibit is open whenever the O’Neill Library is open – check the BC Libraries hours page for more details.  This exhibit celebrates the Humanities Series and its place in the history of Boston College with materials drawn from the Humanities Series: Director’s Records Collection at the John J. Burns Library. In 1957, a young Jesuit, Father Francis W. Sweeney, professor of English here at BC since 1951, inaugurated a series of lectures with a visit from celebrated American poet Robert Frost. These lectures continue to this day as the Lowell Humanities Series, which during their history have brought to Boston College such luminaries as T. S. Eliot, Maya Angelou, Margaret Mead, Seamus Heaney, Kurt Vonnegut, among others, to give lectures, read from their works and interact with the audience about artistic expression and important themes in humanistic study.  

Flyer for Kurt Vonnegut's 1969 lecture at Boston College, Box 50, Folder 4, MS.2002.037, Humanities Series Director's Records, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Flyer for Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 lecture at Boston College, Box 50, Folder 4, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

As contemporary American authors go, there are none so raw, so succinct, so human, as Kurt Vonnegut. His writing and his style evoke the ability to relate to his characters, despite the fact that their circumstances are often far from what a reader may have experienced. On October 9, 1969, Vonnegut visited Boston College to speak in Father Francis Sweeney’s Humanities Series. As with many of his speakers, Father Sweeney had a bit of persuading to do in order to supply the BC community with renowned people and performers. In an initial response to Father Sweeney’s invitation, Vonnegut accepted, even though he preferred not to speak often, “since I find that it upsets me for a week in advance.” (Box 50, Folder 1, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College).  He did accept however, and later asked for the same fee paid to an earlier speaker in the series, John Barth. Barth was paid nearly $1300 for his appearance, including costs for room and board. In a later response to this, Sweeney noted that this sum was far excessive of the means of the Humanities Series Budget. Regardless of the to-be-determined fee, Vonnegut made it clear in his letter that he wanted the check made out to the American Field Service of the Society of Friends. He wanted the large sum not for personal use, but for charity.

Jim Creamer and Bill Peccorino, “Will the Real…,” and “Please Stand Up,” <a href=http://newspapers.bc.edu/ <i>The Heights</i></a>, October 14, 1969.

Jim Creamer and Bill Peccorino, “Will the Real…,” and “Please Stand Up,” The Heights, October 14, 1969.

The event was advertised on campus and off, as the name Vonnegut drew much interest. The gray paper and simple blue typescript for the informational on-campus flyer reveal the topic of Vonnegut’s proposed speech: “Enlightened Self-Interest,” along with the date, time, and location of the series.  The Heights wrote a pair of follow-up articles the succeeding week, entitled “Will the Real…” [Kurt Vonnegut] and “Please Stand Up.” Both articles take into account the style of Vonnegut’s writing, and attempt to imitate it in the prose. His most recent work at the time of his speech at BC was Slaughterhouse-Five, which has come to be known as one of his most significant and popular novels. In a way this talk to a college audience was good publicity and advertising for Vonnegut and his new book. It was an advantageous time for both him and for Boston College as the press from Slaughterhouse-Five brought even greater fame to his name and to BC by extension.

Photograph of Father Sweeney. Box 64, Folder 11, Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, Humanities Series Director's Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Photograph of Father Sweeney, Box 64, Folder 11, Francis W. Sweeney, SJ, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Father Sweeney, persistent as ever, wrote a letter of thanks a few weeks following the talk. He invited Vonnegut to speak again at a future Humanities Series event. Vonnegut respectfully declined in his reply, stating that his commitment schedule was too full at the moment with a teaching job and a new play. He did however reminisce about his last time at BC, when a student asked him to “smoke grass with him in a steam bath.” According to Vonnegut, “That’s friendly.” (Box 50, Folder 1, Humanities Series Director’s Records, MS.2002.037, John J. Burns Library, Boston  College).   Though he did not return for another Humanities Series talk, Vonnegut remains an impressive name on a stellar list of artists and authors compiled by Father Francis Sweeney. To learn more about the Humanities Series (now the Lowell Humanities Series), take a look at this Flickr album featuring images from Humanities Series Director’s Records, visit the Honoring the Humanities exhibit in the O’Neill Reading Room, read past Burns blog posts  and Heights articles on this topic, or contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • Megan Keating, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant and A & S Class of 2015, History.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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