Baccalaureate Address: Eavan Boland
Story posted June 09, 2004
What We Need to Keep
by Eavan Boland
May 28, 2004
I feel honored and fortunate to give this Baccalaureate address at Bowdoin. In 1987 I came here to teach for a semester. The college and its distinction have stayed in my memory ever since. I want to thank the President for asking me and congratulate the graduating class who are here today.
When I came here in 1987 I taught Creative Writing. And it is the sense of creativity in a changing world which I believe will be one of the shaping forces for this graduating class. It is the subject of this address and it is particularly appropriate to raise this subject in this College:
Nearly two hundred years ago Nathaniel Hawthorne, the great American writer, came to Bowdoin as a student. Born in Salem, raised in the Puritan tradition of service, a restive and gifted young man he came to Bowdoin at a time when this College then - as it still does now - had a direct and important role in shaping leaders for American society and sending them into the world.
He came in 1819. He came before steam engines, before cross-continental transport, before any real sense of the opening of the West. He came before photography and before the telephone. But he also belonged to a moment of great excitement which required no technological invention to confirm its importance. He was one of the founding generations of the new American Republic. He came to this College at a time when America was just finding itself. And the great question for him must have been - as indeed it must have been for you when you came here four years ago - whether he was ready to find himself as well.
But if he came before change and expansion, there were certain things which were already well established by the time he got here. Hawthorne came to Bowdoin at a time of unique purpose and dedication in American life. It was common in that day to go from your education and out into the world as a lawyer or a clergyman or a teacher. Those were accepted vocations. But it was new and rare and daring and even dangerous to consider yourself something more individual. To consider yourself an artist.
And so it seems somehow marvelous and moving to me that this young American writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, at this very college, in the very year in which he came to Bowdoin wrote to his mother and said, "What would you think of me becoming an author?"
It also seems marvelous and moving to me that this College in New England has twined its roots with the fate and fortunes of a great American writer. But not surprising. When I came here in 1987 and taught Creative Writing at Bowdoin I was charmed and moved at the idea that Hawthorne - whose work I had known since I was a student at Trinity College in Dublin in Ireland - had lived here and read in this library, as you have, and walked through this beautiful campus, as you have, and shared his dreams and his hopes with his friends under these trees and along these walks, as you have.
But it also seemed to me very explicable that this college had in some mysterious way been part of his decision to dedicate his life to the best that he could be. I don't think that anyone can say with any kind of certainty what part Bowdoin played in helping Nathaniel Hawthorne to come to the beginnings of that momentous decision. Yet Bowdoin has traditions of public service and private commitment which he must have both benefited from and added to - as you also have and will.
The fact is, Hawthorne would go on to be one of the greatest and most unswerving writers America has produced. And it is touching today, when so many of you here are thinking of your future life, and reflecting on how this college has enabled and empowered your sense of that future, to wonder under what tree, in what room, in what class and or with what teacher, did Nathaniel Hawthorne find the courage to be himself.
I have chosen this moment from Hawthorne's life for several reasons. To start with, he is a celebrated product of this college. All that I found Bowdoin to stand for when I taught here, however briefly, is best represented in the lives and achievements of those who come through its doors. And his is one of the finest of those achievements. It isn't too much to argue that all that Bowdoin offers - its example of honor, of rigorous intellectual challenge, of real moral nurture - can be seen shadowing the pages that he wrote.
Undoubtedly, he was shaped by this place, by its rooms, its classes, its teachers, its friendships, its late night conversations. In the same way, I know that many of you here today will think back to some room, to some class, to some moment with a friend or some conversation with a teacher, and think that you also - in that place, at that time - found the courage to be yourself. That courage, that moment, comes as a true gift. It comes through the shelter and challenge of institutions such as Bowdoin. It is a grace given to us at a particular moment. And it is what we need to keep.
But there is another reason for choosing his name and using it in this Baccalaureate address. Nathaniel Hawthorne, in that simple question to his mother, did something far from simple. In fact, just through his own purpose and passion, he did something on a grand scale. He changed the idea of creativity in his time. He showed that a life, which had turned aside from the normal and accepted professions of high service, which aspired to the much more doubtful career of writing, could equal those other callings in significance and contribution.
Nevertheless, I have yet another reason for choosing Nathaniel Hawthorne and his comment. He is only one of many distinguished alumni of this institution. But the truth is he was at this College a long time ago - which illustrates the fact that it is one of the distinctions of Bowdoin that such a rich history exists. Education has changed since then. And there is something about what he writes to his mother which I think should give us pause today. Those words: What would you think if I were to become an author?
In one way those words will always be striking. They bring us back to an era when to write was a bold choice. But it was also a choice which excluded other things. For Hawthorne it meant also what he would not be: A doctor, a clergyman, a banker.
In an important way his words also belong to another philosophy of education. One which I think we have set aside. If I become a writer, he seems to be saying, I will not become a lawyer or a philosopher or a clergyman or a congressman. He is putting forward the either/or situation of his time. In those days that's what much of education offered -the imaginative life or the practical life. One or the other. And no compromises between them.
We have come a long way from that view of education. We have come a long way from the anxious question which Hawthorne asked his mother. Universities like Bowdoin have led the way in liberal education and I believe Universities everywhere have had to look hard at this issue. It is institutions like this one, in fact, which have recognized and negotiated with change by, among other things, transforming the idea of creativity.
Hawthorne presented his creativity as an either/or situation. I don't think it is anymore. I don't think it can be anymore. The truth is that what we have come to call creativity - that wish and need to express ourselves - is no longer simply an option which allows us to reject other callings. In fact it is the opposite. We live in an era in which creativity is no longer a choice. It has ceased to be a choice. It has become a responsibility.
I believe this is an issue of true importance, one which will affect your future lives. For you who graduate from this College, I believe this will be something that will have at least some part in defining your future self. As that definition is happening, I know you will often think back to this place where - perhaps in some class, some study project, some all-night discussion with your friends - you touched on that deep well spring of invention and belief expression which we call creativity - and which really is creativity.
In those moments, free of every institution, free of every demand, you knew, in some recess of your mind and your spirit, that at this moment you were uniquely your self. And in that uniqueness, you felt that you could write what you wanted to write, compose music, and achieve excellence in science - whatever form you wanted that creativity to take.
That moment of discovery and hope is the first sign we are given when we are young, and beginning to reveal ourselves in our surroundings. It is the first sign, the first reassurance that we can contribute. That out of our own individuality we can find the strength to give, to change, to express ourselves in ways that will change others as well as ourselves. The question is not whether those moments are valuable. We know they are. The question really is, how are we to honour that moment?
The problem is this. You are going to go from this place into an exceptionally demanding and fraught world. Whatever you do, everything will be demanded of you - in and out of your places of work, in and out of your own homes. It will be tempting for you to reverse Hawthorne's process, to believe that because you are in a demanding professional world you can't follow the dream of self-expression, the sense of self-realization, which you found in this college. In that moment, you may be tempted to relinquish the responsibility of your own creativity. But I hope you won't.
Each generation has different challenges. Each graduating class has something distinctive and of its moment. But I truly believe that every generation has this responsibility which it shares with the generation which went before and the one which will come after. And that is to change the idea of creativity in their time.
You are leaving a place of nurture and shelter and knowledge. You entered it and contributed your work and your efforts. Now you leave as graduates with a real and necessary achievement, well qualified for today's world. Not all of it I know has been easy. You had exams, you had challenges, you had disappointments as well as victories, and you had to work hard. And sometimes you must have done all that feeling that this was the most creative time of your life, and yet some of it had to be spent, not in the projects of your choice only, but in routine and discipline. And now you take into the world a creativity greatly strengthened by knowledge. Now you have the best of both worlds.
But you will also have enormous distractions, practical challenges and pressures. At those moments it is easy to forget that creativity is a responsibility. At those moments it can seem to be a luxury. But colleges like Bowdoin - with their friendships, their free thought and expression and their instruction and their tradition - encourage people to find themselves. But not just for a moment. The true responsibility is to find yourselves forever. And for a reason. So that you can bring that creativity into the very places where it is lacking and much needed - and most of all into the everyday conduct of our societies.
What would a transformed idea of creativity look like in our time? What would it look like in your generation as against others? That is for you to answer. In Ireland, where I come from, creativity looked different to us in our time, perhaps, but equally essential.
For myself, I have always felt lucky that I come from a country which embarked on a great creative adventure at the start of the twentieth century: It was a country whose writers - in their responsible creativity - took the language which Ireland had been oppressed with, humiliated with for hundreds of years - that is, the English language - and they made it their own. The makers and founders of Irish literature forced the language by which they had been silenced to tell their story. They required the language which once announced to them every day that they had lost their freedom to tell the world that they had regained it. They made a great literature from many substances, and in many styles, but this was at the heart of it: they used the language of the oppressor to describe their liberation. By doing so, they created a new narrative, transformed a language and gave a witness of hope and renewal to their moment and their century.
I have always, as I've said, felt truly honoured to have begun as a poet in that unique culture of courage, creativity and transformation. Although it isn't always as sombre as that. I remember the editor of the Irish Times - perhaps asked once too often why Ireland had so many poets - giving a memorable answer. We at the Irish Times, he said, have finally worked out the secret of Irish poetry: which is that whereas only 10% of the Irish people read poetry, 45% of them write it!
Changing the idea of creativity is not easy. Especially because we associate it with a product rather than a process. It is easy and in a certain way comforting to think that we only have to be creative if we write a great book, like Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter, or a piece of music or a play. But the responsibilities of creativity lie far deeper than just the product. Creativity, before it is a book or a symphony or a scientific discovery, is a form of human self-knowledge and aspiration. It is a process before it is a product. Colleges like Bowdoin, with their history of liberal arts, give their students the opportunity to engage in that process.
And so what you have learned in Bowdoin will have been a precious lesson, during your times of shelter, space and freedom here. And that precious lesson is that the process and the product of creativity should not be divided from one another. As time goes on, I think you will see that as more and more important. Each of us, in our lifetime, taking the powerful and generous lessons of our youth with us into adulthood, has to make our own democracy of creativity. We have to resist the pressures of a society which urges you just to value the product. Just to honour what is seen, and can be felt, and can be sold.
I don't for a moment say we shouldn't honour and be grateful for those tangible fruits of the creative life which we recognize as the product of it. We should and I am. But we should also remember that the dream of creativity lives in far more people than ever get to write a poem, or design an aeroplane, or evolve a mathematical answer. Those people who keep that dream, who are hospitable to the process of creativity, even though they may never achieve its product, keep that democracy of creativity alive.
And all those people who do write the poems, make the paintings, write the music or accomplish a scientific discovery are, and always will be, infinitely indebted to all those who dream of that world but never reach it.
But above all creativity begins with the self. That is the self which this wonderful college nurtured and challenged. Creativity begins with making continuous the gifts you received here and offering them to the society which so needs it. There is hardly any more wonderful sight than to see a new generation bring its gifts and its dreams to a world which is always ready for it. That's what Nathaniel Hawthorne did. That's what you will do. I congratulate the graduating class and I wish you a truly creative future.
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