Rowling Charges Grads To Accept Failure, Cultivate Imagination

One could forgive J.K. Rowling for mistaking yesterday’s afternoon exercises for a Gryffindor reunion.

Despite a persistent drizzle, a lively audience—including more than its typical share of youngsters—gathered under an assortment of University shields in Tercentenary Theater to hear the author of the acclaimed “Harry Potter” series deliver the Commencement address.

A group of young girls scribbled effusive, adulatory letters to Rowling on their laps. Others peered through binoculars to catch get a closer view of the author on stage. At least one graduating senior eschewed her mortarboard for a wizard’s hat.

Even University President Drew G. Faust, proclaiming herself “muggle-in-chief” for the day, announced in her introductory remarks that Harvard “would be hard pressed to measure up to the magic of Hogwarts.”

But despite the warm welcome, Rowling, by her own account, did not feel entirely in her element.

“The weeks of fear and nausea I have endured at the thought of giving this commencement address have made me lose weight,” said Rowling to sympathetic laughter and applause.

In a speech that touched only tangentially on the stories she has woven in her books, Rowling called on members of the Class of 2008 to use their capacity to empathize and their experiences of failure to conquer apathy.

Rowling, who has a degree in French and the classics from the University of Exeter, said her greatest fear as a recent graduate was failure, adding that she “failed on an epic scale” in her early adult years as an unemployed single mother who was “as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless.”

But upon reaching her lowest point, Rowling said, she stripped away the “inessential” in her life and ceased to pretend to be anything other than what she was.

“I was set free because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive,” she said. “Rock bottom became the solid foundation upon which I rebuilt my life.”

Since the first “Harry Potter” book was released in 1997, the seven-part series has sold more than 375 million copies, making Rowling, by some calculations, wealthier than Queen Elizabeth II.

Rowling also said she believes imagination is a crucial skill, enabling people to empathize with others whose experiences they have never shared.

Rowling recalled her experiences working in the African research department at Amnesty International, where she met torture victims and read letters documenting rapes, kidnappings, and summary executions.

Through such exposure, Rowling said, she came to recognize the power of human empathy to mobilize those who have never been oppressed to act on behalf of those who have.

A stubborn refusal to be empathetic not only represents a collusion with evil, but can have negative personal effects as well, Rowling said.

“The unwillingly unimaginative often see more monsters,” she said.

As graduates of a world-renowned university and residents of the world’s last superpower, Rowling said, Harvard’s newest crop of alumni can touch the lives of others “simply by existing.”

“That is you privilege and your burden,” she said.

“We do not need magic to transform our world,” Rowling said. “We carry all the power we need inside of ourselves. Already, we have the power to imagine better.”

Rowling is the fifth woman since 1950 to speak at Commencement. Previous writers to address graduates include Ralph Ellison, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Lionel Trilling.

—Staff Writer Esther I. Yi can be reached at estheryi@fas.harvard.edu.