The Chronicle Review

Dylan and the Intellectuals

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Bob Dylan, 1964
September 05, 2010

On a bright, hot day in 1970, Bob Dylan, clad in cap and gown, received an honorary doctorate from Princeton University. Introduced as "the authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of young America," Dylan cringed at the idea that his was the voice of a generation. He briefly considered walking off the dais. "Sure was glad to get out of there alive," he later crooned about the experience in the song "Day of the Locusts."

The pomp of a Princeton graduation ceremony may have left Dylan cold, but the feeling was not mutual. Indeed, few, if any, pop-culture figures have been as thoroughly embraced by intellectuals as Bob Dylan. His raspy snarl is ubiquitous in bookish circles. As the writer Alan Franks put it, "No one in the supposedly low arts has ever drawn more high-minded attention than Bob Dylan."

The first scholarly articles about Dylan began appearing in the late 1960s; the first book—Betsy Bowden's Performed Literature: Words and Music by Bob Dylan (Indiana University Press)—was published a decade later. (More than 1,000 books have reportedly been published on Dylan in English.) In 1998 devotees gathered at Stanford University for the first conference devoted to Dylan in the United States. And last year, Cambridge University Press published The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan, placing the musician in the company of Baudelaire, Edith Wharton, Ernest Hemingway, and other literary giants. The Oxford Book of American Poetry, published in 2006, saw fit to include Dylan's song "Desolation Row."

Dylan's impact even extends into the realm of legal studies. According to an article published in the Washington and Lee Law Review, Dylan is the most-cited songwriter in both judicial opinions and law-journal articles. (The Beatles are a distant second.) Glancing at the bounty of scholarship on Dylan, the critic Richard Goldstein wryly cracked in The Nation: "Welcome to the Rolling Tenure Review."

Why are intellectuals so besotted with Dylan? It seems a good moment to ask. A boomlet of Dylan books will soon be upon us. In addition to the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz's new book, Bob Dylan in America (Doubleday), PublicAffairs will in October release a collection of essays from Greil Marcus—dean of Dylan critics—titled simply Bob Dylan by Greil Marcus: Writings 1968-2010. Next year Yale University Press will publish two Dylan biographies: Bob Dylan, by Ron Rosenbaum, is part of the Jewish Lives series; Bob Dylan: Like a Complete Unknown, by David Yaffe, is part of the Icons of America series and will appear in May, in time for Dylan's 70th birthday. Yaffe, an assistant professor of English at Syracuse University, says he isn't discouraged that his is not the only Dylan book in progress—indeed, not even the only one at Yale Press. He was consoled by the words of another Dylan chronicler—David Hajdu—who explained a truism about writing a book on Dylan: You can be sure that other Dylan books will come out right before and right after your own is published.

So why do so many professional thinkers spend their time thinking and writing about Dylan? I asked Christopher Ricks, who responded with incredulity: Why would intellectuals not be drawn to Dylan's work? After all, he says by e-mail, Dylan "has a Shakespearean width of appeal." Ricks is a professor of the humanities at Boston University, author of Dylan's Visions of Sin (Viking, 2003), and the man famous for turning his critical gaze from Keats and Tennyson to Dylan. Ricks's insistence that scholars' fixation on Dylan is natural, even inevitable, is echoed by Benjamin Hedin, editor of Studio A: The Bob Dylan Reader (W.W. Norton, 2004), who has observed, "The excited teenagers and college students who stayed up all night hoping to decipher 'Maggie's Farm' became professors, journalists, and other leaders of the educational hierarchy."

Dylan, in short, is familiar to the bulk of book-publishing academics, a point that Joshua Clover, a professor of English at the University of California at Davis, picks up on in an e-mail: "It's not simply that Dylan's great, which he is, and historically pivotal. When scholars, out of revelation or anxiety, decide to attend to popular culture—decide to take a pass at being cool—they will gravitate to the culture for which they already have a vocabulary, and about which there is no potential embarrassment." There is, Clover adds, a cynical corollary to this argument: Academe exists to validate certain ideas, not least, Clover says, that "white men should be recognized as transcendently great in as many fields as possible." To celebrate Dylan is, for boomer intellectuals, to celebrate themselves; Dylan's story—wunderkind becomes confused seeker who reclaims his genius in middle age—is the story that boomers want to tell about their whole generation. "What boomer wouldn't go gaga for such a story?" Clover asks.

Other theories abound. Kevin J.H. Dettmar, a professor of English at Pomona College and editor of The Cambridge Companion (and occasional contributor to The Chronicle Review), explains Dylan's allure to scholars in terms of timing. "Dylan came to public prominence at precisely the moment that departments of English were seeking to break down traditional barriers between 'high' and 'low' culture." Dylan—steeped in the poetry and literature of his time—was an ideal candidate to fill the breach. He is a "crossover figure," says the Princeton University poet Paul Muldoon; Dylan is an attractive subject both to scholars uninterested in rock 'n' roll and to rock 'n' rollers uninterested in scholarship.

Morris Dickstein sees something else. Dickstein, a cultural historian who wrote about Dylan in his 1977 book, Gates of Eden (Basic Books), says in an e-mail: "Dylan himself is not an intellectual, but early on he cast himself as the kind of outlaw/rebel figure that has always fascinated intellectuals, who themselves often have bohemian inclinations yet usually lead much more staid lives."

There is no grand unified theory to explain Dylan's intellectual appeal. And to pose the question, suggests Greil Marcus, is to risk overthinking a phenomenon that is, at root, visceral. Marcus first saw Dylan perform in 1963; he wrote his first article about Dylan five years later, and he hasn't stopped. Marcus explains his fixation like this: "I don't think about it, I just do it, or rather can't help it."