The Chronicle Review

Sean Wilentz, Bringing It All Back Home

With a new book on Bob Dylan, the historian again defies expectations

David Barreda for The Chronicle Review

Sean Wilentz says his interest in Bob Dylan is natural: The singer, he writes, has a historically astute sensibility.
September 05, 2010

In Greenwich Village, not far from where Bob Dylan got his start—but in a chic Italian bistro, not a smoky dive like the late, lamented Gaslight Cafe—the Princeton historian Sean Wilentz is choking up, recalling when Dylan's new recordings began to mean something to him again, after he'd drifted away from Dylan in the 1980s.

It was 1994, and Wilentz's father, Eli, who had run or co-run the Village's Eighth Street Bookshop, a center of New York literary life from the 1940s until it closed, in 1979, was dying from lung cancer. Sean Wilentz had picked up World Gone Wrong, a CD of traditional tunes that Dylan performed on solo acoustic guitar and harmonica—a return to roots of sorts (or, some said, a confession of bankruptcy). The last song, "Lone Pilgrim," dates to the 1830s, and it begins as a visitor arrives at a grave site. It concludes with the Pilgrim himself, speaking from beyond the grave about his "Master": "The same hand that led me through seas most severe," Dylan rasps tenderly, "has kindly assisted me home."

Dylan's intimate delivery is a stark contrast to the way the song is usually sung, with the unmodulated forcefulness of the Southern rural hymn tradition from which it springs. "Dylan sings it in a very hushed way that is the man beyond the grave," Wilentz, says, after steeling himself against tears. "He inhabits that song." For a grieving son, Dylan's performance proved to be a most unexpected source of consolation—a "benediction," he calls it in his new book, Bob Dylan in America (Doubleday).

In the book, Wilentz makes the case that World Gone Wrong was also a turning point for the artist, the complete inhabitation of the old, weird songs providing a springboard for the leap into the next, fertile period of Dylan's career, beginning with the well-reviewed Time Out of Mind. "Maybe my understanding of it," Wilentz says, speaking of "Lone Pilgrim," "is it's about Dylan coming home, or to a place like home."

Wilentz's encounter with "Lone Pilgrim" was not just emotional; it led, indirectly, to a new literary sideline for a man near the top of the history profession. His renewed interest in Dylan inspired him to write an essay about the songwriter for Dissent (combining observations about Time Out of Mind and Greil Marcus's book Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes), which led to an out-of-the-blue call from Dylan's management, asking Wilentz to write some thoughts on the album Love and Theft for in 2001. That led to a gig as "historian in residence" at the Web site, which led to an invitation to write the liner notes for The Bootleg Series, Vol 6: Bob Dylan Live 1964—Concert at Philharmonic Hall, a show that Wilentz had attended at age 13. The notes got him nominated for a Grammy; it pained him not to win, he admits. As late as 2006, he had no plans to write a Dylan book, and he still pleads: "Don't call me a Dylanologist!" Whatever you call his musical avocation, it's an impressive one for someone whose day job is as a respected scholar of 19th-century American politics.

Respected and yet also contentious, as anyone who followed the last presidential election closely will recall. Wilentz, a supporter of Hillary Clinton during her 2008 campaign, enraged a number of supporters of Barack Obama with his harsh attacks on the candidate, in both The New Republic, Wilentz's longtime outlet, and Newsweek. In February 2008, after some Obama supporters accused Bill and Hillary Clinton of having injected race into the campaign by comparing Obama's South Carolina victory to Jesse Jackson's eventually inconsequential ones there, in 1984 and 1988, Wilentz turned the tables with a vengeance. By framing the Clintons as "race baiters," he wrote, the Obama campaign had "purposely polluted the contest with a new strain of what historically has been the most toxic poison in American politics."

As late as that August, when Obama had all but sewn up the nomination, Wilentz was still writing, in Newsweek, that "millions of ... Democrats still find his appeals wispy and unconvincing," and slamming liberal intellectuals for having "abdicated their responsibility to provide unblinking and rigorous analysis instead of paeans to Obama's image." Rigorous analysis of what? Among other things, "Obama's rationalizations of his relationship with his pastor."

Scott Lemieux, a political scientist who teaches at the College of Saint Rose, in Albany, N.Y., and who blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money, promptly branded Wilentz "the biggest wanker in the American Historical Association," while the Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol famously wrote that progressives should cross the street if they saw him coming, "after that execrable smear job."

After Obama's inauguration, a personality different from Wilentz's might have let time ease some of the pique he had inspired. Instead, in the July 15, 2009, issue of The New Republic, in a lengthy survey of new books about Lincoln, he fused sharp criticism of trends in Lincoln scholarship with criticism of intellectuals' infatuation with Obama. Such scholars as Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr., co-editor of Lincoln on Race and Slavery, and Harvard's John Stauffer, author of Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, he argued, were unduly critical of Lincoln for his compromises with antiabolitionist politicians and voters—evidence, Wilentz said, of the writers' unrealistic attitude toward political life.

Similarly, they and many other contemporary scholars—here he added Fred Kaplan and Garry Wills—tended to depreciate Lincoln the tactician and exalt Lincoln the orator, another way of keeping their hands clean of the political world, with its trade-offs and incremental moves forward. Wilentz diagnosed "a common mood among a portion of the liberal intelligentsia," which "cares about politics only so as to demote it and repudiate it and transcend it," before poking a stick once more into the beehive: "One would have to be blind not to see all the connections that bind this mood and the new Lincoln boom to the rise of Barack Obama." He even jabbed at interlopers into history from English departments—"To say that Lincoln 'became what his language made him' is an English department conceit"—and decried "the balefully influential works of Howard Zinn," guilty of leftist oversimplification.

The 2008 campaign was hardly the first time Wilentz had injected himself into national politics. In 1998, during the Clinton impeachment hearings, Wilentz (who was in residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington) organized historians' opposition to impeachment and forcefully testified in the House. (Those who remember his televised testimony would recognize his boyish, side-cropped haircut today.) If members voted for impeachment without believing that Clinton's crimes were against the state itself, Wilentz said, history would "condemn you for your cravenness." His testimony even included a little nod to Dylan. With their invocation of "the rule of law," Republicans claimed to be "proving ... that 'the ladder of the law has no top and no bottom,'" Wilentz said; in "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," the speaker of that phrase is a hypocritical judge who tailors justice to income.

Like his intervention in the 2008 primary, that testimony was polarizing. Philip Roth sent him a warmly inscribed copy of I Married a Communist, while Judge Richard Posner wrote that Wilentz epitomized the decline of the public intellectual.

Even his harshest critics, however, pay their respects to Wilentz's academic career. His first book, Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788-1850 (Oxford University Press, 1984), is still a staple of graduate-school courses. "When he wrote Chants Democratic, it was, I think, the best example of the New Labor history in the United States," says his longtime friend Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia. Indebted to the British historian E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, it excavated the political attitudes of artisans, craftsmen, and other laborers facing the wrenching transformation to a wage-based economy.

Wilentz's book registered blows against so-called consensus history—the notion that Americans, despite their differences of opinion, agreed on a certain conception of political and economic liberalism—and the leftist version of American exceptionalism, which held that the United States lacked a radical, anticapitalist tradition. Wilentz argued instead that in 18th-century America, workers made those anticapitalist arguments using the vocabulary of Thomas Paine and the founders, not of European socialists.

Despite the book's classic status, there are dissenters from its thesis. In 1990, Robert J. Norrell, of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, wrote that it contained "too little evidence of sustained class action or of broader applicability outside New York City to believe that basic transformation of the social structure had taken place. One had to be strongly predisposed to be persuaded."

After a detour to explore a bizarre millenarian cult, in The Kingdom of Matthias, written with Paul E. Johnson, of the University of South Carolina, Wilentz appeared to shift scholarly gears. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (W.W. Norton, 2005), his magnum opus (and thousand-page doorstop), which won the prestigious Bancroft Prize, was a decade in the making, partly because Wilentz changed course midway through. Intending at first to focus on social movements, he incorporated an account of high politics after his adventures in Washington. "I had a front-row—or second- or third-row—seat," he says. "I could see how politics worked up close. I was at once more appreciative and more appalled."

The book sought to revive the reputation of Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonians, under attack for a generation. Modern scholars focus on Jackson's racism and his forced removal of American Indians from their lands. Wilentz updated the arguments of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who saw in Northern, urban Jacksonianism, at least, crucial precursors to Lincoln's Republican Party and subsequent U.S. pro-labor politics.

The move from seemingly hard-left labor historian to defender of traditional political history—notably in the New Republic essay about Lincoln scholarship—has caused some head-scratching in the academic world. (Wilentz has also written a sweeping work of contemporary history, The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008; and a short biography of Andrew Jackson.)

But Foner says Wilentz's career simply "reflects an evolution that is going on in the American historical profession generally."

"It just happens that he has written some of the very best examples of the avant-garde of the 70s and the avant-garde more recently," Foner says. "Back then we were trying to recover a lost past or neglected past. More recently historians have been trying to integrate that vision into a larger vision of American history as a whole."

Jonathan Earle, an associate professor at the University of Kansas and a former graduate student of Wilentz's, makes a similar point. "People who don't know him think that there is the New Republic Sean, the Chants Democratic Sean, the Clintonista Sean, the Rise of American Democracy Sean. I don't get it. I think it's all of a piece. He is a historian of American politics, but not just high politics."

And the broad sweep of American politics was present, at least by implication, even in the early, bottom-up Chants. "A lot of social history you can't plug into the master narrative of American political history," says Earle. "That book you can." It is not an inversion of the conventional story, with ordinary folks replacing politicians as the heroes, the drivers of history. Rather, it expands the story of politics downward and into unlit corners.

Wilentz's influence will have to continue through his writings, not through a cadre of acolytes. For someone of his stature, the scholar has advised few graduate students. He attributes that to the small size of Princeton's graduate program and the unfashionability, for a time, of political history in the Jacksonian period: "There was a time when writing about the Wilmot Proviso was not what graduate students wanted to do," he explains, and says he would love to have had more of them. He did advise one Princeton senior who went on to unusual success: Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

Whether in the context of censure or praise, people talking about Wilentz often bring up the example of Schlesinger Jr., who wrote major historical works before joining the Kennedy administration. Earle uses the Schlesinger analogy to signal Wilentz's wide range and public engagement. But Yale's Jim Sleeper follows up the comparison by quoting Allan Bloom: "The intellectual who attempts to influence ... ends up in the power of the would-be-influenced." An Obama supporter, Sleeper during the primary called Wilentz "weasily," "posturing," and "power hungry."

It is widely assumed, with little evidence, that had Hillary Clinton won, Wilentz would be ensconced in Washington. "I don't know where that comes from," he says. "A, there was no such position; and, B, I wouldn't have taken it if it was offered to me." (The idea of a job "never came up" in all his conversations with Wilentz, says his friend Sidney Blumenthal, the journalist, adviser at the William J. Clinton Foundation, and adviser to Hillary Clinton.)

Wilentz says that although he always admired the deftness of Schlesinger's pen, "I don't have a model, anybody beside myself. I'm really uncomfortable with being pinned down. Maybe that's one of the reasons I admire Dylan so much"—an unrivaled pop-culture shape-shifter.

Nor is he even much of a Clintonista, he insists. He was invited to travel with other scholars on a one-week tour of the former president's charitable activities in Africa, in 2008. Yet beyond that time on a plane, he estimates he's talked to Bill Clinton, one on one, for maybe four hours.

He casts his writings about Obama as a question of principle. "I very much knew that I was in the minority, but because I have the ability to get this stuff published and printed, I thought it was all the more important to get it out there, even if only as a historical record." Two issues stood out for him: "the ways in which intellectuals were just enraptured by a political figure," one they knew little about, and "the way race drives people crazy," shutting down critical thought.

To say that Wilentz is well positioned to write about cultural ferment in New York in the 1960s is an understatement. He helped out his father at the Eighth Street Bookshop beginning at a young age. "For a young writer to work in the Eighth Street Bookshop," M.G. Stephens once wrote in Boston Review, recalling his own days as a clerk, "was like a young painter apprenticing with Michelangelo or Titian." Edward Albee, Donald Barthelme, Albert Murray, and Oliver Sacks all had standing accounts at the store. It was not uncommon to answer the phone and hear, "This is Irving Howe." "We would snap to attention," Wilentz says.

The store's first location was at the corner of West Eighth and MacDougal. In 1963, in an apartment above that space, Sean's Uncle Ted (at the time a partner in the bookstore) introduced Bob Dylan to Allen Ginsberg. In 1965 the Wilentzes moved the bookstore across the street, to 17 West Eighth, a bigger building.

The family lived in an 1820s clapboard house in Brooklyn Heights, where a stone wall separated them from the Chapins—as in Tom, Steve, and Harry, the folk singers. Steve babysat Sean. (Wilentz's parents did not graduate from college, but a more prominent strand of the family settled in New Jersey and includes David T. Wilentz, the attorney general who prosecuted the Lindbergh-baby kidnapper, and Robert W. Wilentz, his son, a chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.)

In his new book, Wilentz writes that he was "a son who wanted to look like, and act like, his father." On many Sundays, Sean and his father would stroll from the bookstore to the nearby Folklore Center, a key node in the musical scene.

"I looked up to him enormously," Wilentz says now. "First of all, he introduced me to history. He himself was something of a history buff, the history of New York City, the history of the revolution. He took us to Fort Ticonderoga, which is something a lot of people do, but he was able to tell us everything about it." Eli Wilentz published one of the first anthologies of Beat poetry, as well as out-of-print works of historical interest, including slave narratives.

A girl at Sean's Unitarian Sunday school introduced him to Dylan, pulling The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan out of its sleeve "with great portentousness," he recalls.

Sean went uptown to Columbia for college, as radicalism was cresting, lured by the presence of such history luminaries as Richard Hofstadter (who died when Wilentz was a junior) and Peter Gay. He won Columbia's local version of a Rhodes scholarship, to study in Oxford, where he worked under Richard Cobb, a historian of France. Surprisingly, Wilentz's decision to pursue a Ph.D. after Oxford was a not an easy one; law school beckoned, too. Yale's history department offered him admission, but he vacillated. "I can't say that the trumpets blasted," he recalls. "I always wanted to write history but had feelings about whether I wanted to make it my life's work. I didn't know. But if Yale was willing to take a chance on me, I was willing to take a chance on it." A few years later, he landed the best job in his subfield—and one of the few jobs, period—at Princeton, where he still teaches.

Wilentz says his interest in Dylan is less of a departure from his academic work than it might seem. The singer, he writes in his new book, has a historically astute sensibility. Although Chronicles, Dylan's well-received memoir, is not an entirely reliable document, Wilentz trusts Dylan's account, from his early New York years, of heading to the New York Public Library and reading 19th-century newspapers. "It may just be my conceit that leads me to believe the idea that Bob Dylan was sitting in the microfilm room just a few years before I was—him writing his songs, me writing my history."

Bob Dylan in America hardly aspires to comprehensiveness. The most unusual choice comes right away: Wilentz introduces readers to the milieu of leftist, artistic New York via Aaron Copland, whose connection to Dylan is, at best, one of cultural affinity. Copland was active in the Communist labor movement and immersed in the world of leftist New York musical theater. Musically he moved from dense modernism to subsuming bits of Americana into approachable musical forms, as in "El Salón México" and "Fanfare for the Common Man."

Dylan, himself a musical magpie, began to play recorded excerpts from Rodeo and other Copland works before his shows in 2001. "Only Sean could write a book about Dylan that included Copland," says Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic and a longtime friend. "He sees things within a larger historical American framework. He does this all the time. This great partisan of the Clintons—who famously cursed the Republicans during impeachment—included the entirety of the Clinton administration in a book called The Age of Reagan. Only Sean would understand that."

There's a chapter on Ginsberg, Dylan, and the Beats, but then a quick shift in tone for the chapter recounting that 1964 concert at Philharmonic Hall, in Lincoln Center, which took place on Halloween night. It's about the excitement and confusion Dylan sowed among his young fans in the audience, Wilentz included, as he began his pirouette toward wild imagistic lyrics, in songs like "Gates of Eden."

In another tonal shift, Wilentz adopts a fly-on-the-wall perspective as he listens in on tapes of the recording sessions for the double album Blonde on Blonde, in which Dylan's create-on-the-run approach collides with the stoic professionalism of Nashville studio pros. (It's the only chapter for which Wilentz conducted interviews, despite his connections with the Dylan organization. Interviews are not his forte, and he won't even confirm or deny that he's met Robert Zimmerman himself.)

A chapter on the Rolling Thunder Revue tour manages to work in the Wagnerian concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or total art, while later chapters go deep into the original sources Dylan draws on: The Sacred Harp hymnal, Blind Willie McGee, the folk ballad "Delia." Dylan disappears for long stretches. "I'm trying to do a number of things. I hope it's not too jarring," Wilentz says. "I hope it's clear why I have made the choices I made."

Some critics suggest that Dylan has crossed some kind of line in his recent work, notably in Modern Times, appropriating melodies and lyrics of others—going well beyond the odd phrase or snippet—and putting them under his own copyright. Wilentz calls this "a form of larceny as American as apple pie." What the artist is going for, he writes, is "a dissolution of distinctions between past and present as well as between high art and low, scholarly and popular, exotic and familiar, moving between and among them as if it required no effort."

By the time Wilentz ends, with a paean to Christmas in the Heart, Dylan's unlikely 2009 collection of holiday tunes ("a generous act ... in the Christian spirit of caritas ... the album contains not a single ironic or parodic note"), some readers may be wondering if this is the same acerbic soul they've been reading for so long in The New Republic.

Having got the Dylan book he never thought he'd write out of his system, Wilentz is turning back to more-familiar subjects. On the horizon are a revisionist book about the Grant administration and one modeled after Richard Hofstadter's Progressive Historians but exploring the careers of Hofstadter himself, Schlesinger Jr., C. Vann Woodward, and others of that generation.

Given the culturally rich environs into which Wilentz was born, however, the dollop of nostalgia and gratitude in Bob Dylan in America amid the serious musicological scholarship does not seem unwarranted. "I was very lucky to be at a particular place at a particular time," he says. "It was sheer luck. I was happy to have been lucky. It has shaped my life profoundly. It has never not shaped my life. I was also the right age. I was a little young, and that was good. If I was a little older, maybe I'd be a failed rock musician or a boring old guy who tells stories about the good old days."

Christopher Shea, a former senior writer for The Chronicle, writes The Boston Globe's Brainiac column.