It was Mark’s turn to drive when I had my phone meeting with John. We were going seventy and I was wedged between seven guitars and one large bass player in the back seat of my Toyota Sienna. Balancing a laptop on my knee while signs promoting Chick Fil-A, Sheetz, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders blurred past, I talked for quite a while with John, one of my dissertation advisees, about his brilliant work on the figure of the snob in postwar novels. When I scheduled the appointment with him, I knew I’d be somewhere between New Orleans, where we’d have played with Dash Rip Rock the night before, and Fayetteville, where I would be giving a talk as part of a juke joint exhibit downtown for the call. There was a lot going on, but our usual groove coalesced even under those conditions, in the ether between I-65 and Chapel Hill. By the time John and I hung up, we were almost in Arkansas.
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Over the 2022-23 academic year, I did not finish my new book, The Novel’s Mother: Cool Aesthetic Form in Contemporary Fiction. I spent my sabbatical on tour with my rock band instead. Gene Holder and Will Rigby, founding members of the dB’s, make up the rhythm section; Mark Spencer of Son Volt is lead guitarist. My new album, Highways & Rocketships, was set to release at the start of the sabbatical. I am one of those rare birds on the verge of extinction in English departments: the full professor. Around the time I got promoted, faculty meetings began to fill with new colleagues, almost all of them participants in the misleadingly cool-sounding “gig” economy, the result of the fact that about five tenure-track lines had been secured to fill the spots of 20 retirees. English majors had dwindled by half, from about 500 when I arrived at the University of North Carolina, in 2010, to about 250 by the time I applied for my sabbatical.
I had been eyeing the political landscape with increasing anxiety, too, absorbing the fact that education is now the leading predictor of how Americans will vote. The Pew Research Center was tracking that change before Donald Trump was elected president; in 2021, The New York Times explained that there had been a “realignment of American politics along cultural and educational lines, and away from the class and income divisions that defined the two parties for much of the 20th century.”
Those quietly unfolding realities found me at my desk also noticing that universities in the Anglosphere — including my employer, UNC-Chapel Hill (which generously provided some of the support for my tour) — had started funding projects under the auspices of something called the “public humanities.” As I was applying for my leave and thinking about how to spend it, vaccines emerged and rock venues started coming back to life. I decided to join the fray. From my protected perch as a full literature professor, I wanted to see whether a rock tour might serve as the platform for a more accessible version of humanities research.
We booked gigs in the cities where the educated liberal elite congregate — New York and Boston — but also in redder cities like Denton, Tex., and Fayetteville, Ark. The regular shows in rock venues were interspersed with a different sort of event as well, in spaces not found along the rock-and-roll circuit: humanities centers, public libraries, lobbies of municipal buildings, and art galleries. In those rooms, I delivered a public lecture on how the ballad “The House Carpenter” connects rock music to literature.
I wanted to see whether a rock tour might serve as the platform for a more accessible version of humanities research.
Scholarly work requires quiet, solitude, and large chunks of uninterrupted time, none of which are available on the road. I knew, embarking on my rock-and-roll sabbatical, that I would not be writing my book. But would something else relevant to my research, and thus my students, happen out there? What would I bring back?
The full-professor version of that girl can’t always manage these shifts between scholarship and rock and roll quite as easily, but I’ve done my best to balance them nonetheless. For my whole professional life, I have kept one alarm set for tenure and the other for sound check. And really, dividing up minutes and hours and years is what all academics do. Some cook; some blog; some tweet. I play rock music.
No wonder, then, that the argument of my 2018 book Novel Sounds: Southern Fiction in the Age of Rock and Roll turned out to be that popular music is endemic to the institutionalization of literature. This has been true since at least the 1930s. Conference attendees of the 1934 MLA, for example, had the option of attending a panel entitled “Popular Literature,” whose members included the ethnomusicologist John Lomax and which involved a performance by Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. Five years later, Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren published Understanding Poetry, including in that New Critical tome (Bible to my Wesleyan profs) three ballads clarifying the surprising role of popular music in establishing the “high” literary: “Sir Patrick Spence,” “The House Carpenter,” and “Frankie and Johnny” (recorded by Lead Belly in 1939 as “Frankie and Albert”). In the public lecture I delivered on my tour, I explained that the eminent rock guitarist Richard Thompson recorded “Sir Patrick Spence” in 1969; Bob Dylan recorded a variant of “The House Carpenter” in 1961; and bands like Led Zeppelin and Nirvana have recorded Lead Belly songs. After I offered a discussion of those overlaps, Mark and I would close with a performance of “WiFi Heart,” a track from Highways & Rocketships that recasts the ideas of Novel Sounds in song form.
Throughout my adult life, my guitar has never been very far from my desk.
Keeping all the stuff of a rock tour organized in a trailer is harder than you might think. I wasn’t very good at it. Drums, pedal boards, merch — ach, the merch! The CDs, the vinyl, the T-shirts! We were hauling several boxes of academic books too, copies of Novel Sounds and my then-new edited collection, The Ink in the Grooves: Conversations on Literature and Rock ’n’ Roll, which includes an essay by Richard Thompson about what it feels like to perform so ancient a ballad as “Sir Patrick Spens” (he uses the ancient spelling). By three or four shows in, these individual items were unhelpfully scattered among several bins rather than sorted, as they should have been. Partitions between the lectures and the rock shows broke down too. In the parking lot of the Nick, a heavily stickered club in Birmingham, Ala., I found myself holding forth to a group of young women about the novelist Dana Spiotta. During a conversation after the scholar Eric Lott gave his lecture on the wah-wah pedal after my talk in Canada a few weeks later, Mark imparted a bit of lore usually passed around in tour vans, allowing into a University of Toronto classroom the story of how Jimi Hendrix had given Frank Zappa his first wah-wah pedal. At Boston’s City Winery, we were joined onstage during the break in our set when I switch to electric guitar by the novelist Rick Moody, who read to the audience a brief and hilarious literary narrative about one of his exquisite rock nerds. Nothing was staying in its bin. And that was fine with me.
Where to look, then, to find public versions of literary criticism that emphasize the pleasure of our practice? Merve Emre, an academic rock star if there ever was one, has built a dazzling résumé of work that does exactly that. In a profile published last year in Business Insider, Emre had the temerity to declare: “We are people who are supposed to be preservers and disseminators of literature or literary culture, and we’re not actually engaging people to read.” In a moment in which, as Guillory describes the situation, the “overestimation” of literary studies as a “surrogate” for politics prevails, Emre has found a way to ask a scandalous question: “If you’re not trying to get people excited about it, then why are you doing it?” Hear, hear. Shouldn’t a public version of what we do involve helping more people experience the joys of literature? Delight taken in the aesthetic is what we should be seeking in the classroom, as well as beyond it — a pleasure in reading that Guillory describes as like the “radiant heat of an oven,” evidence “that something is happening in the reading mind.” It is precisely this pleasure, and this privilege, that literary experts should be sharing.
During Will’s opening snare hit on the first song, everything in the room just snaps into an absorbing force: stray guitar melodies, meandering bass lines, heads, limbs, ghosts, molecules. And, much like individual classes, each rock show is a little bit different. You show up, you do basically the same things in the same order, but then some force “ceaselessly” drives you into the unforeseeable. Is this a version of the literary aesthetic? Novel Sounds goes some way in answering that question, and I’ll have more to say about the aesthetic generally in The Novel’s Mother, which I’ll finish before too long. But my public-facing answer, for now, is: Hell yes.