I would like to use my column in this issue as a call to action. Warning bells are sounding in Dylan studies, but the field has been late to respond.
Beginnings seem to be multiplying around us. There is the establishment of the Bob Dylan Archive, a kind of engineered fons et origo allowing researchers to approach Dylan studies with utterly new material and with fresh eyes. Similarly, the Bob Dylan Institute at the University of Tulsa, just founded in 2018 as if waiting to be born, has already hosted two significant World of Bob Dylan conferences. Five years ago, Lisa O’Neill Sanders founded this journal, still the only peer-reviewed publication in Dylan studies. Add to these developments the recent flurry of conferences in Europe during the last decade and the explosion of print publications on Dylan since his Nobel Prize in 2016, and you get a distinct sense of pastures new, as if the field of Dylan studies were starting from scratch.
Of course, this is only an illusion, or a half-illusion. The field of Dylan studies is not new, despite the sudden unprecedented opportunities and outlets for research. While the formal institutionalization of Dylan studies might be new, the field itself is sixty years old. Biographers, scholars, reviewers, and all manner of critics have written about Dylan, often providing deeply informative texts regardless of the format of the publication, with or without the use of a consistent scholarly apparatus.
Yet there’s a conflict between the long history of Dylan studies and the new newness. In fact, a crisis has been born, and borne upon us, in the wake of the exciting coherence in our field. And the crisis is best expressed as a paradox: the newly forged wave of research developments in Dylan studies is largely the work of an aging generation of (mostly male, white) scholars, critics, and enthusiasts. Yet, despite the efforts of professors and other Dylan disseminators to the young, the continuation of Dylan studies remains uncertain. Can we say with any confidence that, as the current aging generation disappears, seven new people will be born? Or seventy? Or seven hundred?
The great pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige, who played his last Major League Baseball game at 59, supposedly asked the question, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” This isn’t a new idea, but Paige’s formulation is catchy. A more common way to express the same idea is “You’re only as old as you feel.” Either way, the bulk of the Dylan community seems to have embraced this sentiment. Most Dylan scholars, enthusiasts, Dylanologists, and even concert audiences are older. Yet, admirably, they don’t let being an aging – and even aged – group of followers slow down their interest and engagement with Dylan. After all, Dylan himself is in his eighties.
But a problem has emerged that is inseparable from the resilience of Dylan’s aging audience. After the recent World of Bob Dylan conference in Tulsa, several people I trust made a point of sounding the alarm about the advancing age of their fellow participants, in effect highlighting a crisis at the center of Bob Dylan studies. According to unscientific estimates, 60 to 70 per cent of the conference participants were males over the age of fifty. This is a perilously lopsided number.
Certainly, there are promising indications of a young generation of Dylan aficionados out there. For example – to start close to home – three of the co-editors of this journal are in their twenties or thirties. Similarly, the Italian branch of Dylan studies boasts recent doctoral graduates who are fast becoming indispensable to the field, having organized a conference on Dylan and the fine arts and produced a volume of essays. The archive librarians at both the Bob Dylan Center and the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa are young scholars who see a future in the field – and, concomitantly, are the future of the field. The TU Bob Dylan Institute, founded and run by Sean Latham, not only hosts the WoBD conferences, but also operates within a university, presumably recruiting and involving undergraduates. My younger colleagues assure me that social media channels bristle with exchanges on our articles with every release of an issue of the Dylan Review. Similarly, Dylan’s tour has generated conversations across an international group of followers. These engagements need not be confined to publication events or concert tours but could be expanded into ongoing projects in more permanent modes, forming a foundation of interest in Dylan studies among younger audiences.
We must help to foster this – those of us who have been cathected onto Dylan since we were young. But how exactly? How can we preserve – let alone expand – engagement with Dylan studies in future generations if our ranks are so homogeneous in age and gender? How can we pass on skills, methods, and energy to a young generation of scholars and critics? I don’t have a pat answer to these crucial questions. But I know that if the times are not a-changin,’ or at least not fast enough, we’d better try to change them. We can do what mentors have done since, well, since Mentor. We can tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it – and, with persistence and luck, instill in those who didn’t live through the epochs of Dylan’s creativity our profound connection to his language and music.
In The Death of Tragedy, George Steiner suggests that John Dryden’s “situation” as a dramatist in the late seventeenth century was “artificial” because “he was required to restore that national tradition of drama which had been broken by the Cromwellian interlude.” The Puritans had closed the London theaters in 1642, and the Interregnum – what Steiner calls the “Cromwellian interlude” – had lasted from 1649 to 1660. So, for approximately twenty years there was a forced hiatus on the stage, cutting off a generation of playwrights and making the revival of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama a near impossibility for Dryden and his contemporaries. This is a complex argument, involving French and neo-classical influences on Dryden, and I won’t go into the nuances here – nor do I think Dryden’s “situation” is a perfect fit for the crisis in Dylan studies. I mention it only to underscore the destructive effect of a generational gap. Dryden was hopelessly hobbled by the lack of continuity from Shakespeare, whom he revered. Steiner calls Dryden “the first of the critic-playwrights,” a term he uses to damn with faint praise. Being a “critic-playwright” indicates the burden of distance from Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, which Steiner characterizes as “innocent of theoretical debate.” This contrast with Restoration dramatists is probably an oversimplification, or an over-polarization of the two theatrical periods. But Steiner’s schematic is valuable for Dylan studies if, for the sake of argument, we accept that the Cromwellian interlude created an unbridgeable gap for English dramatists.
My question then is: Are we heading for the same kind of unbridgeable gap? Will the establishment of Dylan institutions like the Archive, the Bob Dylan Center, and the TU Institute for Bob Dylan Studies mark the last hurrah – a kind of eloquent peroration – of a generation born in Dylan’s heyday?
Or will the outgoing generation manage to seed far-reaching and newly inclusive pastures of plenty with burgeoning Dylan scholars, critics, and serious enthusiasts?
Someone once said that every generation must read Virgil’s Aeneid for itself. The same might be said for every inescapable author from Dante to Shakespeare to Milton, or from Cervantes to Austen to Woolf. This is partly a matter of canonization, partly of fashion, partly of accessibility. Any English speaker can read, inter alia, Charles Dickens or Edna St. Vincent Millay, regardless of whether these authors are the flavor of the month. But few people can (or would) chance Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales without an expert’s help. Because of these obstacles, or despite them, literary fortunes rise and fall, and new interpretations surface to hail or condemn or revise. This is the key to generational renewal in the Republic of Letters.
We should ask ourselves – Turn, turn, turn – and ask of ourselves: Can we embed Dylan in a poetic firmament that continually renews and redefines itself? Can we ensure that every generation will need to hear and interpret Dylan’s songs for itself? Turn to face the rain and the wind.
This is not to dismiss the many stalwart university professors who, over the last decades, pioneered Dylan courses in the curriculum, sometimes over the loud sneers of more conventionally minded faculty. With a few exceptions – Classics, for instance – these courses are usually found in English literature departments, which makes sense, given that Dylan writes in English and won the Nobel Prize in Literature. But relegation to literature departments is a kind of misrepresentation: Dylan is a musician, and we understand his songs best only after experiencing them as performances. Which brings us to the signal differences between poetry and popular music. As much as fashions in poetry have changed, poetic value as a desideratum has remained relatively constant in scholarship and, to a less widespread extent, in society. The same can’t be said for popular music. Even if there were consensus about its value as an art form, musical styles, technology, and its means of preservation make it impossible to compare it to poetry over a long period. While Robert Herrick’s iambic tetrameter poems are obsolete in contemporary practice, they appear in anthologies and are perfectly readable four hundred years later. They’re out of fashion but not out of reach.
The same condition doesn’t apply to popular music. Fashion is the draconian law that applies to all recorded popular music – or at least has done so for the last century. It might be that the internet and YouTube will change this social structure and wrest music from the imperatives of the market. But no one really knows. In the meantime, Dylan studies remains in flux between vibrant research and obsolescence. Only a new generation of Dylan students can prevent the latter and infuse the former with energy.
Much depends on current mentors. But even when, with the most perspicacious pedagogical ambitions, professors inject Dylan’s songs into their curriculum, they encounter a range of obstacles, such as their students’ lack of training in explicating poetry or – precisely because they are literature majors – their understandable inexperience with music. Professors thus find themselves, even though they are usually not trained to do so, teaching the fundamentals of twelve-bar blues and basic rock forms, even as they struggle to shed light on verses laden with classical allusions (“Temporarily Like Achilles”) and topical references (“Positively 4th Street”). Then there is the question of historical perspective: to fathom Montague Street and revolution in the air, students must understand the sixty-year-old cultural milieu from which Dylan’s songs grew.
This is a tall order for any professor, especially in a one-semester course. Think about courses on other literary figures: students who study Elizabeth Gaskell’s novels in one class, for example, are likely to have read, in other classes, some of the shining lights from the same nineteenth-century literary milieu, such as Wollstonecraft, the Romantics, or Dickens. But teaching a rock and roll icon requires more than just a background in mid-twentieth-century literature. It requires that background plus the ability to illuminate the roots of popular music. Again, a tall order for literature professors.
Still, we beat on. But it’s difficult to say how wide a dissemination Dylan-in-school produces, or to identify the exact goal of teaching undergraduate classes on Dylan’s songs. Anthologies very rarely include Dylan’s lyrics among the twentieth- and twenty-first-century poets, which would at least give his oeuvre survey-course parity with Donne, Byron, Moore, Stevens, or Bishop. Current graduate programs are unlikely to encourage dissertations on Dylan, with the perfectly reasonable justification that, as a specialty, Bob Dylan wouldn’t be much use on the job market. But we don’t want that to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The ideal would be for the young ephebes emerging from their undergrad years’ Dylan classes to contemplate the Master not in splendid isolation but to think of him as part of a network, connected with contemporaries such Robert Lowell, Frank O’Hara, or Adrienne Rich, the way we think of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning – and the songs of Robert Burns.
Unfortunately, I don’t see this happening. I don’t see a busy, competitive flow of younger scholars and critics replacing the older generation. A hoped-for revolving legacy (so far) has failed to materialize in Dylan studies, despite the bursts of interest on social media. Discipleship is scarce among contemporary writers and researchers. This is troubling. It’s as if our urgent – and honorable – effort to institutionalize Bob Dylan had somehow overlooked a critical facet of institution building: the nurturing of a new and radically connected cohort.
What should we do? Obviously, just adding Dylan to the curriculum is not enough for the future. Maybe we need to speak about Dylan to our students unapologetically, not along the lines of “here’s why I am including him with other, clearly more established writers”, but as a matter of course, signaling to our students, as well as to ourselves, that this is precisely where he belongs: with the greats of contemporary literature. Let us learn to take him – and Dylan Studies – for granted, as something not dependent on the newest newness, but as something that is here to stay.
It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there. The rest is silence.