“Through Me Tell the Story”: A New Historical Analysis of Bob Dylan’s Rock Poetry

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   1 “ Through Me Tell the Story ” : A New Historical Analysis of Bob Dylan ’s Rock Poetry  Abby Mangel Chapter 1 “ The Land of the Living ”   The Oxford English Dictionary defines “New Historicism” as “a form of cultural analysis which examines the ways in which a cultural product (esp. a literary text) interacts with and participates in its historical context, esp. with reference to the power relations operating within the society of its time” (“New Historicism”). This method of literary criticism was developed in English departments during the early 1980s by literary theorists such as Stephen Greenblatt. Greenblatt, a Shakespearean professor at Harvard University, recognized that literature represented the end product of an entire cultural moment rather than a written record belonging to a single mind. Thus, Greenblatt expanded his method of literary analysis to include the social, political, and historical factors that play a role in producing a work of literature. According to Wesley Morris in “Toward a New Historicism,” this new set of practices for understanding literature was a direct “response to the apparent dead end of new critical organic theory” (187). Unlike formal ist criticism, which is centered purely on the literary text, Greenblatt’s method of “cultural poetics” reflects the reality that an author’s attitudes and ideologies within a   2 specific text operate across a much broader cultural spectrum. To this end, Greenblatt argues, the historical context of a literary work warrants serious attention in any comprehensive literary analysis. By situating the artistic text of Bob Dylan’s albums within a more general historical context, Greenblatt’s process of New Historic ism allows us to better understand the cultural and intellectual history that connects Bob Dylan to the longstanding tradition of bardic performers, namely Homer and Virgil. In this vein, the reasoning behind Dylan’s lifelong acclaim as a songwriter, particularly his Nobel Prize in Literature, becomes clear by analyzing a selection of tracks that appear on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan  (1963), Bringing It All Back Home  (1965), Highway 61 Revisited   (1965), and Blonde on Blonde  (1966). Through the literary devices that Dylan consciously and unconsciously employs in the lyrics of his songs, including the negative capability of John Keats and the surreal symbolism of Arthur Rimbaud, we identify a running narrative about embracing the trauma of modern life within Dy lan’s writing. This continuous narrative is steeped profoundly in the historical teleology linking the distant past to the contemporary world of the 1960s, a tumultuous period characterized by wars, assassinations, nuclear threats, and countercultural movements — when Dylan first composed what is often cited as his best work. Indeed, the historical backdrop of Dylan’s writing, indebted to a plethora of literary sources within a broad cultural continuum, perpetuated many thematic elements that repeatedly surfa ce throughout Dylan’s oeuvre : The elusive nature of the truth, the agony of existentialism, and the paradoxical omnipresence of change (“the more things change, the more things stay the same”).   3 B ecause of the highly personal nature of Bob Dylan’s songs, it is important to contextualize his lyrical compositions in the terms of his biographical history. For instance, critics who possess some knowledge of Dylan’s life would know that “Sara” on Desire   (1976) references Dylan’s painful separation from his firs t wife Sara Lownds, as the song searches for some meaning in the wake of loss. The listener’s k  nowledge of this biographical detail heightens the ironic distance of the song’s self  -reflexive moments, including the following lines: I can still hear the sounds of those Methodist bells I’d taken the cure and had just gotten through   Stayin’ up for days in the Chelsea Hotel   Writin’ “Sad - Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” for you . (Dylan, “Sara”) Without placing the song “Sara” into the context of Dylan’s biography, the listener misses the Dylan’s use of intertextuality in the fourth line, which calls attention to another song titled “Sad - Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” that Dylan had written and recorded for his wife Sara almost a decade earlier. In this self-referential moment, Dylan deliberately reflects back on the status of “Sara” as a song, suggesting that Dylan’s poignant images of his children playing on a beach near Montauk  —“I can still see them playin’ with their pails in the sand” and “I can still see the shells fallin’ out of their hands”— are merely artificial renderings whose fleeting existence is limited to the ethereal scope of the song itself (Dylan, “Sara”) . Indeed, the emotional presence of Sara and the children ceases once the song’s five and a half minute s expire. As such, this performance of heartfelt devotion amounts to a feverish attempt to stave off the ultimate loss, the dissolution of this relationship in Dylan’s own memory. There is a crucial interplay between public and   4 private history in the literary work of Bob Dylan, which artfully blends such sincere articulations of Dylan’s thoughts and feelings into the kaleidoscopic fabric of American culture at large. The Swedish Academy ignited controversy in 2016 after awarding Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize i n Literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” (Nobel Prize). Dylanphiles celebrated unabashedly, pointing to the cultural collage of poetic influences in Dylan’s lyrics, but the choice sparked many disagreements about the limitations of genre, a debate reminiscent of the furious reactions to Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain   (1917) and Piero Manzoni’s Merda d’artista  (1961). These provocative installations, neither of which was objectively beautiful nor stately, directly affronted the prevailing assumptions about dignity and medium in the art world. If postmodern society, however, could concede a porcelain urinal and cans packed with human excrement as art, there was a theoretical basis for a popular musician embodying the best of world literature. While Theodor Adorno apparently settled the aesthetic debacle of anti-art in his  Aesthetic Theory  —“Even the abolition of art is respectful of art because it takes the truth claim of art seriously ” (43) — the vacillation of Bob Dylan’s oeuvre between high and low culture continues to be a source of confusion. In Bob Dylan , Keith Negus asserts, “The high -art establishment was skeptical of claims being made for a new poetry that was bridging the old barriers between high a nd low culture” ( 98). Similarly, in “Bob Dylan and the Academy,”  Lee Marshall explains, “Rock music is often portrayed as anti -intellectual, concerned with the sensual, bodily effects of music rather than with rational thought, ”  a juxtaposition to the established canon of literature that many scholars perceive as a crass insult (105). Yet, to the chagrin of the guardians of genre, Dylan’s lyrics   5 importantly transcend the boundaries between folk rock, commercial pop, and high art (Negus 98). However, to grasp the full gravity of the A cademy’s decision to honor  Dylan, the history of the Nobel Prize itself requires some illuminating. Born in 1833, Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel reserved the greater bulk of his financial estate to establish the Nobel Prizes in 1895, commencing an institution that eventually became “a mysterious incarnation of power and authority” (Feldman ix) . In Nobel’s  last testament, he stated the interest generated by his financial investments would be divided and distributed annually to the minds that most benefited humankind during the course of the previous year. Nobel specified that, out of this total amount, an academic council in Stockholm would award one fifth to “the person who shall have produced in the field of liter ature the most outstanding work of an idealistic society,” adding  that “no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy [sic] shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not” (qtd. in Esp mark 1). Nobel designed the Academy to value “cultural outbranchings”  as something analogous to “ the prizewinning work of an Einstein and the rest, ”  making advancements in literature unilaterally as revered and respected as advancements in science (Feldman xi). Hence, by the means that Nobel stipulated prior to death, he would posthumously award equal glory for achievements in literary creativity, scientific research, and world peace. As a lifelong inventor, Nobel’s choice to  bequeath prizes for scientific advancements upon his death was predictable. However, his specifications for a prize in literature were perplexing, and a peace prize designated by the srcinal manufacturer of dynamite —“a merchant of death”— seriously disturbed many of N obel’s contemporaries  (Feldman 4). Without a doubt, Nobel was a complex individual whose personal eccentricities have
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