Genius of generosity

b-31fPerhaps you’ve seen this mockup photo of the Lincoln Memorial statue with Bob Dylan replacing Abraham Lincoln in the big stone chair. I don’t know the provenance of this photo. I don’t know if it’s intended as an ironic critique of the way Dylan’s fans idealize him as a political hero (in which case the photo is clever) or whether it is indeed the personal idolization of Dylan by the photo-maker (in which case it is, for me, quite a misstep). I don’t know if I’m being naive in not being able to tell the photo’s intention. I’m interested myself in how Lincoln and Dylan both offer certain extreme examples of the concept of *greatness* and *heroism* in American culture: how an individual is idolized and mythologized in their own time; how the story of their idolization is sustained over time. What constitutes greatness in American culture. Elsewhere, a look at Lee Marshall’s book, Bob Dylan: Neverending Star, will contribute valuable insight to this topic, but for now, I need to stick briefly to Lincoln. I am no Sean Wilentz, whom I invite here, publicly, to write a book on this topic so I don’t have to do the work of thinking about it. But the issues of a personal awareness of something the individual understands as “destiny,” coupled with gifts of sufficient magnitude to serve this concept of destiny with some gravity; and also a severe and troubled moral awareness that is always monitoring the relation between the gifts and the destiny, for an effect of restless achievement–these seem to be interesting premises for some model of the way we talk about both Lincoln and Dylan.

So I start reading books on Lincoln that can help me with these ideas. I’m reading a book called Lincoln’s Virtues: An ethical biography, by William Lee Miller. It seems that in 1842, when Lincoln was practicing law and serving in the Illinois state legislature, he was invited to speak to a temperance organization. His speech is considered a signpost in his own moral development. In it, Lincoln refuses to parrot the conventional demonization of drinkers; instead, he offers an argument for moral inclusiveness, in which the drunkards are not essentially different from the abstainers. Miller quote this passage from the speech:

Indeed, I believe if we take habitual drunkards as a class, their heads and
hearts will bear an advantageous comparison with those of any other class.
There seems ever to have been a proneness in the brilliant, and the warm-
blooded, to fall into this vice. The demon of intemperance ever seems to
have delighted in sucking the blood of genius and generosity.

When I first read this, I was on the subway, and I bolted upright in my seat, clutched the book to my chest, and stared as though I’d seen a ghost. I felt I had seen a ghost. Maybe I am the only Bob Dylan fan who did not know he borrowed these lines for Summer Days. I sure hope all the rest of you felt as I did when you yourselves came across this passage from Abraham Lincoln’s 1842 Temperance Address. I don’t have any other way of putting it–I felt I’d seen a ghost.

I calmed down, put the book away, went right to the song. I let my brain go on a merry journey that would *explain* this appropriation: well, of course, the song is all about intemperance. The hot free days of summer, they’re gone, the singer isn’t the young rake he once was, he’s a worn out-star, he’s toasting a king for crying out loud, and even his woman’s bloodline goes back to a defeated empire–everything here speaks of obsolescence, aging, the autumn of a year, of a life, of history. Time to give up. But not the singer. He’s spending all the dimes he’s got left from his youthful stardom , he’s chatting up the girls, he knows where something is going on. He’s burning down the place. He’s way out of bounds for an old man, and a has-been. Intemperance, excess, lawlessness, that’s what Summer Days is.

This is all preposterous. Bob Dylan read Lincoln’s eccentric and lurid image, perhaps even entirely out of context, and just liked the sound and feel of it. He filed this way inside a memory that no neuroscientist will ever be able to anatomize, and here it ended up. Is that what happened? In Dylan’s omnivorous reading, he came upon this speech, was delighted by Lincoln’s irreverent and for Lincoln’s time, quite appalling, defense of the warmth and brilliance of drunks. Whatever it is that conceives a song in his head did its work, and the song was seeded from the speech. Is that what happened?

Of course we can’t possibly answer these questions, and Bob Dylan can’t/won’t/shouldn’t have to answer these questions. The biggest risk I’ll take is to suggest that perhaps something like this offers a nanosecond of a glimpse into his creative process. There is a vast promiscuity at work here, an infinite jumble in the man’s mind, and a kind of ordering agent that does not have to be conscious or deliberate. I know this description sounds pedantic, but it is a way for me to think about this issue of sources and influences that demythologizes it. Dylan isn’t just the human jukebox, or the human American Songbook. He’s unstoppably promiscuous in his appropriations.


2 thoughts on “Genius of generosity

  1. I have just discovered your writing, and just wanted to send a fan letter. I have also seen Dylan 50+ times, but over many more years. I first saw Dylan with The Band in 1974, but first heard him in 1964 when “Subterranean Homesick Blues” came out of my car radio. I pulled over and stopped, and haven’t gone the same direction since. A literary friend had played the folk albums for me the year before, but my attention span just wasn’t there at the time.

    I just linked to your blog on Facebook, describing it as “by far, the best literary criticism of Dylan I have found.”

    Best wishes, and thank you for your insights.


    1. Thank you so much for your graciousness, and for sharing the story of “pulling over” to hear Subterranean Homesick Blues. I love hearing about those moments when Dylan pulls people out of their Here and Now and sets them somewhere else. And you got to hear one of those incandescent acoustic sets on the 74 tour–my favorite Just Like a Woman, no contest.

      Thank you again–Dylan’s work is an infinite mine, isn’t it–wherever you set your axe, you’ll hit something you’ve just got to hold to the light.

      Many cheers to you too.

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