What Salvation Must Be Like After A While–The Cambridge Companion

images I’ve been slowly picking my way through The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan. I placed it near the bottom of my To Read pile after coming across this interview with Kevin Dettmar, editor of the volume, on SouthCoastToday.com, March 28, 2009:

Lauren: So how’d you become editor of this book?

Kevin: (laughs) Ray Ryan, literature editor in Cambridge, saw a book I wrote called “Is Rock Dead?” (2006) and I guess he liked it. He e-mailed me and asked me to edit a Companion Series book on Bob Dylan.

I wrote back and said, “I’m not a Dylan person. There are a lot of people who know a lot more about Dylan.” He said, “I don’t want a die-hard Dylan fan.”

images-1I think we’re supposed to be in on the little chuckle here over the identity category of a “die-hard Dylan fan.” There’s the implication that die-hard fandom is a condition in which, I suppose,  disinterested and professional appraisal is sacrificed to uncritical devotion. Maenads don’t make useful intellectual contributions to the academic discussion of Dionysus. And what I want in writing on Dylan is exactly the language that happens when critical vision is intimate and active.

 51KARNVNQFL._SL160_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-dp,TopRight,12,-18_SH30_OU01_AA115_Now, having your own  Cambridge Companion should mean that you’ve passed the infinity trial, it shouldn’t be the trial itself. But the publishers’ desire not to assign the volume to a “die-hard fan” shows some anxiety about the subject at hand: maybe the jury is still out on Bob Dylan’s infinity trial, and we need to keep fans and all their uncritical excesses out of the courtroom.   But Dettmar might not be exactly what CUP originally had in mind. He uses awkward incompatible tones in the introduction, which betray…something. His opening paragraph quotes Clinton Heylin on Dylan’s “oeuvre” being “the most important canon in rock music,” then Dettmar suggests “Dylan’s is the most important canon in all of twentieth century popular music.”  But he goes on to write that Heylin’s statement implies that “Dylan has long since passed into the Academy, making a Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan a logical addition to this distinguished series.” It is unlikely that the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare, or Kant, felt any urge to declare the logic of that volume’s addition to the series. 

The right hand pulls back and the left hand advances again: without apparent irony or distance, Dettmar describes Dylan’s voice as “a revelation.  And it sounded like the voice of Truth [his big letter T, not mine].”   But on that same page he confesses, “The introduction to a Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan must take up the vexed question of Dylan’s status as a poet….”  Is he a “rock poet” like Patti Smith? Is he a poet poet like Wordsworth? Oh vexation! He is the voice of Truth but is he a Poet too? Dettmar concludes that “Dylan is not a significant poet; but his contributions as a literary artist…are of the first order.”  

images-3 Not a significant poet, but a first-order literary artist. I do have sympathy for Dettmar, he is sincerely trying to name Something that will justify a Cambridge Companion, but also do justice to the Specialness of the Something. 


It’s not easy to watch this kind of personal wrestling match, a smart writer struggling to fit a singularity into established critical language. I continue to look for the writers like Paul Williams who aren’t wrestling at all, and who create a personal responsive language of the highest order of intelligent attention. Vexation will only be relieved when we meet singularity with singularity.

images-5To be continued. I am still sifting through the individual pieces in the book. 






1 thought on “What Salvation Must Be Like After A While–The Cambridge Companion

  1. You always pick up on the most interesting (otherwise overlooked) phenomena. I skipped through Dettmar’s intro because I could tell he was on trial: he had to sound properly “academic,” or his ass was grass. But yes, you are spot-on: Dylan’s die-hard fans–and their sheer multitudinousness–are an embarrassment to academia, which prides itself on picking up on values that the culture at large is blind to. The same phenomenon made Whitman a dubious character among academics even when I was in college, and (for a shorter duration) Browning and Dickens, as well–the latter two having the advantage (among American academia) of being English. And I still remember one of my most astute–and nonacademic–teachers relegating Emily Dickinson (of all people) to the second-class status of “popular poet,” a designation first accorded her by Northrup Frye (also one of the more generous-minded of academics.)

    On the other hand, there are enough interesting, insightful, and bullshitless pieces in this book to make it worth the price. You take what you can get!

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