Being that this is a series is about the reading experience in and out of the classroom, I try to look for classes where the texts are tied a bit more abstractly to the course material. This often means reaching outside of my own home, and the hub of quite a bit of material on reading experiences, the English department. That being said, I made an exception for Professor William Maxwell’s course “American Literature II: Popular Music and American Literature from Rag to Rap.” This course blends music and music history with literature, intertwining reading with music-listening, making the ways in which students engage with texts in this course particularly complex.
I spoke with Professor Maxwell about two texts he teaches in conjunction: Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo and Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan. Great Jones Street explores the retreat of what Maxwell called a “Dylanesque” character Bucky Wunderlick, while Chronicles is Dylan’s own memoir. The two texts complement one another to construct a holistic image of Dylan, but also of the culture surrounding Dylan. Since he was an artist with such historical significance, we often explore Dylan’s music through the lens of music and through the lens of a broader history of 1960’s counter-culture, but exploring Dylan and his legacy through literature is an exciting, fresh perspective and one with some relevance: Dylan was just recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Below, Maxwell offers some more detail on these texts and the role they play both within his course and outside it.
Why do you incorporate these texts in particular into the curriculum?
I incorporate these two books into my class reading for several reasons. First, because they help to explain why Dylan, the songwriter, the poet, and the idea, has been welcomed into the upper reaches of literary culture, and was recently awarded nothing less than the Nobel Prize for Literature (though Dylan didn’t comment on the Prize for several weeks, refused to attend the Nobel ceremony, and finally met with members of the Swedish Academy while wearing a black hoodie). Second, I assign these books because they demonstrate that what we used to call “postmodernism” in American writing not only poached riffs and attitudes from rock music, but also looked to rock—an officially artsy form beginning with Dylan’s 1965 hit “Like a Rolling Stone”—for lessons in crossing the high culture/low culture dividing line. Third, and finally, I favor these books because they tell related stories of the transformation of the utopian “high 1960s” into something darker and more familiar to 21st-century Americans: in DeLillo’s case, into a full range of grasping, subculture-marketing “agencies of the underground,” and in Dylan’s case, into warring micro-gangs of “gate-crashers, spooks, trespassers, [and] demagogues,” all seeking autographs and customized doses of enlightenment.
What do you hope students in your class take away from these books?
I hope that my students take from Great Jones Street the ironic conclusion that a serious and challenging novel of ideas can be made from black comedy and a figure first associated with teenage entertainment. I hope they take from Dylan’s memoir a sense of his conviction—supported by a surprising majority of literary history—that good poetry can be chanted, sung, and variously embodied as well as read silently within a community of one.
How did you first hear about these books?
Dylan’s inspired string of albums from the mid-1960s—Another Side of Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde—the ones in every retiree’s and every other hipster’s record collection—was the gateway art that led me to both texts. For me, these books thus come with musical preambles as well as imaginary soundtracks.
Why should students who aren’t taking your class read these books?
Students should spend some hours of their free time reading Dylan’s memoir because it will (a) solve the mystery of why so many otherwise sensitive and intelligent people were seduced by a singer who can barely sing; (b) demonstrate, despite all the slurs and rumors to the contrary, that the New Left of the 1960s was deeply, effortlessly patriotic; and (c) provide step-by-step instructions for recording a Bob Dylan album in either New York, Nashville, or New Orleans, take your pick. Students should try on DeLillo’s novel to experience sentences like these, hyper-logical and teetering on the edge of brilliant obscurity: “Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesman or chinless kings. I mean long journeys across gray space. I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic.”
If someone really likes these texts, or is interested in this topic, do you have any other recommendations?
If students like Dylan’s Chronicles, they’ll probably love the memoir Just Kids by Patti Smith, a similarly poetic popular singer. She worshipped Arthur Rimbaud as well as the Rolling Stones and helped to invent American punk rock before performing in Dylan’s place at his Nobel investiture. If they like Great Jones Street, they’ll definitely love the admittedly more accomplished (and more often taught) DeLillo novels White Noise, home of the “airborne toxic event” and the “Most Photographed Barn in the World,” and Underworld, one of the best and most adventurous historical novels of post-1945 America.