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‘Big universities to study in’: Review of
THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO BOB DYLAN, ed. Kevin J. Dettmar, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, soft covers, xvii + 185 pp., ISBN 978-0-521-71494-5
Bob Dylan allowed academia a brief look-in on his very first album, informing the world in his spoken intro to ‘Baby, Let Me Follow You Down’ that he first met the blues guitar-player Eric von Schmidt ‘in the green pastures of Harvard University’; years later, in ‘Foot of Pride’, he berated those who ‘like to take all this money from sin, / Build big universities to study in’. Dylan’s relationship with the groves of academe is vexed but is also indisputable, as this multi-author volume now arrives to testify. The Cambridge Companions are an established series of study aids aimed in the first place at undergraduate students, covering a wide field of mostly literary subjects, ranging from Greek Tragedy through Ovid, Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe and Virginia Woolf all the way to Modern British Women Playwrights, even taking in the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The arrival in 2009 of a Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan among this distinguished company is first and foremost further evidence, were it needed, of the ever-growing academic respectability of Dylan studies. However, the pretensions of such a volume are one thing, and the reality another, and my aim in this review will not to be question whether Dylan’s work merits substantive academic attention (there is more than enough evidence for that by now), but to examine this particular study guide with a view to determining whether it is up to the job.
The volume, though published in the UK, is decidedly American in cast. The editor, Kevin J. Dettmar, is chair of the English Department at Pomona College, California. The contributors (nineteen, five of them women; two of the contributions have two authors) are almost entirely fellow Americans, either academics from departments of English or American Studies or professional writers, the one exception being Lee Marshall, senior lecturer in Sociology at Bristol University, England. Strikingly absent are the major names in Dylan criticism: there is nothing from Aidan Day, Michael Gray, Greil Marcus, Christopher Ricks or Stephen Scobie, though there is a piece by Eric Lott, the professor of American Studies from the University of Virginia whose book on blackface minstrelsy, Love and Theft, famously supplied Dylan with an album title (Lott’s contribution is, suitably enough, a discussion of … “Love and Theft”).
The book consists of: an editor’s introduction; a Dylan chronology; nine general articles, all titled using the formula ‘Bob Dylan and/as …’, grouped under ‘Part I: Perspectives’; eight album studies grouped as ‘Part II: Landmark Albums’; a bibliography; and an index. The general studies are on: Dylan and ‘the Anglo-American tradition’, ‘Rolling Thunder’, ‘collaboration’, ‘gender politics’, ‘religion’, and ‘the Academy’; and Dylan as ‘songwriter’, ‘performer’, and ‘cultural icon’ (the room for overlap between some of these categories should at once be obvious). The eight albums allotted chapters are: The Free-Wheelin’ Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, The Basement Tapes, Blood on the Tracks, Infidels and “Love and Theft”. Despite the 2009 publication date, the book is in fact up-to-date as far as Modern Times, coming too late for Tell-Tale Signs (listed in the chronology as ‘announced’) and Together Through Life
Note added 21 December 2009: This review has now been published in the British Dylan magazine THE BRIDGE, No 35, Winter 2009, pp. 108-114.