Tomorrow, March 11, at 7 p.m., readers who find themselves in or near Brooklyn are invited to come here two of our “Year in Reading” participants, Lydia Millet and Martha Southgate, read at the Pacific Standard Fiction Series. The series (which I host) was just named “Best New Literary Event” of 2008 by New York Magazine, and this latest installment should be outstanding. Hope to see you there. (Pacific Standard is located at 82 4th Avenue in Brooklyn, between Bergen St. and St. Mark’s Place, convenient to most trains).
The Millions recently published guest contributor Ed Simon’s list of nominations for America’s national epic. Ed had included Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited; editor Lydia Kiesling ruthlessly cut the entry, feeling that it was too cute to cross genres. Now that the Nobel Prize Committee has upheld Ed’s judgment, we run his argument in its entirety below, with our apologies for denying his prescience. As the Laureate says, “We’re idiots, babe.”
Highway 61 Revisited (1965) by Bob Dylan – There is a temptation to claim that when it comes to Dylan, the greatest epic isn’t any individual album, but rather the entirety of his collected output, or maybe even better, the substance of his very life. After all, his story is almost absurdly archetypical American, a tale of rugged individualism and self-invention in which our young hero went east rather than west. His is a story about young Robert Zimmerman, suburban Jewish kid from Hibbing, Minnesota, hitch-hiking to Morris Plains, New Jersey, where he received a folk benediction from the hillbilly Okie troubadour Woody Guthrie dying from Huntington’s disease in a state hospital. As a result, he acquired the bardic name Dylan and moved to Greenwich Village where he would reinvent American music. Performing for half a century and with 37 albums, Dylan reconciles American contradictions more than any other performer before or after. He has been the firebrand revolutionary singing for civil rights and the reactionary Christian fundamentalist revivalist; he played folk modeled on the oldest songs in the English language and he went electric; though as he put it with characteristic impishness at a 1965 press conference, he primarily thinks of himself “as more of a song and dance man.” While the argument could be made for several different albums as Dylan’s American epic, it is Highway 61 Revisited which most fully embodies the grandeur and the shame of what the word “America” means – it is prophetic in its evocations. He riffs on Genesis when he sings “God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son,’/Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on,’” but as in the original God is serious, so is Dylan’s, continuing with, “Well Abe says, ‘Where do you want this killin’ done?’/God says, ‘Out on Highway 61.’” The songwriter’s genius for what critic Greil Marcus has called “the old, weird America” understands that collapsing biblical history into American is a fundamental strategy for expressing the strangeness of this country. Why shouldn’t Mt. Moriah be on America’s most iconic highway? In his lyrics, which skirt just this side of surrealism, there is a panoply of strange characters, including Cinderella, Bette Davis, Albert Einstein, Cain and Abel, Eliot and Pound, Ophelia and Robin Hood (just to present a smattering). Dylan’s lyrical logic is myth logic, but all the better to be recounted in the language of dreams. The road is the medium of the hero’s journey, and Highway 61 isn’t the only one on the album; there’s also “Desolation Row,” where “They’re selling postcards of the hanging,” calling forth nothing so much as America’s brutal racial legacies. And of course there is the opus “Like a Rolling Stone.” The electric masterpiece whose performance Pete Seeger tried to prevent at Newport by attempting to cut the electrical cables with an axe, the track which inspired a concert-goer at the Manchester Free Trade Hall to scream out at Dylan, “Judas!” – the rock song which birthed rock music. A six-minute long evocation of wounded friendship, rage, and rebellion. How does it feel, indeed?
[Max: This is the introduction to a new monthly feature written by Corey Vilhauer who blogs at Black Marks on Wood Pulp]For the most part, I’m a young reader.I’m not well versed with years of thoughtful reading. I’m only 27, and in that time I’ve only read so many books in between finishing school, staring a career, and watching too much television.Now I’m struggling to catch up. Luckily for you, I’m broadcasting this struggle to the masses.Each month on my blog I recap everything I’ve read – a “What I’ve Been Reading” column. There’s a lot to be said about the paths a mind takes when selecting a new book, and part of what I do is try to make those connections. Why would I bother reading a George Orwell essay right after finishing Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island? It could be that I was obsessed at the time with English culture and wanted to continue riding the wave. Or it could be that Bryson mentioned a certain Orwell passage while recounting his three month jaunt around England.Or, it could be as simple as “I bought it and wanted to start it immediately.”Well, I can’t bring all of that to The Millions. What I can bring, however, is my favorite book of the month. Call it the Vilhauer Book of the Month club. Some months it’s going to be a classic, like John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Others are going to be more obscure – think Jonathan Safran Foer’s The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning (a 70th anniversary Pocket Penguin released only in the U.K. and Canada).Regardless, I’ll bring it to you. You’ll get the background as to why I’m reading it. You’ll get the story itself. You’ll get why I like it. You’ll get what it led me to read next.All in all, you’ll get every stinking second I’ve spent on the book – from selection to completion – and you’ll have no one to thank but Max for allowing me to spout off on this site. Thank him later, if you wish.Corey Vilhauer