Can Dylan Stand Alongside Shakespeare?

Those "kinds of reading audiences" could be crudely described as people who read the classics and those who read self-help books, inspirational novels and thrillers.

But one generation's potboiler is the next generation's classic. When Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett were writing in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, they were pulp novelists, but now they are considered chroniclers of the dark underbelly of American culture. Dostoevsky ripped his plots of murder and revolutionaries out of the headlines, but now his books are read for their explorations of the human soul.

"Our oldest classics, Greek tragedy, were popular culture in their time, vehemently criticized by Plato and others," said Richard Shusterman, a professor of philosophy at Temple University who has written about popular music from rap to country. "The behavior at the performances of these plays was at least as vehement as at rock concerts or sporting events."

Dylan — the Victoria's Secret ad he did this year, aside — has never seemed to be a particularly popularity-hungry singer, but his connections to folk and rock music have made him a suspect subject for academic study, and several critucs have questioned whether he is really worth 500 pages of Ricks' and the reader's time.

For Ricks, though, the questions that he needed to ask when he was deciding whether to turn his attention from the likes of Eliot, Shakespeare and Keats to Dylan had nothing to do with popularity or style of music. They were about whether Dylan was as good as the academically accepted poets.

"Are his good qualities as good as their good qualities? And is his quality anything like their good quality?" Ricks said. "Well, I think I've made the case for that."

A Songwriter’s Challenge

Dylan may be a special case among pop singer-songwriters, because he has always spoken of his interest in poetry and poets. The likes of French poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud and Americans Eliot and Ezra Pound have made appearances in his songs.

But there is still the issue of what happens when words are combined with music, and Dylan has always been cagey about how he worked — putting words to music, music to words or some combination of the two. Is it fair to pull the two apart and look at one without the other?

But that is what most literary scholars are forced to do if they want to consider the work of singer-songwriters, rock stars or rappers, because few have enough knowledge of music to talk competently about it, even for those who do not accept that there is any line between so-called high and low culture.

"If your specialty is English, it's very difficult to do anything musicological," said Neil Nehring, a professor of English at the University of Texas who has written on rock, rap and other popular music in America going back to colonial times. "If you're going to write about it, you really should somehow replicate in your language, in your own writing, how the music feels. That's hard to do in academic work, which is supposed to be somewhat rigorous."

But if that need for rigor might have worked to keep scholars from turning their attention to popular music, other factors have increasingly drawn them to it over the past few decades.

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