On Friday, author Richard Thomas gave a lecture and signed his new book, “Why Bob Dylan Matters,” at the Gutstein Gallery, while visiting Savannah for the Savannah Book Festival. Thomas is the George Martin Lane professor of the classics at Harvard University where he leads a seminar every four years on the controversial winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan.
The singer-songwriter might seem an odd choice of subject considering Thomas’ previous studies have specialized in classical literature, specifically Hellenistic Greek and Roman literature.
Thomas started teaching the seminar in 2004 because of one of Dylan’s songs, “Lonesome Day Blues,” which Dylan released, coincidentally, on September 11, 2001. “I did go out and buy it from the local Tower Records, somewhat stunned,” Thomas confessed, “but I also didn’t listen to it for a few days as I absorbed what had happened but I eventually came to listen to it.”
Thomas explained that there is a line in Virgil’s “The Aeneid” where Aeneas’ father tells him that “others will do great sculpture, your job is to spare the defeated and to tame the proud and to teach peace to the people.” So as Thomas was listening to “Lonesome Day Blues,” he came to around the seventh stanza and heard “I’m going to spare the defeated, I’m going to speak to the crowd. I’m going to spare the defeated boys, I’m going to speak to the proud. I’m going to teach peace to the conquered, I’m gonna tame the proud.”
“There were too many coincidences,” Thomas said.
He was not alone in his observations. A few weeks later, the Wall Street Journal published an article that was entitled “Dylan: A Plagiarist,” which speculated that Dylan had plagiarized a Japanese Gangster Novel. A little while later, someone on the “Expecting Rain” website, a forum dedicated to Bob Dylan news, said that Bob Dylan was plagiarizing Mark Twain.
“He usually does two separate lines in the same song so if you say ‘Oh, thats just an accident,’ then you encounter the other and you know that it can’t be accident,” Thomas said. He noted that most plagiarists typically aim to have their work go undetected. However, Thomas argues that Dylan aims to have his intertextuality, or plagiarism, noticed.
“T. S. Eliot way back in 1920 said ‘immature poets imitate, mature poets steal,'” Thomas quoted. “They take something and they make it their own and they improve it and that’s essentially what Dylan is doing.”
Thomas grouped these allusions, references, or plagiarisms into a phenomenon known as intertextuality and defined it as “a term that is most convenient in its neutrality for describing the process by which poets, songwriters, painters, composers, or artists of any genre produce meaning through their creative reuse of existing text, images or sound.”
Thomas mentioned a New Zealand writer who was preparing to teach Ovid’s exile poems and was listening to Dylan and wrote in his local paper that “suddenly the page started singing to me.”
Though Dylan’s intertextuality mainly stems from the Greeks and Romans, some of his other songs include more recent “steals” such as Charlie Chaplin and Merle Haggard. These hidden references have inspired many people who now Google Dylan’s lyrics to find the texts or sources reused.
“Bob Dylan matters,” Thomas argued, “not because he’s quoting these ancient authors but because, like them, he is able to express at the highest aesthetic level what it means to be a human being…he thinks our thoughts for us but in ways that we are incapable of putting into words.”
Thomas happened to be teaching his seminar on October 13, 2016, the day of the Nobel Prize announcement and the New York Times visited his classroom, the motivating factor by which his book came about. “I was always going to write a book on Dylan but I was convinced by my editor that now was the time to do it and I’m glad I did,” Thomas said.
In response to people who think that Dylan should not have won the Nobel Prize for Literature because of the fact that he was a singer, Thomas argues, “Well, Sappho, the ancient Greek lyric poet, sang poetry. Typically lyric poetry is sung so Dylan is in a very old tradition.”
When asked why he thought Dylan neglected to attend the awards ceremony, an action criticized by many as rude, Thomas responded by saying, “You know, he doesn’t speak…I think Dylan was fairly simple in his tastes. No one really knows what he thought, but I just don’t think he could see himself sitting next to the Novel Prize for Physics in that building in Stockholm. I just don’t think it was a place he would feel comfortable in.”
By Elena Burnett.