As a rather more-than-avid Bob Dylan listener (I can’t compare to my roommate, who has practically covered his half of the room with good ole Robert Zimmerman’s face), I was pleased though unsurprised to see Andrew Higgins reference Dylan in his essay on Whitman’s “Reception and Legacy.” I’ve been hearing Dylan in Whitman all along, or, more accurately, I’ve been reading the clear signs of Dylan’s Whitmanian inheritance.
The cultural context in which Higgins invokes Dylan, however, obliges me to confront the ways in which Whitman’s influence has passed the same problem of reductively politicized interpretation from the graybeard poet to followers like Dylan, who have been similarly confined to the role of artist-as-political-spokesman. Higgins asserts that Whitman’s legacy consists of the “dramatic actions of his admirers,” by which his legacy “becomes a market, a signifier, used by his admirers, each claiming, to greater or lesser degrees, understanding of a real or an ideal Walt Whitman” (439). One of the principal shapes Whitman has taken in this “market’s” American branch is that of “‘Father Walt,’ the spirit of the American worker,” a role broadened to “the nationalist Whitman, the Whitman of the populist poets” (447). Carl Sandburg, a chief proponent of that “populist tradition” that Higgins calls a “poetic dead end,” in turn serves as a key point in the trajectory Higgins traces from Whitman to the mid-century explosion of folk revivalism, which borrows heavily from “Whitman’s vision of the working-class hero” (448). Of course, that folk movement developed an increasing association with political activism, leaning heavily on “protest songs” as tools of various “left-wing” (antiwar, civil rights, etc.) political movements.
Placing Dylan in this lineage, however, fascinatingly begs the question of how intrinsically activist Whitman’s poetic example might be. Anyone familiar with Dylan’s career trajectory through the 1960s will know that, despite achieving great fame as the folk movement’s virtual figurehead by writing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and other songs that swiftly became anthems for protest, Dylan effected a stylistic shift into denser, less identifiably political lyrics that were accompanied by brash rock & roll instrumentation that bore little resemblance to the supposedly “purer” acoustic folk sound. The folk community called this a betrayal, and Dylan correspondingly dismissed “folk music” as incompatible with his interests.
However, in spite of the too-tidy “before-and-after” distinction that suggests Dylan’s break from the “folk revival” might have meant an estrangement from his Whitmanian roots, even his pre-split songs bear pervasive signs of a Whitmanian influence that reached beyond the “working class,” “populist” identity that Higgins attributes to him, and which so commonly bolstered the “folk movement’s” own “topically” politicized pursuits. Consider “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” one of the songs most hungrily grabbed up as ripe protest material:
The song’s constant emphasis on parallel constructions (“Where have you been,” “What did you see;” “I saw, I saw,” etc.), and its sense of the singer as a prophet anticipating the “hard rain” that will envelop large and small, beautiful and hideous, “dozen dead oceans” and “clown that cried in the alley” alike, recalls nothing if not the long catalogues and encompassing sensibility of “Song of Myself.” It’s pervaded with a kind of cosmic political sensibility, an immense American guilt, that only occasionally states the politically obvious (“I met a white man who walked a black dog”), usually transmuting common attitudes or experiences, like misogyny and repressed sexuality, into apocalyptic, even somewhat surreal imagery (“I met a young woman whose body was burning”). However, just as Higgins notes that Horace Traubel and other Whitman biographers attempted to cast the poet as a “semidivine prophet of socialism” (442), Dylan’s contemporaries often construed “Hard Rain” as a protest against impending nuclear disaster because the song’s first performances roughly coincided with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Then again, showing a reticence to get tied to a particular “cause,” “movement,” or stable public identity that echoes Higgins’ assertion that “Whitman somewhat resisted both the effort to enlist him in socialism and to beatify him” (442), Dylan dismissed these efforts to interpret the song so topically whenever possible, insisting that “it’s not an atomic rain, it’s just a hard rain. It isn’t the fallout rain. I mean some end that’s just gotta happen…”
By appealing to a broader form of address than that available through antiwar (or any other particular) protest, Dylan renders his work both more truly Whitmanian and less compatible with a folk culture that looked to him for singer-activism. Of course, just as Whitman recruited and reconfigured his poetry as a vehicle for pro-war enjoinders like “Beat! Beat! Drums!”, Dylan often appeared and performed at unambiguously political events, the 1963 civil rights March on Washington not least among them. But “Hard Rain” and other ostensibly “anthemic” “folk” songs, like Whitman’s Drum-Taps, reach beyond immediate causes and events in pursuit of, say, greater immensities in their art. Dylan’s alignment with the “kosmos” Whitman suggests his own attempt to reach beyond the “populist dead end” that neither poet nor singer ever obeyed, and illustrates the way in which Whitmanian influence, when genuinely and thoroughly integrated into an artist’s body of work, allows that work the expansiveness that Whitman intended for his own.