This is your third time teaching at Princeton in the last seven years.
What is the focus of your current course, “Writing About the Arts”?
Practical criticism is really the concept of the course, and that means criticism
written by people for whom it really is a practice. They might be writing about
music or movies or architecture or restaurants, but the concept is that when
people write about stuff that other people care about but that’s not presumed
to be important, they have the freedom to write about absolutely anything without
having to worry that people are going to come down on them for [the positions
One of the best examples is a woman named Dara Moskowitz, the restaurant critic
for City Pages, the weekly newspaper in the Twin Cities. She writes a restaurant
column ... but along with writing about the restaurant, she is also writing a
critique of life in the Twin Cities. She’s writing about manners, she’s
writing about the way people speak, she’s writing about trends. She’s
writing about what people want out of life and what they do to get it — how
they’re gratified and how they’re cheated. The whole city becomes
her subject, her object for criticism.
What topics or themes are your students particularly drawn to?
What they’re beginning to focus on is the way a writer’s style becomes
part of his or her argument. Without developing a distinctive voice, the critic
is going to be unable to generate ideas that are also original. The two go hand
in hand. They’re beginning to see the relationship between style and content.
Speaking of style, the novelist Michael Chabon has described you as “clear-eyed,
hardheaded, wearing his theory in a shoulder holster, willing to go anywhere
and question everything ... .” Is that a fair synopsis of the approach
that you take to your writing?
That’s me [laughs]. ... No — I mean, I don’t have a shoulder
holster. I don’t use theory in the sense that you carry it as a weapon.
That’s Michael coming up with a colorful notion of what he sees in what
I do. Of course, it was a thrill to read.
In The Shape of Things to Come, you write about speeches by John
Winthrop, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. as examples of American
prophecy, but your contemporary examples come from novels, television, movies,
and music. Why do you think these are the important sources for exploring ideas
about American culture today?
[The book] is not about prophecy as predicting the future; it’s about prophecy
in the Old Testament sense of people who’ve made a covenant. The covenant
has been broken or betrayed, and they’re going to suffer judgment for that.
In the Old Testament sense, they’re going to suffer the judgment of God.
In the case of the United States, the covenant is one that people made with each
other. It falls on each citizen, and the citizenry as a whole, to judge the country.
That becomes a fundamental obligation: Has the country betrayed its promises
to itself and to its citizens? The way I see it, that notion was part political
speech, at least through Lincoln. It was a commonplace theme, and it was brought
up again and again, particularly in the struggle for abolitionism. …
But after Lincoln, that really begins to disappear from public speech. There
is a sort of revival of it in Martin Luther King’s address to the March
on Washington, but that’s a magnificent contemporary anomaly. It seemed
to me that after Lincoln, this notion of the country forced to judge itself … goes
into art. That’s where people are still captivated by this question, and
they pursue it. They don’t pursue it as self-consciously as in the way
that I’ve laid it out, but they dramatize it.
Your early career was dominated by music. Which bands or artists do you find
[There are] two bands that I’m most captivated by now: One is a Brooklyn
band, really an avant-garde band, called TV on the Radio, and the other is an
old-time country music band of very young people from Boston, called Crooked
Still, who take folk music standards – the kind of stuff that every long-haired
girl or wispily-bearded boy at Washington Square in the ’50s or early ’60s
– and do them with a kind of plunge into ecstasy. It’s some of the
most exciting music I’ve heard in years. They’ve made these songs
completely new. They’ve approached them as it they’re magical texts,
that all you would have to do is read them out loud and they’ll change
you. It’s really quite thrilling stuff.
Also, [I’m interested in] the last song on the new Bob Dylan album, called “Ain’t
Talkin’,” which is a very long song and is very much a crank prophet
song. I didn’t like that album, Modern Times, when I first heard it, and
I still don’t like most of it. It seems not quite there. It doesn’t
seem committed to itself. It seems sort of slack in the way the singing was done,
in the way the music was made. And even some of the songs that I liked when I
first listened to the album – “Nettie Moore,” “The Workingman’s
Blues” – are beginning to kind of dry up for me. The more I hear
them, the more the singing seems sentimental to me. But “Ain’t Talkin’ ” is
one of those songs that I know is going to resist me forever. I will be trying
forever to write about that song in a way that will do it justice, and will probably
always fall short.
You’re one of the best-known chroniclers of Bob Dylan’s music,
but for many years you didn’t try to speak with him. Why not?
I tend not to meet the people I write about because I’m not really interested
in the people I write about as people. I don’t want to know about their
family life. I don’t want to know about their bad habits or their good
deeds. I’m interested in their work. I learned a long time ago that not
becoming friendly with the people you write about is a way to maintain your freedom
to say whatever you damn well please.
With Dylan, I really only met him once, and that was in 1997. He was being given
an award called the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize ... [and] I was asked to give
the talk at the awards ceremony. I knew Dylan would be there, because the prize
was for a quarter of a million dollars, and even Bob Dylan would show up for
What did the two of you talk about?
He asked me at one point what people always ask writers: “What are you
working on now?” I had just published my book Invisible Republic, about
[Dylan’s] basement tapes, which was really about the basement tapes as
a reworking of American folk languages of all sorts ... and also [about Dylan]
taking the tools and methods of old American music and making them completely
new and completely his own. I said, “I’m really not working on anything.
I just finished this book and I’m sort of coming down from that.” And
he said, “Well, why don’t you do part two? You only scratched the
surface.” Of course, he was right. That would have been a good project,
and maybe I’ll go back to it someday.
Dylan seems to be everywhere, with a new album, a new radio show, a recent
autobiography, and last year’s Martin Scorsese documentary about his early
years. Why the renewed interest?
Over the past 15 years, he has been making truly great music. He is in a phase
of his career where he is accomplishing things that he has never accomplished
before musically. He has made himself a kind of archivist of American history,
as captured in its music, starting with the two folk-blues albums that he made
in the early ’90s, Good As I Been to You and World Gone Wrong, and then
Time Out of Mind in 1997. He has got to have the confidence that he can say what
he wants to say and get it across and that people will listen to it. That’s
enlivening for any artist. When you’re doing good work, you want to do
He also wrote Chronicles, an extraordinary book – not something talked
into a tape recorder, not something rewritten by a ghostwriter – a book
that nobody else could have written. Nobody else could have thought it, nobody
else could have written it in the way that it was written. … And who knows,
maybe all his life what Bob Dylan really wanted to be was a disk jockey. Now
he’s a disk jockey, too. He gets to be on the radio and tell stories and
make sardonic comments and play records that no one’s ever heard.
In 2000, Bruce Springsteen came to one of your classes to sit in on a discussion
of an Allen Ginsberg poem. Are you expecting any celebrity auditors this year?
I’ve invited some of the people whose work we’re dealing with to
come to the class. Robert Cantwell, who is a professor at the University of North
Carolina and who wrote a great book about the folk revival of the ’50s
and ’60s called When We Were Good, will be at the class on Cold War criticism.
But I’m not expecting any very famous people to drop in out of the sky.