I’ve been reading The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby lately. It’s not much fun to read. I suppose it’s too much to ask that a serious discussion of the intellectual and political state of the nation should read like P.G. Whodehouse, but one can alway hope. The basic contention, that there’s an inherent strain of anti-intellectualism in America, and that it’s riding particularly high at the moment, and that there was a certain admirable, attractive, and desirable quality about a certain kind of American way of life in the mid-century that she describes as being middle-brow, I don’t have any disagreement with, but I feel that Jacoby loads the case almost as much as she points out that the people she’s excoriating do, and I’m not particularly happy with what seems to me to be her rather school-marmish attitude about things.
I noticed that she speaks of a survey done recently that show that half the people in the country don’t read a book in a year. What was striking to me about this was that in “The Obscurity of the Poet” from Poetry and The Age by Randall Jarrell, dating from around 1953, he makes reference to a survey that showed that half the people in the country don’t read a book a year. (Unlike Jacoby, he’s quite funny about it: “…I picture to myself that reader–non-reader, rather; one man out of every two–and I reflect, with shame: ‘Our poems are too hard for him.’ But so, too, are Treasure Island, Peter Rabbit, pornographic novels–any book, whatsoever. The authors of the world have been engaged in a sort of conspiracy to drive this American away from books; have, in 77 million out of 166 million cases, succeeded. A sort of dream-situation often occurs to me in which I call to this imaginary figure, ‘Why don’t you read books?’ –and he always answers, after looking at me steadily for a long time: ‘Huh?’). (It would be churlish, I suppose, to point out to Ms. Jacoby that Jarrell’s survey is from exactly the time that she looks back to so fondly.) I suppose that given the fact that every thing else in the US and the world have declined and got much worse, the fact that that percentage of people who never read a book has remained constant is a kind of progress. (My guess is that that survey is an urban myth, much as one that Barbara Bush was fond of citing about problems facing schools in the fifties (chewing gum, talking in class) as opposed to more recently (teenage pregnancy and guns in school).)
Music, surprisingly, is included in Jacoby’s ken. She is predictably annoyed at the idea that The Beatles might be considered in the same mental breath as Beethoven–it’s resistance to the idea of aesthetic hierarchy. (I have to say I couldn’t make much sense of the quote from Allan Kozinn that she ridicules). I was surprised and annoyed, though, at: ‘Christopher Ricks, a professor of humanities at Boston University and the Oxford Professor of Poetry, compared Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay,” in which said lady is told to extend herself across a “big brass bed,” to John Donne’s elegy, “To His Mistress Going to Bed.” (Ricks, who is a truly distinguished scholar of real [my emphasis] English poetry, inexplicably ignores Dylan’s role in confusing the distinction between “lie” and “lay” for boomers who came of age under the spell of this song.) Jacoby goes to say that she longs for Dwight MacDonald to give Rick’s Dylan’s Vision of Sin, which she describes as “an unreadable 517-page tome”, the skewering it deserves. I’m not sure she shouldn’t watch her back lest somebody give her a skewering.
In any case, I’ve found myself thinking about it since I read it, and even though I run the risk of exposing myself as a boomer deluded and grammatically mislead by Dylan, I really wonder if it’s so far-fetched that one might compare Dylan’s lyrics to Donne. I’m quite sure that his lyrics are at least as good as poetry as the texts in Dowland and Campion, and probably in Machaut–Dufay, too. Although I hesitate to suggest that the music is as good as Dowland’s (or Machaut or Dufay), I’m pretty sure it’s at least as good as Campion. The first part seems to me to be just silly, but there’s something really preposterous about complaining about Dylan’s grammar in that case, and even more so in asserting that it’s the cause of boomer faulty grammar in general, for a number of reasons, including the date of the song (1969), by which time most boomers were already well down the road of their grammatical road to ruin. I certainly was. Bob Dylan is not at all responsible for my not knowing when to use that rather than which.