Tearing the World Apart: Bob Dylan and the 21st Century by Eric Hoffman, who visited the American Writers Museum in March 2019

This Thursday, March 7, editor and writer Eric Hoffman joins us at the American Writers Museum to discuss the essay collection Tearing the World Apart: Bob Dylan and the Twenty-First Century, which he co-edited with Nina Goss. These essays illuminate Dylan in a new light from a variety of cultural and critical contexts.

Hoffman shared his views on Dylan with us, as well as his approaches to writing and the books he’s reading now. Read on to learn more, and be sure to reserve your spot to our March 7 event.

This program is presented in conjunction with our special exhibit Bob Dylan: Electric, featuring handwritten lyrics, original concert posters, and the electric guitar Dylan played at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, the first time he played electric live. Tour the exhibit and hear more from Hoffman Thursday, March 7. Reserve your spot now!

AWM: Your book focuses on post-millennial Bob Dylan…in what ways is Dylan relevant today?

  • Eric Hoffman: In what ways is Shakespeare relevant today? Homer? I think if you ask the same question about them you’re likely to find your answer.

AWM: What do Bob Dylan’s music and lyrics mean to you personally?

  • EH: Every response to every work of art is to some degree personal. It’s not intellectual. I mean, you can pick apart a Bach fugue, map it all out mathematically, and still not decipher and put into words exactly what it is about it that affects you, emotionally and aesthetically. Moreover, any writing about music will always be scratching at its surface. Fortunately, Dylan is a compelling songwriter whose music draws from a vast wellspring of various musical traditions and idioms, and like any great work of art his music can be used to shed light on any number of topics. There’s a significant amount of Dylan scholarship out there to attest to that, and there’s still plenty of surface-scratching to be done. I mean, scholars are still picking away at Archilochus and Sappho. Given Dylan’s recent vintage, I’d say we’ve really just started. His music will last as long as civilization lasts, however long that may be.

AWM: Do you have a favorite Bob Dylan song and/or lyric?

  • EH: Excellent question. I’d say “Blind Willie McTell” probably provides the best single summation of his songwriting methods, past and present. It’s quintessential Dylan. But more than that, it’s an absolutely haunting piece of music and a breathtaking example of apocalyptic poetry, right up there with Nahum’s poem about the fall of Nineveh. If William Blake sang the blues, this song would be the result.

AWM: You’ve published poetry collections, biographies, and also edited various essay collections…does your approach to writing differ based on the form?

  • EH: Not really. Wallace Stevens once said that poetry is a scholar’s art. He’s right. That’s why it’s right to describe Dylan’s music and lyrics as poetry; Dylan’s music and writing is a scholarly art. “The world of research has gone berserk,” [as Dylan said] and well, I tend to go a little berserk in my research, and to overwrite and overreach. For example, I initially wanted to look at Dylan’s use of blackface minstrelsy in comparison with the poet John Berryman’s, in his The Dream Songs. But the lecture ended up 10,000 words too long. I don’t want to torture your audience, so I had to cut all the Berryman out. Painful, but necessary. You have to be your own best editor, or too much embarrassment ends up on the page. Any subject that I choose to write about is done for one reason and one reason alone: I find it interesting. That’s it. Doesn’t matter whether it’s poetry, music, film, comics, the supernatural…it’s all good.

AWM: If you could meet one American writer from the past, who would it be and why?

  • EH: That’s a tough one. I’d almost prefer not to peak behind that curtain. It’s nearly always a disappointment. But I’ll bite; the first ones that come to mind are Emerson and Thoreau. Or one of the great poets: Poe, Whitman, Dickinson. Or someone with real personality: Capote, Burroughs, Flannery O’Connor, Hunter S. Thompson.

AWM: What are you reading now? What should we be reading?

  • EH: I read a lot and a lot of different things. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Dylan-related stuff, for obvious reasons. Richard F. Thomas’s Why Dylan Matters and Andrew McCarron’s Light Come Shining are probably the two best Dylan books to be published in recent years. I can’t recommend them enough. At the moment, I’m re-reading Sam Shepard’s Rolling Thunder Logbook because it’s an easy, enjoyable read, has great photos, and I haven’t read it in a long time. Non-Dylan, Berryman’s Dream Songs are worth a look, for the reasons I stated above. Brian Peckham’s History and Prophecy. Ambrose Bierce’s ghost stories. Emily Brontë’s poems. Robert Sheppard’s 21st Century Blues. Michael Heller’s Constellations of Waking. Fanny Howe’s The Needle’s Eye. Samuel Delaney’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Raymond Queneau’s Les fleurs bleues.

Want to hear more of Hoffman’s thoughts on Dylan and writing? Join us this Thursday, March 7 at 6:30 p.m. for his program. Learn more and RSVP here.