Classics professor Richard Thomas discusses “Why Dylan Matters” with Robin Kelsey
Richard Thomas may be the first Harvard professor to celebrate a book release that’s co-sponsored by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But that’s where the classics professor and Dylanologist found himself last month for the publication of “Why Bob Dylan Matters.”
The book was sparked by Dylan’s 2016 Nobel Prize in literature, but grew from Thomas’ popular freshman seminar “Bob Dylan,” which he has taught every four years since 2004. The course, affectionately known on campus as Bob Dylan 101, studies the music and the influence of the likes of ancient poets Virgil and Homer on the American singer-songwriter.
The George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics has seen Dylan perform scores of times, and considers “Why Bob Dylan Matters” only the first verse of many to come about the present-day bard.
GAZETTE: Did you write this book as a classics professor teaching a class or as a Dylan fan?
THOMAS: I’m a Dylan professor and a Dylan fan. I’m always a Dylan fan. The book wouldn’t have happened if Dylan hadn’t started entering into the world of my texts 20 years ago. He’s come to me in a way, and I’ve always been with him. The book is also about how he related to Roman poets really from the beginning, but those resemblances are accidental, just reflections of shared genius. But his more conscious adoptions are a more recent thing.
The book is recognition of what Dylan is. It came when he won the Nobel [last year]. I was contacted by a number of press and agents. I first thought, “No, I’ll think of doing a Dylan book further down the road.” I was about to teach three courses in the spring semester, and they wanted a draft by May 1. But I was persuaded by an editor at Harper Collins who wrote a very good and persuasive email. I was pretty terrified to begin with. But the terror-to-exhilaration ratio eventually shifted as I saw what I wanted to do. “Why Bob Dylan Matters” didn’t exactly write itself, but I was thinking of it every minute I wasn’t teaching. I wanted the book to put Dylan in a serious literary tradition that pushed back against the idea that he’s just a protest singer, that he’s ephemeral, that he won’t be around the way great literature stays around.
GAZETTE: You have taught “Bob Dylan” since 2004. Does it draw hardcore Dylan fans, casual ones, poets, or all three?
THOMAS: It’s all of that. In the applications that students submit, I’ve tried to select a bit from those different groups. Each year one to three know Dylan as well as I do, and there are those out there who know him better than I do. Then there are some whose parents listen to him, and they’re curious. Parents always come up in discussions. Last fall, one parent took his daughter to a show in the desert in Nevada to see the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and Dylan. I’ve also gotten students who are songwriters who realize Dylan is without parallel, and are trying to learn or improve their craft. The course is not letter-graded, so they can take a chance, and I always advise students: Take a freshman seminar that interests you because you’ll make 11 new friends. We even have a marriage that started out in my class a few years back.
GAZETTE: You trace the influence of the classics on Dylan to his early years, even traveling to his hometown of Hibbing, Minn. What did you find there?
THOMAS: I found out about his involvement in the Latin Club in early 2000s when the camera in Martin Scorsese’s documentary film “No Direction Home” panned Dylan’s senior yearbook entry. It had three items: to join “Little Richard,” Social Studies Club, and Latin Club. And I found a clipping from the Hibbing Hi-Times about the induction of new students in the Latin Club. The year he was in the club was the year I started taking Latin as a 9-year-old in New Zealand. I’d already been hearing these lines from Virgil and later Ovid and Homer. There’s always been an intellectual and aesthetic and emotional component to the way I think about Dylan and his songs and career.
In his Nobel lecture, we heard him talk about books that were formative for him — Dickens, “Moby Dick,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and Homer’s “Odyssey.” As much as I’d like to think it was the joys of the Latin subjunctive and participles, I’m not sure how much Latin he’d done. One of the attractions was that it allowed him to go back into a world he’d inhabited in the movie theater, where he saw “The Robe” and other movies about ancient Rome. He’s about absorbing other times, other songs, and other traditions.