Thursday, June 03, 2010

Bob Dylan, Carl Sandburg, and the "Borrowing" Problem

One of the oddest things (among many odd things) in Bob Dylan's memoir Chronicles is his narration of a conversation with poet and playwright Archibald MacLeish, who had commissioned him to write some music for a play. According to Dylan, MacLeish said that he, MacLeish, had been a classmate of Douglas Macarthur at West Point (Chronicles, p. 112). In fact, MacLeish, although he served in the Army, never went to West Point. So how did this misinformation get into Dylan's book?

It has already been established that Dylan incorporated expressions, phrases and entire sentences from other authors in the book. A little research reveals that the same practice underlies parts of the MacLeish conversation and is responsible for the misattribution of certain statements to MacLeish. In this case, the source is the preliminary material to the Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg, (2002). This book has an introduction by Archibald MacLeish, and a preface (called "Notes for a Preface") by Sandburg himself. The remark about West Point comes in the Sandburg preface, not the MacLeish introduction:
Sandburg, p. xxx:
"At twenty-one I [Sandburg] went to West Point, being a classmate of Douglas MacArthur and Ulysses S. Grant III ..."

Chronicles, p. 112:
"MacLeish had been a classmate of Douglas MacArthur at West Point ..."

Confirmation of Dylan's borrowing comes from elsewhere in Sandburg's preface, such as this remark:
Sandburg, p. xxx:
"A few masterpieces last across the years. ... Perhaps no wrong is done and no temple of human justice violated in pointing out that each authentic poet makes a style of his own. ... I have forgotten the meaning of twenty or thirty of my poems written thirty or forty years ago."

Chronicles, p. 113:
"He said that he'd forgotten the meaning of a lot of his earlier poems and that an authentic poet makes a style of his own, a few masterpieces last across the years."

Sandburg (Preface, p. xxviii) also alludes to "Michelangelo saying in 1509, 'I have no friends of any kind and I do not want any,' and forty years later writing, 'I am always alone and I speak to no one.' " This too is picked up in Chronicles: "He also talked about Michelangelo, said that Michelangelo had no friends of any kind and didn't want any, spoke to no one" (p. 112).

Another possible allusion lies on p. xxvii of Sandburg's preface, where he says (italics added): "A well done world history of poetry would tell us of the beginnings and the continuing tradition of blank verse, rhymed verse, ballads, ballades, sonnets, triolets, rondeaus, villanelles, the sestina, the pantoum, the hokku; also odes, elegiacs, idylls, lyrics, hymns, quatrains, couplets, ditties, limericks, and all the other forms," and Dylan quotes MacLeish to the same effect: "Archie spoke about blank verse, rhyme verse, elegiacs, ballads, limericks and sonnets" (Chronicles, p. 112).

One final parallel: Sandburg writes of Stephen VIncent Benet (p. xxvi): "He knew the distinction between pure art and propaganda in the written or spoken word." Dylan says of MacLeish: "He also told me that there's a difference between art and propaganda and he told me the difference between the effects" (p. 112).

However, Dylan also attributes to MacLeish some expressions found in MacLeish's introduction to Sandburg, such as on p. xx, where the poet alludes to "... the comparative dimensions of ... Sappho and Sophocles, of Dante and Donne," which Dylan turns into this: "He asked me if I had read Sappho or Socrates. I said, nope, that I hadn't, and then he asked me the same about Dante and Donne." (Note the miscopying of "Socrates" for "Sophocles.") (I owe this observation to Scott Warmuth.)

It is now apparent what happened. Dylan, in the course of concocting (or reconstructing) a conversation with MacLeish, pulled from his shelves a copy of Sandburg's Complete Poems, Introduction by Archibald MacLeish, to get some ideas. However, he confused MacLeish's short introduction with Sandburg's long preface, and as a result wound up making MacLeish say a number of things that actually were said by Sandburg.

No doubt many Dylan-worshippers will now argue that this confusion is a sign of Dylan's genius. I think Bob just got his sources mixed up. It happens, especially when you're "borrowing" a lot from other writers.


Scott Warmuth said...

What I found particularly intriguing is that beyond the mixed-up confusion regarding MacLeish/Sandburg there are some delicate touches in that part of the book as well. Close examination reveals that Dylan incorporated a series of phrases from MacLeish's poem "Conquistador" into the text.

Luke Stromberg said...

This is interesting. I wrote my Master's thesis about Dylan and MacLeish. I was wondering about why Dylan claimed MacLeish went to West Point! Also, the producer of Scratch wrote his own memoir after Chronicles that completely contradicted Dylan's account of the collaboration. I contend that Dylan used his collaboration with MacLeish to make a larger point about his own inability to engage with the Public World at the time. Interestingly, MacLeish wrote a lot about poetry's place in public discourse. Dylan's early work and MacLeish's "public speech" actually have a lot in common.

Unknown said...

Re: Dylan's use of Conquistador, sounds like a good subject for a more detailed post, Scott... Dylan's borrowing style (epitomized on "Love and Theft", of which one wag quipped, 'I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we learn that every bit of speech on the album—no matter how intimate or Dylanesque—can be tracked back to another song, poem, movie, or novel') is to me fascinating--but this bit of sloppiness, while not damaging to the overall effect of Chronicles, does point up the hazards of his fictive take on autobiography.

Mike said...

Edward and Scott, Have you read Stuart Ostrow's account of the meeting between Dylan and MacLeish? He verifies that the Chronicles account is pure fabrication. According to Ostrow, he took Dylan to meet with MacLeish and Dylan spent the entire time getting plastered on MacLeish's brandy, then falling asleep, without engaging in any of the conversation regarding the projected play that Ostrow was producing (it was Ostrow's idea to get MacLeish to do the script and Dylan to do the music). Ostrow's account seems truthful, considering that it's not entirely damning of Dylan. Afterwards, Dylan invited himself to dinner at Ostrow's house and sang for the family all his hits, including a duet with his child. It comes across as another believable account of Dylan's complicated weirdness.

I go back and forth on Dylan's borrowings in Chronicles, but I can't seem to make anything out of his MacLeish story except some lazy writing, creating out of poorly chosen sources a conversation that certainly didn't occur and presenting it to us as some sort of serious exchange between poets. Thanks for shedding light on this!
Mike Roos

Luke Stromberg said...

The "New Morning" chapter seems to largely be about Dylan's inability-- or refusal-- to live up to his audiences expectations of him as a cultural leader. The story of his collaboration with MacLeish is interspersed with descriptions of how he wanted to shatter his public image and his alienation from the culture he was said to represent.

Dylan recognizes that what he and MacLeish had in common was the way in which their work "involves itself with society." He just puts these words into MacLeish's mouth. At this stage in his career, however, Dylan is no longer interested in social engagement. He wants to escape from "the rat race" and raise his wife and children in peace. Therefore, he claims, he could not make MacLeish's purpose his purpose.

Another thread that runs through the whole chapter has to do with fathers and sons. Dylan reflects on his strained relationship with his father after his death. He admired his father but had to go his own way. Dylan expresses similar sentiments about his failure to work with MacLeish. When he writes about MacLeish in Chronicles, in many ways, I feel he is writing about his father.

betty ann said...

Dylan's behavior often disappoints me, but his music never does.

Kevin said...

To this undeconstructed Boomer, this behavior is both immoral and contemptible. Not just "borrowing" other people's creative work, but carelessly tossing out imagined "facts" concerning other real human beings. For those of us who are not narcissists or sociopaths, truth, facts and other people matter.

Anonymous said...

Whatever Dylan's motives may or may not have been in, seemingly, fabricating events by misusing the words of others, it certainly indicates the lengths he has gone to to break free from the prison of his 80's slump. Japanese novelists, Henry Timrod and now this. As a life-long Dylan fan, I'm beginning to feel a little uneasy about the plagiarism. On the other hand, much of the work that has arisen from this activity is stunning. Not sure if it justifies such 'love and theft', though.