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Is This The Great American Novel? Some Notes on Bruce Springsteen.

I’m not sure. I pose this as an open-ended question. I may change my mind even before I finish writing.

I came to the party late. As Jon Stewart put it, I didn’t get Springsteen at first, until I began to question what was going on in my own life.

At first it seemed a mostly bad voice, and a few repetitive lines about cars and bad jobs, or no jobs. Later when I like millions of others was hijacked by the destruction of the country, it all made much more sense.

Before Springsteen there are two truly great poet performers on our national stage – Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.

There have been others with impressive and even great prose-poems, some having achieved a veneration worth defending as fortresses, to be held against the barbarians preaching conformity or about how we’re all going to the devil. It’s worth noting that there is also the issue of which narrative we chose to signify – Country and Western, Rap, The Blues, jazz – all have their heroes.

Simon’s elegance for me places him alongside e.e. cummings not for a particular Modernist playfulness but as a consummate poet of softness – like a table set well for a good meal, or a Fall day in Central Park and the sun is splashing on the leaves and the mood drifts from wistful, to melancholy to the sublime. Graceland is a masterpiece but I am not qualified to speak of its musical craftsmanship except to say I admire it and enjoy it but, the writing -and I will not say lyrics, because the language here is as refined and precise as anything by any American poet or novelist – is of a rare quality that captures the nuance, the difficulties and the mysteries of life.

The essential voice in Simon’s writing is a romanticism, and the pain in the songs is not the terror of dead end jobs, in dessicated post industrial rust belt cities, and towns – Simon does not write about the Freeholds of America even when he writes of being poor or looking for work. And when he writes of failed romances it is not the failure brought on because of a lack of work or the dead hand laid on love by the soul-crushing routine of stultifying labor – Simon does not write The River though he does write of a good day having no rain, and the failure of love in the face of our shared alienated landscape.

The point of aesthetic friction for me rests though with the music in that while lyrical, The Great Gatsby does not make one want to dance or sing – at least not normally or as a matter of course. This is the advantage music has and when joined by writing that is as profound and mysterious and elegant as the best poetry or prose – music achieves something unavailable to the other arts.

But I leave off with Simon because while there is much of his best work that depicts the brutal truths of America, that capture the price paid for our dream, our romantic ideal in the face of our institutional hypocrisies, there is precisely because of Simon’s elegance, something that holds him away from the muscle car magic and mysticism that is essential and quintessentially at the heart of American rock and roll. The open road in Simon’s America – the elusive place we search for inside of ourselves that will define the world around us, is not a working class journey though his characters may have to work. Their America is more likely to include the Modern or the MOMA than a chop-shop or the lights on a freeway even when they are riding a Greyhound – to put it another way, there are not a lot of men in gabardine suits in Springsteen’s America. But I do not want to leave off with a wrong impression – the search for Dimaggio is as central to the American narrative, to this epic we call America as Ahab’s search for the whale.

With Dylan the aesthetic considerations change again. And again. Picassoesque in his output, and as had been said elsewhere, mystic, provocateur, clown, rebel, crank, an American Rimbaud – as Patti Smith rightly put it in an effort to contextualize his winning the Nobel – he is, in a sense the Baptist to the Rock messiah to come and I do not use the religious reference lightly. There is no reason except narrowness of vision, or prejudice, or strident provincialism that would preclude that facet of our consideration – for both of them have wrestled with those stories of god’s adherence to being unaccountable, and god’s insistence on their obedience to him. You must be putin’ me on…you go do what you want Abe but, the next time you see me commin, you better run….is as viable and legitimate an artistic riff on the timeless questions of faith and consequence and god as anything anyone else has written and in an era after the bomb, in a time seemingly willing to engage in epic sprees of random brutality, it holds the power to convey the uncomfortable truths.

In Dylan’s winning the prize we obviously have yet another political decision by the committee in a long line of such decisions. After all, it’s hard to take the damn thing seriously when you ignore James Joyce but honor Knut Hamsun, and in honoring Dylan they clearly were aiming to say something to America and its place in the world, just as surely as when they threw it at Obama because they were so sick to death of Bush and Cheney.

And yet, who am I to say Dylan does not deserve it on the merits of his work? I said recently, speaking of Ginsberg, that he was in many respects a minor poet who only wrote three great poems, but that was like saying he was a minor baseball player who only ever hit three home runs – to win the World Series, to win the Pennant, and one that went further then any other ever hit by anyone else and for that, they give you a spot in Cooperstown.

In the case of Dylan there is much that sounds odd or does not scan well but there is so much that is so good, so provocative so mysterious and to be chewed over again and again; to be argued and held close in purple hours among ghosts singing their cathedral blues, that only a dilatant could deny him his place among the great writers.

In early Springsteen, as has been noted elsewhere and by Springsteen himself, one hears Dylan but in Dylan one hears America and as someone said of early Hemingway he learned from others – Stein, Anderson…and himself…which is the case with genius.

Paul McCartney, one of the handful of contemporary geniuses of music, displays a plasticity that reminds us of Picasso who had really only a handful of images but within that limited toolbox, he maintained a repertoire as vast as an ocean. McCartney, one sees, and hears, takes a vaudeville tune, or Bach, and mutates, transforms it – performs the alchemy of art and produces, art that is at once familiar and unique.

This is true in all art. This is true of Dylan, or Simon and of Springsteen.

The artist is of their time and yet outside of time. Picasso is forever or at least until the seas rise and the air becomes unbreathable. Hemingway, or Faulkner or insert genius of your choosing, are also in the same way eternal and specific to a time and a place. This is a curious and mysterious quality of art. You can, as Pound instructed, make it new but that is not the same as making it from thin air. It is a paradox – to make the old new again is to be both looking to the past, capturing the present and always having one eye on the nearest exit.

The rape of America, the slave auction of the national dowry that has been the wholesale liquidation of the industrial base and the middle class for the benefit of the ruling class – what is now called the 1% – is analogous to Germany between the wars and as befits a social hellscape we now must contend with a postmodern Caligula who, make no mistake, will never go quietly but will, in effect, lock himself in his bunker while the legislative bombs fall around him. His goal will be to take us down with him. Should there be an impeachment, disguising a coup or simply the dreary legal facts of obstruction leading to a trial in the senate, it is inevitable that people will ask how we arrived at such a destination. The professional whores in the corporate media will have their say but we can safely start ignoring them now.

He will not, like Nixon, a monster but still and always a creature of the system, wave definitely from the steps of Marine One as he rides off into exile.

No, this will be an American twilight.

And the desperation, the loneliness, the rage, the slim measures of hope in the face of unrelenting loss – the anxiety in the face of a god who demands but never explains, who punishes but will not reveal purpose, must have its voices.

What else shall we say except that taken as a whole, from Greetings from Asbury Park until whatever comes next, taken as chapters in a conversation between the poet and his audience, between the poet of the National soul and the soul of the nation, that this is The Great American Novel.

I am uncertain.

I am uncertain if this is true or half wrong, and partially correct, or completely false or entirely true.

It is a labyrinth and that it seems to me, is appropriate. It is appropriate because this nation is as they say a multitude, and the voices are many and for someone else there surely is another voice that speaks to the reality they know and is for them the national character. I embrace the idea that these ideas are not mutually exclusive and I believe that the novel, precisely because of its range and capacity to be of a vast length, or poignant in relative brevity, is ideally suited to express the totality of the national story; this epic we call America. And yet, a dozen albums as a dozen chapters in an epic, in a saga, is not on the face of it a false aesthetic consideration as The Great American Novel.

If there is a lack, a flaw in the thesis it is similar to what John Gardner said of Steinbeck and how he said, it kept Grapes of Wrath from being the American War and Peace.

There are, wrote Gardner, no bankers in it, and that is a fatal flaw that keeps it from being a comprehensive vision.

It would be unfair to accuse Springsteen of failing to achieve something he was not attempting, and so one hesitates to both fix his position or find fault with his achievement. And still, he has brought to us a vision that is wide and deep and speaks to, and is the voice of a time in our story, that marks him as a great writer.

In The Devil’s Arcade, from Magic, written at the height of the catastrophe that was the Bush-Cheney junta, he reaches for the story of others – not bankers, not executives, not then of the vision Gardner called for, but still of the wounded in body and soul who could be from anywhere, and of any class and he does so in a tone, in a language that makes the old new again; that nails to our hearts – like a thesis to a church door – the details of our time but holds for our consideration stories that exist in any and all times.

Heroes, he says, are needed, so heroes get made.

That is, existentialism 101; a meditation on fate and free will and a thousand other things.

In this there is nothing there that you can not also find in Hemingway’s early stories, about soldiers coming home from another war.

The mark of great writing then is just that – to be specifically unmistakably of the moment and to be specifically unmistakably of every moment.

Still, Gypsy Biker – “the speculators made their money on the blood you shed…” – is an accusation, an indictment but it is of the workers not the officers and the lack here if it exists at all, is the absence of the humanity that can be found in the man who owns the factory as much as in the men who worked in it…until it closed and the jobs went overseas.

I speak of Jungleland…and The Magic Rat and the poets who don’t write nothing at all and all the silence in the world…

Dylan plays with this – pokes at Springsteen as much as he compliments him in his Traveling Wilburys masterpiece – Skeeter and the Monkey Man – with its synthesis of Dylan’s poetic lack of clarity that still evokes and provokes, and the classic Springsteen themes of industrial landscapes that are stages for opera.

But again, the Rat and the Beautiful Girl are the people he knew not the people throwing parties across the sound from where Fitzgerald and his friend Ring sat and made up stories about the swells, and eventually became Gatsby and yet, it is an epic; a hard edged engine of Americana. It is a masterpiece and the line – From the churches to the jails tonight all the silence in the world  – is however, across the line – it transcends class, it answers Gardner, because it is all of us and it is our story, our world our struggle. It is America and it is the America that knows it lives under the shadow of that giant Exxon sign, that in its corruption, brings our fair city light.

Here then, this must be considered worthy of the question with which we began.

Here then, I say yes. There is greatness here.

And let us speak of Streets of Philadelphia, and Tunnel of Love where as Bono said during Springsteen’s Hall of Fame Introduction – he began to hack away at himself, at his own myth, before anyone else could. The work of a great artist, the desire, the need, to grow even at the risk of losing what has previously worked to near perfection.

These are also stories of the rest of us, not just working class men and women defined by factories unions and the collapse, but men and women defined by being men and women in the endless back and forth of their eternal struggle to be with each other, and to be themselves. Yes it is apples and oranges, and yet I would sooner trust Springsteen to speak about this than Updike or Roth and though they move around it, and are in a sense defined by the same terrain, there is more power and depth in Springsteen’s conflicted lovers then in the men and women of Ray Carver who always struck me as Hemingway lite, handcrafted by Captain Fiction to suit the demands of production rather than the demands of the art.

I’m thinking of John Landau. Was it Landau who said Springsteen was Steinbeck in leather?

Still if like Steinbeck there is a flaw in the work, that absence of bankers, I’m not sure it matters. Like Dylan, like Hemingway or Picasso, the body of work becomes so vast, so complex so much about itself, as it is about all of us that he is transformed and the criticism ceases to matter. Only partisan hacks insist Faulkner is better than Hemingway. The truth is it’s a matter of taste not superiority. Coltrane or Rollins? Mingus or Monk? Beatles or Stones?


I’m thinking of The Ghost of Tom Joadwelcome to the new world order…

I’m thinking of Springsteen playing the Superbowl halftime show, laying claim to the right to be as much of a patriot as anyone else, and the right (for himself and on our behalf) to define it in a manner that suits us.

I can’t complain and call it selling out…after all, Hemingway did print ads for Ballantine beer…*

Bathing in the city aqueduct speaks to the specifics of our time and the inherent sadism of the system. But:

“He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag

Preacher lights up a butt and he takes a drag

Waiting for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last

In a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass

You got a one-way ticket to the promised land

You got a hole in your belly and a gun in your hand

Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock…”

is universal and timeless.

If rock music can achieve this than by definition it can achieve anything and it can, and should rightly be judged on the same scale as any poetry or novel and in this case, it is the equal of any poem or novel.

This then is who we are. Not only as Americans but as children of this world. I could go on – Nebraska…Darkness on the Edge of TownYoungstownThe River which strikes me as the raw working class version of Eleanor RigbyThe Rising with its tortured Catholic plea for mercy and redemption for him and for all of us.

I began with a question. I may change my mind but now it seems to me the answer is yes.

I only hope that we endure and that somewhere down the road, someone as yet unborn comes into this world and hears a story about how we stood on the brink of the abyss, watching the oceans rise and the air turn to rust and somehow, at nearly the last moment, we persisted and did not retreat or surrender.



*See the link below for details regarding Hemingway’s advertising for Ballantine Beer.





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