Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Bob Dylan

June 6, 2005 | 13 comments
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Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, published last year, is not so much a memoir or autobiography, but rather a series of snapshots, each drenched in cultural references, that together create a approximation of Mr. Zimmerman’s character. One of those snapshots gives us Dylan living in an apartment in Greenwich Village owned by a mysterious autodidact named Ray. It’s 1960, Dylan is new to New York, and unknown to the burgeoning folk scene in New York. He hasn’t yet written his first song, but he knows about Joseph Smith and the Adam-God theory.

Ray’s library, among other things, makes an enormous impression on Dylan, and all these years later he recounts his encounter with the great literature of the world, including an unidentified Joseph Smith book:

“Up until this time I’d been raised in a cultural spectrum that had left my mind black with soot. Brando. James Dean. Milton Berle. Marilyn Monroe. Lucy. Earl Warren and Khruschev, Castro. Little Rock and Peyton Place. Tenessee Williams and Joe DiMaggio. J. Edgar Hoover and Westinghouse. The Nelsons. Holiday Inns and hot-rod Chevys. Mickey Spillane and Joe McCarthy. Levittown.

“Standing in this room [Ray's library] you could take it all for a joke. There were all types of things in here, books on typography, epigraphy, philosophy, political ideologies. The stuff that could make you bugged-eyed. Books like Fox’s Book of Martyrs, The Twelve Caesars, Tacitus lectures and letters to Brutus. Pericles’ Ideal State of Democracy, Thucydides’ The Athenian General – a narrative which would give you chills. It was written four hundred years before Christ and it talks about how human nature is always the enemy of anything superior. Thucydides writes about how words in his time have changed from their ordinary meaning, how actions and opinions can be altered in the blink of an eye. It’s like nothing has changed from his time to mine.

“There were novels by Gogol and Balzac, Maupassant, Hugo and Dickens. I usually opened up some book to the middle, read a few pages and if I liked it went back to the beginning. * * * A lot of these books were too big to read, like giant shoes fitted for large-footed people. I read the poetry books, mostly. Byron and Shelley and Longfellow and Poe. I memorized Poe’s poem “The Bells” and strummed it to a melody on my guitar. There was a book there on Joseph Smith, the authentic American prophet who identifies himself with Enoch in the Bible and says that Adam was the first man-god. This stuff pales in comparison to Thucydides, too. The books make the room vibrate in a nauseating and forceful way. The words of “La Vita Solitaria” by Leopardi seemed to come out of the trunk of a tree, hopeless, uncrushable sentiments.”

I wonder what book it was. Any guesses?

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13 Responses to Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Bob Dylan

  1. danithew on June 6, 2005 at 4:59 pm

    I don’t know but this Chronicles book is another must-read on my list.

  2. Kingsley on June 6, 2005 at 5:25 pm

    I think Dylan has since read Bloom (or seen him on a TV program, etc.) & is not necessarily describing his discovery in the 60s. Long live Dylan. How nice to read the memoir of an important pop icon & not be disappointed by their ultimate shallowness & pseudo-intellectualism (e.g., Billy Corgan).

  3. Justin on June 6, 2005 at 5:26 pm

    I agree, the verbiage reminds me of Harold Bloom. In Omens of Millennium, Bloom writes: “Even as Muhammad is ‘the seal of the prophets,’ the final messenger, for Islam, so Smith is for his Latter-Day Saints. While Muhammad remains just that for Islam, Mormonism is a more radical doctrine, and Joseph Smith doubtless by now is is a resurrected angel, another god-man, working for the welfare of the world’s 10 million or so Mormons. One sees why Smith was fascinated by Enoch, and actually identified himself with that extraordinary being. In his own final phase, Smith evidently studied Kabbalah, and came to understand that as the resurrected Enoch his ultimate transformation would be into the angel Metatron, the ‘lesser Yahweh,’ who is also the angel Michael and resurrected Adam” (p. 80).

    Bloom also calls Smith the “greatest and most authentic of American prophets, seers, and revelators” (p. 224).

  4. Justin on June 6, 2005 at 5:35 pm

    My guess is that the book on Joseph Smith was Fawn Brodie’s biography.

  5. Greg Call on June 6, 2005 at 5:47 pm

    Danithew: I’m only partway through, but so far I think Chronicles’ spot on your list is well-deserved.

    Kingsley and Justin: Good call on Bloom. You are probably right that Dylan’s current thoughts on Smith come from Bloom or someone that has read Bloom. I am trying to remember if Ms. Brodie also discusses the connection with Enoch, or mentions Adam-God. Another candidate for the book on Ray’s shelves is John Henry Evans’ Joseph Smith, An American Prophet (MacMillan, 1933). As a missionary, I saw that one on a lot of well-read nonmembers’ shelves.

  6. Kingsley on June 6, 2005 at 5:57 pm

    I thought of Evans, too, given Dylan’s “authentic American prophet” remark. Evans seems to insist on that in a unique way (unique, that is, from ordinary believing insistance — I bear you my testimony, etc.). But Evans doesn’t emphasize Enoch a whole lot. Neither does Brodie (from what I remember). Not in the way Dylan’s describing, at least. That’s pure Bloom, baby!

  7. Kingsley on June 6, 2005 at 5:58 pm

    Insistence, good Lord. Editors, swoop down & save me from myself.

  8. Jim F. on June 6, 2005 at 6:11 pm

    Kingsley, you get editors only for real publications, not for blogs. At best (or is it worst?) we are merely censors.

  9. Kingsley on June 6, 2005 at 6:20 pm

    Well, the other day when I mangled a comment 2 or 3 times (as is my wont) some editorial angel descended & cleaned up the mess.

  10. A. Greenwood on June 6, 2005 at 6:48 pm

    Your bloggard (web log guardian)?

  11. Kingsley on June 6, 2005 at 6:52 pm

    Or perhaps my bogart, Harry Potter fans. Kristine, was that you?!

  12. Justin on June 6, 2005 at 7:41 pm

    I picked Brodie as the book in the 1960 library simply because of its general popularity. After looking through it, I don’t see it as a viable source for what Dylan says about Joseph Smith (Enoch, Adam-God, etc.).

  13. Jim F. on June 6, 2005 at 10:44 pm

    Dylan could easily be conflating his early memory of reading Brody or Evans with his later one of reading Bloom.