Told not to say ‘gay’ in graduation speech, he made his point anyway

Fall books from university presses on the news—and Dylan

Following my first look at the fall’s university press offerings, back around Memorial Day, almost 30 more catalogs have come out. So here’s another quick scan of the horizon, in search of patterns or themes. Plenty of important and interesting books are slated for publication. No claim to a representative survey, let alone comprehensiveness, is implied—just a quick notice of some volumes of general interest.

Many titles feel ripped from today’s headlines, with The Peaceful Transfer of Power: An Oral History of America’s Presidential Transitions (University of Virginia Press, October) as a case in point. Throughout the year leading up to January 2021, the authors—David Marchick, Alexander Tippett and A. J. Wilson—ran a podcast called Transition Lab featuring “interviews with scholars, journalists, public servants, and—most important—participants in every transition from Ford–Carter to Trump–Biden.” (All quotations here are taken from publishers’ catalogs or websites.) Their book blends the podcast exchanges into a narrative of “the long history, complexity, and current best practices associated with this most vital of democratic institutions.”

The federal judiciary was once regarded as virtually immune to electoral pressures, but Paul D. Moreno’s How the Court Became Supreme: The Origins of American Juristocracy (Louisiana State University Press, September) focuses on the Supreme Court’s growing entanglement with the executive and legislative branches. Despite constitutional provision of “a multitude of safeguards to prevent judicial overreach,” the court now “effectively possess[es] the ability to police elections and choose presidents,” arguably “harming rather than bolstering constitutional democracy.” The author “tells the story of the origin and development of this problem, proposing solutions that might compel the Court to embrace its more traditional role in our constitutional republic.”

Looking closer to the ballot box itself, Don Waisanen, Sonia R. Jarvis and Nicole A. Gordon’s States of Confusion: How Our Voter ID Laws Fail Democracy and What to Do About It (NYU Press, January) finds that “the number of voter ID laws has skyrocketed, limiting the ability of nearly twenty-five million eligible voters from exercising their constitutional right to cast a vote.” Examining “hundreds of online surveys, audits of 150 election offices, community focus groups, and more,” the authors investigate 10 states with strict voter ID requirements; they call for “uniform national voter identification standards that are simple, accessible, and cost-free.”

As counterintuitive titles go, it would be hard to improve upon Cynthia Burack’s How Trump and the Christian Right Saved LGBTI Human Rights: A Religious Freedom Mystery (SUNY Press, August). For the Christian right, treating sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) as a concern to be addressed in U.S. foreign policy was one more Obama administration abomination—one that their preferred candidate in 2016 would surely terminate, once in office. And yet he did not. It was never a priority, nor did “Christian conservative US officials and elites do everything in their power to publicize, curb, defund, and undermine US support for SOGI.” The book offers a case study in “the indifference, mendacity, and political interests at play in Trump’s alliance with Christian right elites.”

A volume born of grim necessity, Jaclyn Schildkraut and Amanda B. Nickerson’s Lockdown Drills: Connecting Research and Best Practices for School Administrators, Teachers, and Parents (MIT Press, September) argues for the importance of such drills as part of a K-12 system’s emergency-preparedness planning. The authors combine “discussion of the perceptions and psychological impacts of lockdown drills with scholarly research on the extent to which lockdown drills improve how effectively individuals respond to a potential threat.” Today’s worst-case scenarios are too frequent to ignore.

While the weather is currently set on broil, it’s worth remembering the impact of the other extreme. David A. Call’s Superstorm 1950: The Greatest Simultaneous Blizzard, Ice Storm, Windstorm, and Cold Outbreak of the Twentieth Century (Purdue University Press, January) recounts how “the greatest storm of the twentieth century crippled the eastern United States, affecting more than 100 million people” in November 1950. While “two other storms that affected the US mainland since then, both hurricanes, have exceeded its death toll,” it was “the most costly weather-related disaster when it occurred”—and a reprise in the present day “would likely be the most expensive weather disaster ever in the United States.”

Moving from the particular to the general, we have a translation of Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s How to Think About Catastrophe: Toward a Theory of Enlightened Doomsaying (Michigan State University Press, November). The author—a co-thinker of the late René Girard, whose concepts of mimetic desire and sacrificial violence have had an interdisciplinary impact—“examines different kinds of catastrophes that range from natural (e.g., earthquakes) to industrial (e.g., Chernobyl) and concludes that the traditional distinctions between them are only becoming blurrier by the day.” We require “a general theory of catastrophes—a new form of apocalyptic thinking that is grounded in science and philosophy,” able to advance “a new way of thinking about the future as it examines catastrophe and the human response.”

Ezra Pound once characterized literature as “news that stays news,” and Bob Dylan’s apocalyptic dispatch “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” remains as urgent now as when he wrote it, 60 years ago. Alessandro Portelli’s Hard Rain: Bob Dylan, Oral Cultures, and the Meaning of History (Columbia University Press, May) actually appeared in late spring, but it belongs in this fall roundup given the season’s conspicuous output of university-press titles on the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Dylan’s surreal juxtaposition of images in the song, while “relevant to the post-nuclear nightmares and youth movements of the 1960s,” also prefigure “contemporary concerns about environmental crisis, racism, and mass migrations,” while also drawing on “the British traditional ballad ‘Lord Randal’ and the 17th-century Italian ballad ‘Il testamento dell’avvelenato.’” Portelli’s concern is with “how Dylan was able to use the folk tradition of the ballad combined with a modern sensibility to creatively question the meaning and direction of history.”

As it happens, the four Dylanologists with books this fall also focus on his poetics and historical sensibility. Raphael Falco’s No One to Meet: Imitation and Originality in the Songs of Bob Dylan (University of Alabama Press, October) draws on the songwriter’s “previously unseen manuscript excerpts and archival materials” to trace “the similarity between what Renaissance writers called imitatio and the way Dylan borrows, digests, and transforms traditional songs.”

In Bob Dylan in the Attic: The Artist as Historian (University of Massachusetts Press, December), Freddy Cristóbal Domínguez recalls a warning by Dylan’s early mentor Dave Van Ronk: “You’re just going to be a history book writer if you do those things. An anachronism.” Domínguez celebrates what Van Ronk deplored, “offering a deep consideration of the musician’s historical influences and practices” and Dylan’s role in “helping listeners to think about history, and history making, in new ways.”

Dick Weissman’s Bob Dylan’s New York: A Historic Guide (SUNY Press, November) “places Dylan’s early career in the storied history of Greenwich Village, a hotbed of new developments in the arts,” as well as “the many areas of the city where Dylan lived and worked,” plus his time upstate, in Woodstock. The author provides 10 “easy-to-follow walking maps and historic photographs, allowing the reader to retrace Dylan’s footsteps and simultaneously experience Dylan’s New York and contemporary New York.” This may be the first university-press book to include its own walking tours.

Finally, Greil Marcus’s Folk Music: A Bob Dylan Biography in Seven Songs (Yale University Press, October) takes its bearings from “Dylan’s ability to ‘see myself in others’” and to feel his way into the “rich history of American folk songs.” Besides offering “a deeply felt telling of the life and times of Bob Dylan,” the author honors his example at a time when “such capacious imaginative identification with the other is in short supply.”