Bob Dylan's "Highway Shoes": The Hobo-Hero's Road through Modernity

By Kennedy, Todd | Intertexts, Spring-Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Bob Dylan's "Highway Shoes": The Hobo-Hero's Road through Modernity


Kennedy, Todd, Intertexts


In the final verse of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" (1963), the speaker proclaims, "I'm walkin' down that long, lonesome road, babe / where I'm bound, I can't tell." With no destination in sight, he seems content to remain on a perpetual, isolated journey on what he terms "the dark side of the road." Such an ethos of movement, which permeates Dylan's corpus, mirrors a dissident strain of American culture that seeks to find a Jeffersonian, individualistic freedom via movement through space outside of mainstream society. As early as Bringing It All Back Home (1965), peaking with Blood on the Tracks (1975), and persisting into his most recent work, Dylan has consistently merged aspects of blues, country, and literary traditions, to invoke images of mobility that examine individual freedom in a world where technology, fragmentation, and homogeneity seem to result in a destructive dehumanizing of individuals. In so doing, Dylan uses an intensely innovative aesthetic as he ambivalently romanticizes uprooted wandering in a manner that both mirrors and expands upon what I term an ontology of the hobo-hero that permeates American letters from Walt Whitman to John Dos Passos (and beyond) as it glorifies those who remain in constant motion in order to maintain a sense of integrated self in the face of crushing modernity.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari similarly identify such an ontology within American culture when they, in A Thousand Plateaus, declare America a "special case" defined by its ceaseless search for a "rhizome," or a "space in which two things that have nothing to do with one another form a parallel constructed by the mind. It is not imitation or resemblance, but becoming" (10). For Deleuze, Guattari, and, as I argue, Bob Dylan, the rhizome occupies a singular place within American letters. In other words, Deleuze and Guattari admit that America "is not immune from [...] the search for roots" in its "quest for a national identity or even for a European ancestry or genealogy (Kerouac going off in search for his ancestors)," yet they adamantly assert,

  everything important that has happened or is happening takes the
  route of the American rhizome [...]. American books are different
  from European books, even when Americans set off in search of trees.
  The conception of the book is different. Leaves of Grass. And
  directions in America are different: the search for arborescence and
  the return to the Old World occur in the East. But there is the
  rhizomatic West, with its Indians without ancestry, its ever-receding
  limit, its shifting and displaced frontiers. (19)

Such an assertion should come as no surprise, I would argue, since, beginning with the earliest attempts to define "America," Americans have seen their identity linked to mobility. In fact, the lone commonality that Americans share is descent from immigrants who came to the United States from a "home" or "homeland" where cultural identity was not far removed from national identity. It would stand to reason, therefore, that a group of uprooted individuals thrust into a self-declared melting pot would begin to define themselves by their dislocation. For instance, eighteenth-century French immigrant J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur claimed that, within the American continent, "individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men" (44) as America represents, for Crevecoeur, an "asylum" in which "the poor of Europe have by some means met together" (42). Crevecoeur proceeded to privilege those people, such as farmers, who planted "roots" as they helped to build and improve their society, but Crevecoeur's assertion that we are united by our mutual uprootedness proves indicative of what critic Robert James Butler has observed as a recurrent American "quest for pure motion" (80, emphasis in original). Or, one encounters what the novelist John Steinbeck claimed he perceived in "nearly every American": a "burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here" (10). …

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