Bob Dylan at Bennington, Part One: Kathleen Norris
The year of 1968 in the United States was a tumultuous one to say the least. There was the ever-present war in Vietnam, the clash of civil rights and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., a hairy presidential election, and most uncertain of all, the debut Hawaii Five-O. It was a harsh and scary world for Bennington's graduating class of ‘69 to go into. The uncertainty that is not so unfamiliar to the world of today was a driving anxiety at the forefront of these young people’s minds. The world was changing and growing, and the little world of Bennington College wanted desperately to change and grow with it. Kathleen Norris tried to do her small part by inviting folksinger and Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan to the campus to speak at the class of ‘69’s commencement.
Letter to Bob Dylan. October 31st, 1968. From the Crossett Library Digital Photo Archives.
It should be mentioned now that Dylan did a small tour around college campuses in the early ‘60s. He came to Bennington in ‘63. According to the Kenyon College archives, he made it there in ‘64. And of course there were the famous 1963 Brandeis University recordings. But by ‘68, Bob Dylan had gone from the timid folksinger who played at the Gaslight Cafe and small liberal arts schools to full-blown electric Bob, with the glasses, the suits, the hair, and everything. An interesting juxtaposition from this version of Dylan to college senior and future writer, Kathleen Norris.
Kathleen Norris, 1968. From the Crossett Library Archives.
Just a little background on Kathleen Norris: she graduated from Bennington in 1969, studying literature and poetry. She went on to write several books of poetry, as well as several nonfiction books on spirituality and religion, her most famous being The Cloister Walk (1996). Her memoir The Virgin of Bennington (2001) recounts Norris's discovery and love of poetry and popular art while studying at Bennington, and mentions Bob Dylan nine times throughout. Some colorful lines on the subject of Dylan include, “when I first heard Bob Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman,’ with its depiction of a neurotic and vulnerable young woman strung out on speed, but still wearing her pearls, it rang so true that I could have named at least five girls who fit the description."
When I asked Norris about her letter to Dylan over Facebook messenger recently, she described the genesis of her attempted correspondence. She wrote, “I can tell you that it was written on a cast iron portable typewriter —one that my mother used in college at Northwestern in the 1930s. I used it all four years at Bennington and still have it —but ribbons for it are hard to come by.”
Morris went on to say that there had been a committee assigned the role of finding a speaker. After several more hunts through the records, I found the original ballot of speakers the committee had sent to the senior class to vote on.
Senior ballots for commencement speaker. October 11th, 1968. From Crossett Library's Digital Archive.
Norris says that she “pushed hard for Dylan, as I'd been a fan from his first album—and also hearing him at the Waikiki Shell in Honolulu—in 1962 or 1963.” She says she knew Dylan was a long shot but she “wanted to try.”
The letter went on to Dylan’s manager, according to Norris. The class of ‘69 waited. But, alas, they never heard back from the elusive Dylan, or from his manager. The speaker that year was poet Denise Levertov, to which Norris had to say, “I'd found her poetry in high school and loved it—but Dylan was my main crush!”
1969 has more in common with 2017 than one would think. We have had our fair share of troubling leaders and major world conflicts. But the question remains: Do we have someone to guide us through the turmoil? Someone to provide a lantern to illuminate the dark? It’s hard to say. I can’t help but think of what would have happened if Dylan had spoken at Bennington in 1969. Could he have changed these graduates lives with just one speech? Would he embody the moody persona that Dylan cultivated for himself in the late '60s? Or would it be uneventful— just another stock graduation speech? I like to believe it wouldn’t be the latter. We’re talking about the man who had his finger on the pulse of the nation, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. Who’s the new Dylan? And could we get them to speak here even if we didn’t have a shot in hell? Maybe it was for the best that Norris never heard back from him. Maybe the speech I have imagined is better than anything Dylan could ever give.