There has been ferment among the literati since Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Many say that however well Dylan does what he does, it is not literature.
Dylan did not go to Stockholm last week to collect his prize, which the Swedish Academy says was awarded “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Well, then:
“God said to Abraham, ‘Kill me a son’
Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me on’ ”
“Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood
With his memories in a trunk
Passed this way an hour ago
With his friend, a jealous monk
He looked so immaculately frightful
As he bummed a cigarette
Then he went off sniffing drainpipes
And reciting the alphabet
Now you would not think to look at him
But he was famous long ago
For playing the electric violin
On Desolation Row”
The New York Times primly notes that the academy is famous for “its at times almost willful perversity in picking winners.” Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh (“Trainspotting”) professes himself “a Dylan fan” but tweeted that the Nobel is “an ill-conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” Strong letter to follow.
One critic says that the more than 150 books on Dylan are “a library woozy with humid overstatement and baby boomer mythology.” A sample of the humidity is: “Dylan seemed less to occupy a turning point in cultural space and time than to be that turning point.” But Dylan should not be blamed for the hyperventilating caused by DSD — Dylan Derangement Syndrome. Besides, Dylan has collected a Pulitzer Prize for “lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power,” so there.
Now 75, he was born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, Minn., and lived in Hibbing, Minn., 150 miles from Sauk Centre, Minn., home of Sinclair Lewis, who won the 1930 Nobel for literature (“Babbitt,” “Elmer Gantry”). This was evidence of abruptly defining literature down: Thomas Mann won in 1929. If you recognize even one-third of the 113 literature prize winners since 1901, you need to get out of the house more. Philip Roth has not won, a fact that would cost the Swedish Academy its reputation for seriousness, if it had one.
The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Ferguson would win the Nobel Prize for Common Sense, if there were one. He notes that by not taking himself too seriously or encouraging others to do so, Dylan has “proved two propositions that seemed increasingly unlikely in the age of media-saturation: You can shun publicity and still be hugely famous, and you can be hugely famous and not be obnoxious about it.” For this, Dylan deserves some sort of prize. Ferguson laments that it is evidently impossible to take Dylan “for what he is, an impressive man worthy of admiration, affection and respect, and leave it at that.”
Impossible. In an age of ever-more-extravagant attention-getting yelps about everything, people have tumbled over one another reaching for encomia, such as this from a Harvard professor: “Dylan has surpassed Walt Whitman as the defining American artist.”
(Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, Wharton, Fitzgerald, Faulkner?)
If song lyrics are literature, why did the academy discover this with Dylan and not Stephen Sondheim (from “West Side Story” on)? Last year, the literature prize was won by Belarusia’s Svetlana Alexievich, whose specialty is interviews woven into skillfully wrought books (e.g., “Secondhand Time”). They are highly informative, even moving, but are they literature?
Sean Wilentz, Princeton professor of American history, grew up in New York City near the end of its red-tinged folk revival and was 13 when he attended Dylan’s 1964 concert at Manhattan’s Philharmonic Hall. Wilentz’s book “Bob Dylan in America,” which would better have been titled “America in Bob Dylan,” interestingly locates him in the stream of American culture and celebrates him for expanding his range as relentlessly as he has toured — more than 1,400 shows in this century. Wilentz recalls how Dylan “going electric” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival scandalized “the fetishists of authenticity,” but Dylan did not look back. “He sees,” Wilentz says, “a kind of literature in performance.” If that is so, then is Mike Trout, baseball’s best performer, doing literature for the Los Angeles Angels? Literature is becoming a classification that no longer classifies.
Never mind. Just enjoy the music of the surprising man who in 1961 arrived in Greenwich Village and who once said “my favorite politician was Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater.”
George Will’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.