I was toying with the idea of writing my column on the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan when I read our colleague Andrew Klavan’s column, in which he argues that the award is an example of how our culture is entering “a spiral of decadence.” Andrew’s assessment made it a topic I could not avoid, and hence I now write to defend the Nobel committe’s choice.
Essentially, Klavan’s argument is that while Dylan wrote some good songs, they are not literature, especially great literature. He compares it to the farce of Barack Obama receiving a Nobel Peace Prize before he had a chance to do anything. I would argue that Obama’s unearned award is not a reason for believing Dylan does not deserve one. Dylan, after all, has a huge body of work with which to appraise his contribution to literature. He did not win the award having only written “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Second, Andrew writes that “popular songs are not poetry and they’re not literature.” He should have added, “to me.” Because scholars far more acquainted with great literature than most have argued quite the opposite. Dylan is well-read, as anyone can see from the various references to major literary figures throughout his work. The first source one should consult when writing about this question is Christopher Ricks’ Dylan’s Visions of Sin. Ricks, considered one of the most distinguished literary critics in the West, teaches the subject at Boston University, where he holds a chair in the humanities. Before that he was a professor of poetry at Oxford University. Ricks is known as an opponent of the politically correct English professors who call themselves post-modernist and post-structuralist. If you want to see how many scholarly books he has written, check out his Wikipedia page.
Ricks’ book demonstrates the ways in which Dylan’s verses are indeed literature. His discussion, for example, of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” which most people incorrectly take as a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis, puts the song within the context of Twelfth Night, The Dunciad, the Scottish ballad “Lord Randal,” Sidney’s Arcadia, Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” Paradise Lost, and A Shropshire Lad. In other words, Ricks takes Dylan’s writing as seriously as any of the great masters, and shows how they are in fact on the same plane.
Or, one can look at Benjamin Wright’s four-year old essay on Dylan’s literary world, published in the aptly named Highbrow Magazine. He points out:
The literary characters, themes, and lines that have populated the world of Dylan’s musical landscape have been as deep and varied over the years as his references to history and the folk tradition. In his early years, Dylan was significantly touched by the American Beats—by Kerouac’s On the Road, and also by the poetry of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti—and by French symbolists like Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. Both Verlaine and Rimbaud are mentioned specifically in the Blood on the Tracks song “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”
Other literary figures whose works have popped up in the landscape of Dylan’s music over the years have been varied, including Lewis Carroll (“Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum”), Anton Chekhov (Blood on the Tracks), Arthur Conan Doyle (“Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues”), F. Scott Fitzgerald (“Ballad of a Thin Man” and “Summer Days”), the Brothers Grimm (Highway 61 Revisited and “Sara”), Victor Hugo (“Desolation Row”), Herman Melville (“Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream” and “Lo and Behold!”), Friedrich Nietzsche and Wilhelm Reich (“Joey”), Junichi Saga (quoted often on Modern Times) and John Greenleeaf Whittier (“Scarlet Town”). Of course, this is only a small sampling of some of the more direct references made over the course of the prolific and intricate fifty-year career of rock and roll’s poet laureate.
He goes on to point out that:
In Chronicles, Dylan opens up more about the writers that shaped his ideas over the years, from Enlightenment-era thinkers like Voltaire, Rousseau, Locke and Montesquieu, to Modernists like Eliot, Fitzgerald and Faulkner (whom Dylan says he “didn’t quite get”), and to Beat writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso. Dylan’s literary influences actually stretch all across the spectrum, including writers from many diverse literary movements. There were the romantics like Victor Hugo, the realists like Honoré de Balzac (whom Dylan finds “hilarious”), theorists like Nietzsche, Marx and Clausewitz, and the classic Greek and Roman writers like Thucydides, Sophocles and Ovid. Of course, it was poetry most of all that moved Dylan. Ellen Willis writes that “[Dylan] had less in common with the left than with literary rebels—Blake, Whitman, Rimbaud, Crane, Ginsberg”—mostly poets—and later describes Dylan as a man whose admirers look at him as “a poet using rock-and-roll to spread his art.”
Andrew Klavan sees Dylan’s award as a farce, and writes that one “could likewise spend two years studying, ‘It ain’t me babe. no, no, no it ain’t me babe,’” but that you would only be “making as bag an ass of yourself as did the Nobel Committee.” Sure, but I have not seen anyone spend any time analyzing that particular song. Perhaps Dylan wanted to show that he too could knock off a pop song that top recording artists would immediately cover and get a hit from. To single this one song out from a giant oeuvre is more than unfair, it is deceitful. (The only one singing that particular song was perhaps Philip Roth, who, upon hearing the news that Dylan got it, burst out singing those words in sorrow.) Dylan did write some songs, like the hardly remembered “George Jackson,” that are like this one pure agitprop for the Black Panthers. It’s no surprise that it never even turns up on bootlegs, or that Dylan hasn’t re-released it.
Dylan is also keen student of the Bible, and throughout many of his songs references from the Bible abound. The writer Seth Rogovy has written an entire book about Dylan and his religious odyssey, particularly his strong connection to Judaism. Rogovy writes:
It helps to see Dylan in the context of the biblical prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, both in terms of subject matter, and his relationship to the people he’s prophesying to. The main purpose was to scold. You’re not living up to your end of the bargain. He’s berating them for not living up to the moral and ethical agreements they have and warning them of the consequences. Bob Dylan has done that from the very beginning and he’s still doing it.
So let me end with a critical appraisal that appears in the latest issue of The Weekly Standard by Andrew Ferguson, who acknowledges that Dylan is “an impressive man worthy of admiration, affection, and respect,” and asks that everyone simply “leave it at that.” Ferguson argues that nevertheless, in his eyes, Bob Dylan does not deserve a Nobel Prize in Literature. That is a fair argument, and there will be different takes on the question. But at least Ferguson respects and honors Dylan as an artist and songwriter. (Although I recall he had a scathing review a few years ago of Dylan’s Christmas album, which in fact few people liked.)
It certainly may be true that those who see Dylan as much more than a mere singer-songwriter, like historian Sean Wilentz, who wrote an entire book about Dylan and America, are so favorable to Dylan because they literally grew up with Dylan and have followed him from the start of his career. (I reviewed the Wilentz book here.) I admit that is certainly the case with me. Indeed, I knew Dylan before he ever hit New York City, and he told me straightforwardly that he would be the biggest star, play major arenas, and be far more famous than Elvis. Dylan was 18 then!
Anyway, his Nobel Prize is a done deal. It will be interesting to see what Dylan will say in his acceptance speech. Or maybe he won’t show up and will have someone receive it in his name. With Dylan, one can always expect a surprise.