by Denise Sullivan
The Thursday morning announcement that Bob Dylan has won the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature seems to have struck a raw nerve among (mostly) male novelists and some crabby millennials on social media who were intent on disputing the 75-year-old American songwriter's worthiness of the honor. We wish to respond by saying they are entirely wrong: Dylan is an extraordinary figure. He's withstood serving as a cultural weathervane for over 50 years while flourishing as a writer. As a literary artist, we will never again see his likes in our lifetimes. That we lived in his age and were able to see him perform his written work just happens to have been our good luck and privilege, an idea suggested by the writer Paul Williams and one I believe should be kept close at hand as the inevitable bashing and clashing continues.
The Nobel committee called Dylan's work “poetry for the ear,” celebrating him for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition; authors Joyce Carole Oates weighed in with a series of favorable tweets as did Mary Karr, and the great Salman Rushdie offered a comparison to Orpheus and Faiz. On the other side, Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan) used his twisted sarcasm to tweet, “books are kinda gross.” Irvine Welch (Trainspotting) was a little more coarse, and Hari Kunzru (My Revolutions) wins for angriest. That Dylan is a songwriter, and an innately American one, touring during his country's likeliest darkest hours yet was not enough to stop the novelists' outbursts: All three were born outside of the USA and are well read here, though none among them have written anything that can remotely compare to the beauty of “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Visions of Johanna” nor anything as compelling as “Masters of War,” “Ballad of a Thin Man,” “It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)” or “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Their lyricism has not been likened to that of Keats, Blake, and Shakespeare, like Dylan's work has been. Of course this is barely scratching the surface of a long list of Dylan-writings, including songs, poems, memoirs and screenplays, and possible reasons for other writers' grievances. One is tempted to simply list the titles and produce evidence of the full bodied depth and freshness to the work that stretches out following the '60s and into the '70s, 80s and beyond, whether it be the collaborative Desire or high watermarks Infidels and Oh Mercy, or late work like “Not Dark Yet” from Time Out of Mind and “Mississippi” and “Sugar Baby” from the 21st Century magnum opus, Love and Theft, released on September 11, 2001.
A close reading of the man and his canon has been ongoing by Dylan-scholar Scott Warmuth, working steadily since 2001 to uncover the vast labyrinth of allusions to the work of poets and writers past and present buried and also hiding in plain sight on Dylan's pages.
“His 2004 book Chronicles: Volume One showed Dylan at the top of his game. The book is so rich with allusion and other wordplay that it returns countless dividends with close study,” wrote Warmuth in an email delivered with the authority of someone who's done the homework. The Arizona DJ turned Bobcat will be presenting some of his findings at a well-timed Dylanology panel at the 2017 AWP Conference & Bookfair, alongside longtime Dylan-chronicler Ron Rosenbaum.
“I can think of no better comparative literature professor,” Warmuth continues. “Ernest Hemingway was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. It was Bob Dylan who taught me how to read Hemingway, and how to think about Hemingway's writing, by incorporating a vast Hemingway subtext in his recent work. William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1949. In an interview with The Paris Review Faulkner said, 'A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination– any two of which, at times any one of which– can supply the lack of the others.' The careful reader of Dylan's work will find commentary on that line,” he says.
What Dylan brought to music, to language, to our culture is unprecedented in our age. It is ancient and contemporary, prescient and of the ages. Pulling threads from Beats like Kerouac and Ginsberg and conjoining their freewheeling associations with imagery and sounds shapes from great American folk tradition is his unique contribution. The powerful mixture and seeming contradictory nature of the work is at once mystical and practical in its wisdom, surreal, arresting, and startling in its imagery. His appeal extended from Black Panthers and the most radical of underground warriors, to children, and grannies and workers across the world (his songs have been recorded in just about every language). He opened the doors to discussions that people may have not otherwise had about love and war, life and death, black and white. Even his so-called protest material is packed with a rare lyricism that is absent in the Pete Seeger school of topical songwriting (not that there is anything wrong that), when the young Dylan took music of resistance to a whole other level and set the bar so high that few songwriters ever reach it and when they do, it's noticeable and appreciated (for their part, songwriters across the land were thrilled to learn of the Nobel news).
Very few noble laureates have been American by birth since the award was inaugurated after the turn of the last century: Dylan is joined on the list by fellow Americans Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O'Neill, Pearl S. Buck, Faulkner, Hemingway, Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison.
As for the charges of “plagiarism” leveled at him through the years from critics harsh as Kunzru and Joni Mitchell, Warmuth answers, “Bob Dylan can also find the poetry in something as utilitarian as a travel guide, and challenge you with that notion. Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger are pretty good at what they do too, but they don't do that.”
The idea of this extraordinary brand of genius was not lost on the Nobel committee who acknowledged America's greatest living writer with not only one of the highest literary honors in the land, but with eight million kroner (approximately $900,000) for his lifetime of labor. We commend them for their choice, we congratulate Bob Dylan and we thank him, for walking with us– together through life.
Denise Sullivan reports on arts, culture and gentrification issues for Down With Tyranny!
“When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying the cross.” — Sinclair Lewis