Bob Dylan was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize for literature last week, an announcement that was greeted with gasps and laughter in the hall and applause and astonishment around the world. A singer and songwriter who has tapped deep wells of disaffection and dissent, Dylan has during a long and storied career provoked intense reactions from fans and critics alike. Throughout it all, Dylan has remained steadfastly above the fray, following his muse and listening only to his conscience for counsel.
The Swedish Academy awarded the prize to Dylan for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” adding that he “has the status of an icon.” Per Wastberg, a member of the Swedish Academy, added that “He is probably the greatest living poet.” Dylan would demur. He has said that he considers himself just “a song and dance man.” The night after the award was announced, Dylan performed his usual show in Las Vegas, without reference to the honor.
Dylan was born Robert Allen Zimmerman in Minnesota in 1941. Steeped himself in the tradition of singers like Woody Guthrie, he emerged in the folk scene of New York City in 1961, astounding listeners with intense, obscure and emotive lyrics that challenged his audience intellectually while moving and elevating them. A religious sentiment seasoned his work, adding to the weight of his words. His raspy voice, often derided by critics, seemed especially suited to his darker work.
Throughout his long career Dylan has always charted his own course, first infuriating loyal fans at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival when he performed his first electric concert, playing with an electric rock band — an appearance that sparked cries of outrage and sellout. Ever since, he has been a true troubadour, living on the road — save for a period after a 1966 motorcycle accident — and going where his music took him in both flesh and spirit.
As might be expected, the announcement of the Nobel Prize prompted both disdain and delight. The most acid retort came from writer Irvine Welsh, author of the scabrous novel “Trainspotting.” While admitting that he is a fan of Dylan’s, he called the decision “an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.” Novelist Rabih Alameddine agreed, tweeting that “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs. Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.”
That view was countered by author Salman Rushdie, who noted that “Dylan is the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition” that links song and poetry. He called the decision a “great choice.”
While writer Norman Mailer once noted that “if Dylan’s a poet, I’m a basketball player,” “The Oxford Book of American Poetry” included his song “Desolation Row” in its 2006 edition. He published “Tarantula,” a collection of poetry in 1971, and his collected lyrics from 1961-2012 are set to come out later this year. His work has spawned dozens of literary studies and numerous university classes are devoted to his lyrics and the meaning of his work.
The Nobel is not Dylan’s first literary prize. He was awarded an honorary Pulitzer Prize in 2008. That stands alongside his Grammy, Academy and Golden Globe awards, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom he was given in 2012.
Dylan’s is not the first Nobel literature prize that stretches the boundaries of the field. In 1953, Winston Churchill was given the honor for his speeches, which the Academy applauded for “brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values.” Last year’s choice was the Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarussian investigative journalist whose work was based on oral histories.
Some critics see the pick as a way of slighting American literature. Dylan is the first U.S. recipient since Toni Morrison won the Nobel in 1993, and they point to a 2008 tirade by Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury, who insisted that “The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. [Its writers] don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. … That ignorance is restraining.” According to this logic, the Nobel committee selected Dylan to avoid having to recognize any of the country’s more “deserving” candidates.
That goes too far. As Rushdie noted, Dylan is part of a long poetic tradition and his work brims with the imagery, language and allusions of generations of writers and poets. Dylan has captured the zeitgeist of his generation — even though much of his work seems to defy any given moment — while at the same time he has managed to move his listeners to a new understanding of the forces at work on their world and their place in it as in songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Songs like “The Times they are a-Changin’ ” became anthems — a terrorist group even took its name from a lyric in “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
Throughout his career, Bob Dylan’s songs have struck a chord with the young and the young at heart around the world. It is hard to imagine a “purer” or more deserving form of literature.