By Kenneth Womack
The esteemed Swedish Academy surprised the world when it announced on Oct. 13 that American folk legend Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. For music fans, the selection came as a clear validation of the distinctly literary qualities that we had been interpreting in the sounds emanating from our favorite albums for decades. Finally, we thought, somebody gets it. And there is no bigger somebody than that Swedish Academy of Nobel Prize fame.
It was a slow train coming, this grand confirmation of music's attendant literary power. Take Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run, to name but a few landmark albums by the High Poets of popular music. It is difficult to argue that such LPs are anything short of literary journeys propelled by time-eclipsing blends of lyrical sound and musical vision. For readers, such cherished albums sit comfortably alongside the poems and novels that are on permanent display in our personal museums of cultural reflection.
But Dylan as Nobel laureate? I'm not so sure. And apparently, neither was Dylan himself, who - for a time, at least - refused to offer any public acknowledgment of the honor in the days since it was announced. Even his website had been scrubbed of any mention of the prize.
Finally, some two weeks later, he broke his silence. "It's hard to believe," he said in an interview with Edna Gundersen. "Amazing, incredible," he added. "Whoever dreams about something like that?"
Then Dylan got to the heart of the matter, admitting to Gundersen that the merits of his selection belongs to others. "I'll let other people decide what they are," he said. "The academics, they ought to know. I'm not really qualified. I don't have any opinion."
Dylan deserves great credit for shrouding his Nobel laureateship with a certain shadow of doubt. Indeed, not since the 1953 selection of British statesman Winston Churchill has the Academy rendered such a dubious decision. That year, Churchill earned the Nobel Prize in Literature "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values." By any measure, Churchill was one of the most eloquent orators and prescient thinkers of his time. But outside of his four-volume biography of John Churchill, the first duke of Marlborough, conqueror of Louis XIV, and Sir Winston's distant relative, few of the beloved prime minister's contemporaries ascribed much in the way of genuine literary merit to his published works.
No, what Churchill should have earned was the Nobel Peace Prize, an honor more befitting a political figure of his remarkable caliber and attainment. In fact, he had been passed over for that award in the mid-1940s, when Cordell Hull, the American secretary of state who played a signal role in establishing the United Nations, earned the Nobel nod instead.
Which brings us back to Dylan.
During its Nobel announcement, the Academy rightly feted Dylan "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." There is little doubt about the many and resounding ways in which the tunes emanating from Duluth, Minnesota's favorite son underscore the veracity of this statement. His lyrics have been an unremitting source for social change and cultural enlightenment for more than 50 years, an achievement that will be honored with the imminent publication by Simon and Schuster of Dylan's The Lyrics: 1962-2012.
But, really, is he literary enough? In his 1895 will, Alfred Nobel decreed that the prize in literature be awarded to the creators of "the most outstanding work in an ideal direction." From their inception, the Swedish Academy's statutes provided a wide-ranging definition of literature as "not only belles-lettres, but also other writings which, by virtue of their form and style, possess literary value."
Do Dylan's lyrics accomplish this feat? You bet they do.
Take the poignant grace inherent in "Blowin' in the Wind" or the brash eclecticism of "Desolation Row." Those are timeless lyrics, to be sure - not unlike such Lennon-McCartney masterworks as "Eleanor Rigby" or "A Day in the Life." Or the brute lyricism and dark beauty at the heart of Springsteen's "Jungleland." These are inspiring lyrics that, not unlike Dylan's greatest phrasings, consider the larger world of ideas. They are, quite simply, about making meaning in an uncertain moral universe.
Which is what great literature does, right?
The New York Times lauded the Academy's extraordinary choice as "redefining" the "boundaries of literature." But did those boundaries really need to be redefined in the first place? Whether as purveyors of poetry or prose, the previous literary laureates - Churchill included - stoked the human imagination into life through the auspices of written language. In great contrast, Dylan and his ilk opted to fuel their art in somewhat dissimilar creative waters, blending lyrics and music into a very different kind of seamless whole.
Which is why we have the Grammy Awards and other disciplinary-specific means for commemorating music's greatest practitioners. Meanwhile, the shrinking world of literature - of writers putting pen to paper, fingers to keypads - is denied the opportunity, at least for this latest go-round, of celebrating the literary artists who have stood the test of time.
Sometimes, Nobel laureates take on even great significance, given the distinctiveness of the times and places in which they live. One need look no further than Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Russian dissident novelist and 1970 Nobel honoree who transformed his soul-destroying years in Soviet labor camps into a powerful critique of the reigning communist regime. Or, more recently, the 2009 Nobel laureate Herta Müller, who fought censorship and the specter of the Romanian secret police to craft her stirring poetry about living in the lonely realm of the politically dispossessed. In the cases of Solzhenitsyn and Müller, the Nobel Prize in literature not only revered their unparalleled artistry, but trumpeted their plights to a greater and often unknowing world.
Which brings us to the present.
What opportunity cost did the Academy accrue in selecting music's undisputed folk hero over some writers in some far-off lands attempting to change their corner of the world through their exceptional writerly art?
Something tells me that Bob Dylan, as the champion of American's everyman and everywoman, would understand this last point better than most.