More than Music: Dylan, A Literary Genius

Some artists strive for greatness. Others achieve it. Look at some of the great American writers: Faulkner, Churchill, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Morrison. These poets, novelists, and critical thinkers opened our eyes to new worlds and perspectives, while redefining the boundaries of American literature stylistically.

Such writers have not only demonstrated immense talent in their field; they have also received The Nobel Prize in Literature, an award that recognizes and legitimizes their literary achievements. This award, first issued to Sully Prudhomme in 1901, recognizes laureates who have “produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” But what kind of writer should receive this honor? Should it be solely dedicated to those whose genius is found in physical books, or do artists outside of this medium qualify and deserve this accolade?

Recently, this question has come into debate. Over the weekend, the Swedish Academy named Bob Dylan the 113th recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, adding his name to this elite list of literary stars. Dylan was awarded “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Bob Dylan has been writing, playing, singing and collaborating with other famous artists for over five decades. Since 1962, he’s expanded the boundaries of musical and lyrical possibilities, through his studio and live albums, with iconic records including Highway 61 Revisited (1965), Blonde on Blonde (1966), and Blood on the Tracks (1975). He has won twelve Grammys, an Academy award, and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The New York Times columnist Anna North was among many who responded negatively to the Swedish Academy’s choice. In her piece, Why Bob Dylan Shouldn’t Have Gotten A Nobel, North criticizes the academy for choosing a musician to accept the award: “Mr. Dylan’s writing is inseparable from his music. He is great because he is a great musician, and when the Nobel committee gives the literature prize to a musician, it misses the opportunity to honor a writer.” North and other critics argue that the award itself should serve to verify the significance of fiction and poetry. North claims that music itself “receives the recognition it deserves.”

No, Dylan does not fit North’s definition of a “traditional” Nobel Prize of Literature writer. But while the academy has primarily recognized authors, is it rational to claim that Dylan’s musicianship disqualifies him from entering the realms of a writer?

The answer is no. Bob Dylan is a storyteller and a literary analyst. Behind iconic tunes and haunting melodies, Dylan’s lyrics expose 55 years of America’s political, social, and economic evolution. He has expressed his opinions, shared personal stories, and invented unforgettable characters. His lyrics are timeless: They transcend beyond the finite events of a given period and speak to the core behaviors and principles of humanity.

How can you argue that Bob Dylan’s songs are not worthy of such an accolade? Just because he voices his beliefs through a different medium than the writers who have received the award does not discredit his work’s magnitude.

North argues that by choosing Dylan as the award recipient, the literary world loses a figure representing the fictional and poetic fields. Dylan rejects the “poet” label. When asked by Nora Ephron and Susan Edmiston in 1965 whether he identifies as a poet, he responds, “No. We have our ideas about poets. The word doesn't mean any more than the word ‘house….I don't call myself a poet because I don't like the word. I'm a trapeze artist.’”

And why can’t such an artist receive this award? Like the Nobel Prize’s former recipients, Dylan expresses his own personal emotions and frustrations regarding the American government and society.

Take “Ballad of a Thin Man,” a six-minute epic depicting Mr. Jones, a financially successful American businessman:

You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand

You see somebody naked and you say, “Who is that man?”

You try so hard but you don't understand

Just what you will say when you get home

Because something is happening here but you don't know what it is

Do you, Mr. Jones?

Dylan claims this man is “a real person. You know him, but not by that name.” Whether this man truly exists or serves as an allegorical figure, Dylan criticizes this middle-class man, who is “very well read,” but unaware of crucial contemporary events. Rather than learning and taking social and political action, Mr. Jones would rather live in ignorant bliss in response to the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movement.

When one looks at these lyrics, separate from Dylan’s jarring voice and unsettling melodies, it becomes clear that his words are more than just verses and choruses. Dylan challenges his readers not only to dissect the songs and uncover their deeper meanings, but also to understand and acknowledge national and global issues.

Just as Dylan redefined the American musical sound and lyrical boundaries, he has once again blazed the trail for recipients of this award. Dylan’s response to receiving the award? He couldn’t care less and hasn’t even accepted the prize money. He does not write music for fame and fortune; rather, he unapologetically creates literary magic. That is the nature of a true artist: He does not seek greatness; he revolutionizes it.

Katie Baughman SC '18 is an Economics major and English minor. 

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