ESSAY
Don’t Criticize What You Can’t Understand: Dylan's Nobel Prize
M.G. Poe

Given the escalating, bitterly divided and mystifying socio-political climate in the United States right now, it is somehow fitting that rounding out the ambiguous and wholly controversial state of our present reality, the Swedish Academy has chosen to present the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature to the enigmatic, oft-times reclusive American folk-singer/songwriter, beat poet and novelist (yes, he has published!) Bob Dylan. It is the first time in the history of the award that it has been given to a pop musician for his body of work, begging us all, especially those of us in the literary world, to bend the arc of our moral universe toward redefining the boundaries of what is literature.

Dylan, a native Minnesotan first arrived on the New York City music scene in 1961 at the age of 20 with not much else but a baby face, a guitar, a pack on his back, and the august spiritual influence of his, as yet unmet, idol Woody Guthrie. Over the next five decades, Dylan would produce a repertoire of melodies that defied popular music ideals, redefining folk music with his gritty, asynchronous, off-key voice, angular guitar rhythms, wavering harmonica riffs, and terse, yet vivid, metaphoric prose that so clearly honed in on the yearning heart of a nation.

It is an understatement to say that Dylan’s unexpected Nobel laureate status has some in the literary world upset. They don’t understand how a popular performing artist, whose seemingly most famous claims to fame were protest songs from the 1960s, can win what Stephen Metcalf, Slate’s critic-at-large, and critic of the Academy’s 2016 choice, has called “the highest prize in literature.” Many cannot see Dylan’s talent equating with previous poet greats, Octavio Paz, W.B. Yeats, T.S. Elliot, Seamus Heaney, among a few, who have received the honor since the prize’s inception in 1901. 

I, too, was surprised at the Academy’s choice at first; however, upon reflection, and a little re-viewing of the parameters laid out by Alfred Nobel himself regarding the spirit of the award, the choice of Bob Dylan for the Nobel Prize in Literature is really quite in keeping with the ideals and principles behind the award. What is needed perhaps, for those recalcitrant to accept it, is a greater understanding of the award and a look at the honor through a broader, more holistic, set of lenses.

The Nobel Prize, today considered one of the highest distinctions of honor celebrating the works of human potential, had a rather gloomy beginning. It was first conceived in the mind of Alfred Nobel, a prominent Swedish businessman, as a desire for redemption after the French Press mistook Nobel’s older brother Ludwig’s death for Alfred’s and wrote a rather scathing obituary about the entrepreneur’s disreputable business practices, calling him the “tradesman of death.” When Nobel, also a chemist and an industrialist who made his incredible fortune as the inventor of dynamite and ballistics (among many other things) read the obituary, he apparently had a moment of clarity about his role in life, and, deciding he wanted to be remembered for positive things, had a change of heart. Nobel created a new last will and testament specifying that upon his death, the majority of his wealth should go toward the establishment of a foundation that would choose once yearly a person, without regard to nationality, to be awarded an honor of distinction “the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” The prize would constitute six awards to include the areas of: peace, physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and economic science. 

On www.brainpickins.org, Maria Popova, offers this translation from Nobel’s will outlining the parameters and execution of the prize:

“The whole of my remaining realizable estate shall be dealt with in the following way: the capital, invested in safe securities by my executors, shall constitute a fund, the interest on which shall be annually distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind. The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics; one part to the person who shall have made the most important chemical discovery or improvement; one part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery within the domain of physiology or medicine; one part to the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction; and one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses. The prizes for physics and chemistry shall be awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences; that for physiological or medical work by the Caroline Institute in Stockholm; that for literature by the Academy in Stockholm, and that for champions of peace by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting. It is my express wish that in awarding the prizes no consideration whatever shall be given to the nationality of the candidates, but that the most worthy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scandinavian or not.

Upon his death in 1896, Nobel left 94% of his wealth for the establishment of the award. He had no children, and the remaining 6% he dispersed among relatives. Completely unaware of his plans, for Mr. Nobel had told nobody except his assistant about the change to his will, his heirs were aghast and tried to contest the will. Even the Swedish Royal family reviled Nobel’s actions, calling him unpatriotic for setting up a “nationally-blind prize” rather than one that might benefit the Swedish nation alone. Nevertheless, five years later, the Estate of Alfred Nobel won, and, the Nobel Prize was born. 

Compositions like Blowin’ In the Wind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, and All Along the Watchtower are not just perennial classics in the folk-rock tradition, they are transcendent social commentaries on the state of our reality and our humanity.

Bob Dylan has produced a legacy of works that has transcended eras and generations and that are just as evocative and thought provoking with their calls to action and consciousness raising today, as they were during the height of his popularity in the 1960s. From winding stream-of-consciousness introspections to choppy, challenging, thought provoking protest songs, he has become (though he just might hate to hear it) an icon of the American counter-culture and all for which it stands. The oeuvres of Bob Dylan have indeed ‘produced most outstanding works in an ideal direction’—for over five decades…and counting.  

Compositions like Blowin’ In the Wind, A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, and All Along the Watchtower are not just perennial classics in the folk-rock tradition, they are transcendent social commentaries on the state of our reality and our humanity. 

In January 1964, Dylan released what some still call the most popular protest song of all time, the first single and title track from his 3rd studio album, his first album to contain all original compositions. The name of that song (and of the album) was called The Times They Are A-Changin’. As Evan Schlanky, writing for American Songwriter put it, “‘The Times They Are A-Changin'” is a call to arms, a generational battle cry, a warning that the center cannot hold.”

In the liner notes to his 1985 box-set compilation Biograph Dylan says this about the song,     

"I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to. This was definitely a song with a purpose. It was influenced of course by the Irish and Scottish ballads …’Come All Ye Bold Highway Men’, ‘Come All Ye Tender Hearted Maidens’. I wanted to write a big song, with short concise verses that piled up on each other in a hypnotic way. The civil rights movement and the folk music movement were pretty close for a while and allied together at that time.” 

Ultimately, Dylan produced a song that became an anthem for the era with themes that targeted the turbulent unresolved issues of the day: the civil rights movement, the quest for social justice, and a recognition of government’s unhelpful attitude towards change. Sound familiar? 

Dylan’s music and words have inspired and motivated millions of people worldwide to open their minds to become more socio-politically aware of conflicts plaguing our world, to work to create changes to make our world a better place, and to feel that they can activate that change through action. Van Morrison famously called him the greatest living poet. Salman Rushdie called him “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition.” President Obama, when bestowing on Dylan the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 said this, “By the time he was 23, Bob’s voice with its weight and its unique gravelly power was redefining not only what music sounded like, but the message it carried, and how it made people feel.”

Nobelprize.org, the official website of the Nobel Prize, states, to date, that Dylan has been awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition." Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, upon announcing this year’s winners, was asked, “Does he really deserve the prize?”

Her response: “Of course he does, he just got it. He is a great poet,” comparing Dylan’s work to the Greek classics of antiquity, Danius continued, “It’s an extraordinary example of his brilliant way of rhyming and his pictorial thinking. If you look back, far back, you discover Homer and Sappho, and they wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to. They were meant to be performed. It’s the same way with Bob Dylan. But we still read Homer and Sappho. He can be read and should be read. He is a great poet in the grand English tradition.”

The unpredictable laureate-to-be has yet to accept or acknowledge the honor. If he doesn’t accept, he won’t be the first one to refuse it. But he will still be in good company: Boris Pasternak refused the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1958, and Jean-Paul Sartre refused it in 1964. Either way, as the Swedish Academy put it upon acknowledging Sartre’s refusal: “The fact that he has declined this distinction does not in the least modify the validity of the award. Under the circumstances, however, the Academy can only state that the presentation of the prize cannot take place.”

What is literature? Merriam Webster defines it broadly as “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.” The Academy Foundation, a project funded in part by Australia’s Catholic University (ACU), says on its literature and drama website, that most attempted definitions of literature have to be both broad and vague, and that even that will inevitably change over time. In fact, the only constant in defining literature is that the definition of what literature is will change, and change again, over time. Art, including literature, does not live in a vacuum; it is fluid, reflecting and moving with the mind-set of a people and of the changing times in which they live. Effective works of literature, through whichever lens we choose to view them, regardless of form, are fundamentals which transcend time. 

Bob Dylan’s body of work is literature. His opus exemplifies the ideals outlined by Alfred Nobel. He is as worthy and deserving of the status of laureate of the Nobel Prize in Literature as any other equally profound and gifted artist of the ilk. It is time for us all to realize and admit just how much the waters around us have grown. Especially now.