Wednesday, October 26, 2016

BOB DYLAN: And the Nobel Prize for Literature

The prizes awarded to Bob Dylan include an Oscar, a Golden Globe award, a number of Grammy awards, the Pulitzer Prize, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and now the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Yet Bob Dylan understands more than most what such awards mean: very little.  Since the announcement, Dylan has made no public statement regarding the award.  Nor has there been any acknowledgement that Dylan will attend the Nobel ceremony.   Apparently, this is causing dismay.

The committee referred to Dylan as having “created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”  With the announcement of Dylan’s name as winner, you could hear gasps in the audience.  A small number of authors also took umbrage – probably because they did not receive the award.  Some snubbed had unkind words about Dylan.  Others seem to feel providing the award to someone so popular is beneath the dignity of the Nobel Prize committee. 

I suppose some history of the Nobel Prize for Literature is necessary.  Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, purportedly created the Nobel Prize out of sense of guilt due to his profiting from the sales of arms.  In his will, he bequeathed his fortune to finance the Nobel committee.  So far as literature goes, members select the award on an annual basis.  The committee includes professors of literature, members of various literary societies, former winners of the prize, and presidents of various writing organizations.  The committee probably doesn’t include any ditch diggers.

The first recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature was Sully Prudhomme, a French poet, in 1901. Next we had Theodor Mommsen from Germany, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson of Norway, Frédéric Mistral of France, José Echegaray of Spain, Henryk Sienkiewicz of Poland and Giosuè Carducci of Italy.  We can forgive even literary professors for being unfamiliar with these authors. The first memorable writer to receive the award was Rudyard Kipling in 1907, and he was likely controversial enough for the committee to then not select any other winners that were household names prior to World War I.

There were some fairly well known authors who did not receive the award, however.  This would include Leo Tolstoy, Mark Twain, Henrik Ibsen, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Admittedly, some of these writers died too young to ever win the award.  Still, these were deserving authors who we will long remember.  In other words, the Nobel Prize committee was often wrong.

Like most committees, the Nobel committee from the start was afraid to generate controversy.  Individual critics, on the other hand, are sometimes very contentious.  And because committees make so many compromises, the selections by the Nobel committee were often uninteresting.  Some of its better choices only came about following criticism that the committee needed to expand its horizons.  Even in recent years, the committee could not bring itself to award Vladimir Nabokov, Flannery O’Connor, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, or Allen Ginsberg the Nobel Prize – almost certainly rejected because of the controversial nature of their works.  Cormac McCarthy is a living writer who may still receive the award, but time is running out for him as well.

So that brings us back to Bob Dylan – the songwriter from Hibbing (in the heart of Minnesota’s Iron Range) who many continue to accuse of being unable to sing.  One Iron Range writer had fun with Dylan’s critics: “To those on the Iron Range that still might not appreciate Dylan, they should know that the Nobel Prize is the Stanley Cup of literature.”  (For those who do not understand the joke, the United States Hockey Hall of Fame is in Eveleth, Minnesota, which is about 25 miles away from Hibbing and also in the heart of the Iron Range.)

While in the end it really shouldn’t matter, there certainly could be a lot worse choices for this award.  Dylan has made a number of controversial stands – some probably wrongheaded.  Yet he kept himself almost always non-partisan and never voiced support for any politician.  Whether you like or dislike his songs, he certainly had a personal impact on many individuals that many writers who won the Nobel Prize never did.  Unlike so many recipients of the award, Dylan’s reach goes far beyond just those college students or professors whose greatest interest in an artist is the kind of treatise they can write about the artist.

© Robert S. Miller 2016

October 26, 2016