Denizens of the literary and musical world expressed shock and astonishment when Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, but in reality his candidacy had been in the ether for almost two decades, dating back to 1997, when he was first nominated by a professor from Virginia Military Institute and received early support from decorated academics like Harvard’s Christopher Ricks. For his part, Dylan, who has typically been ambivalent (or at least extremely coy) about lifetime achievement awards, had let it be known through back channels that the Nobel honor was one he surely coveted.
Reactions to the announcement ranged from the ecstatic to the appalled, as long-time admirers were thrilled to see the man many consider to be the greatest living artist get his due, while others worried how the incursion of popular music into the literary canon might queer the game going forward. There are valid arguments to be made on both sides, but one thing that seems beyond dispute is that Dylan is indeed a literary as well as musical figure. As a direct descendant of the Beats and a man (self-)conscious enough about poetry to rename himself after Dylan Thomas, there can be no real argument that his intent from the beginning was to suffuse his love of the folk and blues traditions with an equivalent ardor for poetic champions of yore.
Through 50 years, 40-something albums, and countless Never Ending Tours, there is plenty to discuss with respect to his ratio of hits to misses. Indeed it is a characteristic of Dylan’s work that even amidst his hardcore acolytes, one individual’s absolute favorite album or song is regarded by the next as the irredeemable dregs. Occasionally baffled by his own prolific-ness, Dylan has often been a poor judge of his own work, leaving classic tracks on the cutting room floor and replacing them with pabulum. All of that has contributed not only to his mystique but the mystery of his art: How does a genius of this evident magnitude not realize that “Blind Willie McTell” is a major song, and “Union Sundown” a minor one?
The best, and to my mind nearly indisputable, case for the appropriateness of Dylan’s Nobel honor lies in the sheer ground covered by a single man’s astounding vision. To experience the full sweep of Dylan’s catalog is to span ages of American history — from the abject horrors of the Civil War, to the deprivations of the Dust Bowl Era, to the eerie ticking clock of the Cold War, to the giddy menace of our modern times. It is a music that sweeps through the secular, the Old Testament and the New, never reaching sheer exultation but alighting revelations aplenty.
As for romantic love, few have ever written more poignantly, more truthfully, and more painfully about its healing capacity as well as its capacity to utterly destroy. A callow, brilliant Rimbaud in his youth, a wry and circumspect Chekov in middle age, and a bruised but nostalgic Proust figure in his dotage, he’s been through the mill of love — old love, new love, and maybe even true love.
So I say: Give the man his prize. If you aren’t convinced yet, here are ten sublime instances from a man’s work that surely ratify its special notice.
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