American Laureate: Is It Lit?

The Nobel people have made Bob Dylan a laureate in literature, along with T.S. Eliot, Saul Bellow, Faulkner and Hemingway. Some have found this just and overdue and others ludicrous. No mere song writer, troubadour, jongleur has been accused of committing literature before by the Swedish Academy. But next to ABBA he must have looked pretty good.

Besides the Nobel committee has often given the prize (or denied it) more on ideologocal or geographical than on literary grounds. And a glance back at recipients shows a number of giants who got passed over (Tolstoy, Henry James, Joyce, Proust, Nabokov, Auden), and about a third of recipients who have not stood the test of time (Saint-John Perse, Boris Pasternak, Juan Ramon Jimenez, Pearl Buck, John Galsworthy, Henri Bergson).

There’s no doubt Dylan has been a serious, protean, influential artist. Would there be a Springsteen or U2 or Neil Young without him? He’s been a magpie willing to collect scraps from everywhere, from blues and the Bible to Ovid and the Iliad if you believe the scholars who have run his work through the academic mill. And he’s been sufficiently spiky, strange, iconoclastic and contrary to defy easy categorization or dismissal.

Celebrated in his youth as an angelic voice of uplift and righteousness with “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” he quickly disillusioned his idealistic followers by refusing to stick with the script and morphing into a different Dylan every few years. Yes, he wrote songs of protest against the usual suspects as in “Masters of War,” but his darts were as often aimed against his naive followers or people who rubbed him the wrong way.

He was a champion of settling scores with demanding lovers, annoying critics and poseurs of every sort. “You’ve gotta lot of nerve to say you’ve got a helping hand to lend. You just want to be on the side that’s winning.”

He was capable of the snottiest satire, whiplash contempt and the bleakest wised-up refusal to fall for sentimental hearts and flowers. How many balladeers would write a song called “Everything is Broken?” Or offer up remarks like these:

“Twenty years of school and they put you on the day shift.”

“You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind is blowing.”

“Don’t follow leaders. Watch the parking meter.”

“Kick your shoes off, do not fear. Bring that bottle over here. I’ll be your baby tonight.”

His dispirited love songs were often written as if the speaker was halfway out the door for the last time, and included sentiments like, “We never did too much talking anyway…You’re the reason I’m a-travelin’ on…You just kinda wasted my precious time.”

His early audience was earnest college students to whom he could be cheerfully cruel, “You’ve gone to the finest school all right, Miss Lonely, But you know you only used to get juiced in it. Nobody ever taught you how to live out on the street and now you’re going to have to get used to it.”

His affinity was always for the outsider and the dispossessed, people like himself from the periphery, in his case the grim Mesabi range of his unhappy youth with its “Train wheels running through the back of my memory, where I ran on the hilltop following a pack of wild geese.” Chasing them led him to a career and a change from his family name since he said he had more in common with a Dylan or a Guthrie than with his biological family.

Dylan’s mythology is filled with his version of American archetypes, a bit of Whitman but a lot more Huck Finn, Captain Ahab, Sal Paradise or Randall McMurphy. His songs are angry, funny, bitter, tender, sorrowful, plainspoken and surreal. His masterpiece is probably “Highway 61 Revisited” with its freaks and geeks, Mr. Jones and a Thin Man, desolation and tombstones. But all through a long career he has written ballads, rockers, blues, country, gospel and comic ditties that turn suddenly dark.

“Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
God says, “Out on Highway 61”

“The streets of Rome are filled with rubble, ancient footprints are everywhere. You can almost think that you’re seeing double on a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs.”

“Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear. It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

“Mama’s in the factory, she ain’t got no shoes. Daddy’s in the alley, he’s looking for food. I’m in the kitchen with the tombstone blues.”

“My advice is to not let the boys in…Stop all this weeping, swallow your pride. You will not die. It’s not poison.”

“You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody…
It may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

“Someday everything’s gonna be different, when I paint my masterpiece.”

Literature or not, it’s pretty darn good stuff and entirely American. “Sail around the world in a dirty gondola. Oh to be back in the land of Coca Cola.” Give him any prize you’ve got. But be prepared for him to have something irreverent or unexpected to say about the whole charade.

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