No­bel lau­re­ate Bob Dy­lan re­vis­ited

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - GE­ORGE F. WILL Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers Group

here has been fer­ment among the literati since Bob Dy­lan was awarded the No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture. Many say that how­ever well Dy­lan does what he does, it is not lit­er­a­ture. Dy­lan did not go to Stock­holm Satur­day to col­lect his prize, which the Swedish Academy says was awarded “for hav­ing cre­ated new poetic ex­pres­sions within the great Amer­i­can song tra­di­tion.” Well, then: God said to Abra­ham, ‘Kill me a son’ Abe says, ‘Man, you must be puttin’ me

on’ or: Ein­stein, dis­guised as Robin Hood With his mem­o­ries in a trunk Passed this way an hour ago With his friend, a jeal­ous monk He looked so im­mac­u­lately fright­ful As he bummed a cig­a­rette Then he went off sniff­ing drain­pipes And recit­ing the al­pha­bet Now you would not think to look at him But he was fa­mous long ago For play­ing the elec­tric vi­o­lin On Deso­la­tion Row The New York Times primly notes that the academy is fa­mous for “its at times al­most will­ful per­ver­sity in pick­ing win­ners.” Scot­tish nov­el­ist Irvine Welsh (“Trainspot­ting”) pro­fesses him­self “a Dy­lan fan” but tweeted that the No­bel is “an ill-con­ceived nos­tal­gia award wrenched from the ran­cid prostates of se­nile, gib­ber­ing hip­pies.” Strong let­ter to fol­low.

One critic says that the more than 150 books on Dy­lan are “a li­brary woozy with hu­mid over­state­ment and baby boomer mythol­ogy.” A sam­ple of the hu­mid­ity is: “Dy­lan seemed less to oc­cupy a turn­ing point in cul­tural space and time than to be that turn­ing point.” But Dy­lan should not be blamed for the hy­per­ven­ti­lat­ing caused by DDS — Dy­lan Derange­ment Syn­drome. Be­sides, Dy­lan has col­lected a Pulitzer Prize for “lyri­cal com­po­si­tions of ex­tra­or­di­nary poetic power,” so there.

Now 75, he was born Robert Zim­mer­man in Du­luth, Minn., and lived in Hib­bing, 150 miles from Sauk Cen­tre, home of Sin­clair Lewis, who won the 1930 No­bel for lit­er­a­ture (“Bab­bitt,” “Elmer Gantry”). This was ev­i­dence of abruptly defin­ing lit­er­a­ture down: Thomas Mann won in 1929. If you rec­og­nize even one-third of the 113 lit­er­a­ture prize win­ners since 1901, you need to get out of the house more. Philip Roth has not won, a fact that would cost the Swedish Academy its rep­u­ta­tion for se­ri­ous­ness, if it had one.

The Weekly Stan­dard’s An­drew Fer­gu­son would win the No­bel Prize for Com­mon Sense, if there were one. He notes that by not tak­ing him­self too se­ri­ously or en­cour­ag­ing oth­ers to do so, Dy­lan has “proved two propo­si­tions that seemed in­creas­ingly un­likely in the age of me­dia-sat­u­ra­tion: You can shun pub­lic­ity and still be hugely fa­mous, and you can be hugely fa­mous and not be ob­nox­ious about it.” For this, Dy­lan de­serves some sort of prize. Fer­gu­son laments that it is ev­i­dently im­pos­si­ble to take Dy­lan “for what he is, an im­pres­sive man wor­thy of ad­mi­ra­tion, af­fec­tion and re­spect, and leave it at that.”

Im­pos­si­ble. In an age of ever-more-ex­trav­a­gant at­ten­tion-get­ting yelps about ev­ery­thing, peo­ple have tum­bled over one another reach­ing for en­co­mia, such as this from a Har­vard pro­fes­sor: “Dy­lan has sur­passed Walt Whit­man as the defin­ing Amer­i­can artist.”

(Hawthorne, Melville, Dickinson, Whar­ton, Fitzger­ald, Faulkner?)

If song lyrics are lit­er­a­ture, why did the academy dis­cover this with Dy­lan and not Stephen Sond­heim (from “West Side Story” on)? Last year, the lit­er­a­ture prize was won by Be­laru­sia’s Svet­lana Alex­ievich, whose spe­cialty is in­ter­views wo­ven into skill­fully wrought books (e.g., “Sec­ond­hand Time”). They are highly in­for­ma­tive, even mov­ing, but are they lit­er­a­ture?

Sean Wi­lentz, Prince­ton pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can his­tory, grew up in New York City near the end of its red-tinged folk re­vival and was 13 when he at­tended Dy­lan’s 1964 con­cert at Man­hat­tan’s Phil­har­monic Hall. Wi­lentz’s book “Bob Dy­lan in Amer­ica,” which would bet­ter have been ti­tled “Amer­ica in Bob Dy­lan,” in­ter­est­ingly lo­cates him in the stream of Amer­i­can cul­ture and cel­e­brates him for ex­pand­ing his range as re­lent­lessly as he has toured — more than 1,400 shows in this cen­tury. Wi­lentz re­calls how Dy­lan “go­ing elec­tric” at the 1965 New­port Folk Fes­ti­val scan­dal­ized “the fetishists of au­then­tic­ity,” but Dy­lan did not look back. “He sees,” Wi­lentz says, “a kind of lit­er­a­ture in per­for­mance.” If that is so, then is Mike Trout, base­ball’s best per­former, do­ing lit­er­a­ture for the Los An­ge­les An­gels? Lit­er­a­ture is be­com­ing a clas­si­fi­ca­tion that no longer clas­si­fies.

Never mind. Just en­joy the mu­sic of the sur­pris­ing man who in 1961 ar­rived in Green­wich Vil­lage and who once said “my fa­vorite politi­cian was Ari­zona Sen. Barry Gold­wa­ter.” E-mail Ge­orge F. Will at georgewill@wash­post.com.

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