When the announcement was made in Stockholm today that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, there were gasps heard from the audience in the Royal Academy Hall — then some laughter.
It was a first — never before has the literature prize gone to a musician. And Dylan is the first American to win the honor since author Toni Morrison in 1993.
“A hero is someone who understands the responsibility of their freedom.” — Bob Dylan
But it’s Dylan’s heralded handling of words — the ones that have graced his songs for some five decades — that impressed the judging team. (They no doubt thought: Don’t think twice; it’s all right.) He has sold more than 100 million records, making him one of the best-selling musicians of all time.
“He is probably the greatest living poet,” said Swedish Academy member Per Wastberg, according to Reuters. That could have been a reference to any one of his top hits — “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Forever Young,” to name just a few of the songs whose lyrics most of us know by heart.
Dylan, 75, who won the prize for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” — now joins Nobel literature winners including Ernest Hemingway, Winston Churchill, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, John Steinbeck, and Jean-Paul Sartre.
But there have been some who haven't exactly seen the beauty in Dylan's work. Novelist Norman Mailer, for one, who once said, "If Dylan's a poet, I'm a basketball player."
In a 2005 interview, Mailer acknowledged that Dylan's lyrics were "uncontestably good," but he added, "I think he really has one of the leanest, small voices I've ever heard on a major singer."
And in days leading up to the announcement, Dylan didn't exactly come up as a predicted winner. The New Republic pegged these four serious international authors as having the best shot at the prize:
- Adonis (Syrian poet, essayist, and translator; 6/1 odds)
- Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (Kenyan novelist, playwright, short story writer, and essayist; 10/1 odds)
- Jon Fosse (Norwegian novelist and playwright; 20/1 odds)
- Ko Un (South Korean poet; 20/1 odds)
Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Nobel Academy, however, told the Nobel news conference there was "great unity" in the panel's decision.
Dylan, who was born into a Jewish family, converted in the late 1970s to born-again Christianity and later said he followed no organized religion. At another point in his life, Dylan took up boxing. He carved out an image as a social critic, a rebel, and an enigmatic figure who chronicled the unrest of the times.
In politics, he was most recently an Obama supporter, saying, "He'll be the best president he can be. Most of those guys come into office with the best of intentions and leave as beaten men. Johnson would be a good example of that … Nixon, Clinton in a way, Truman, all the rest of them going back. You know, it's like they all fly too close to the sun and get burned."
In 2008, Dylan was awarded a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation "for his profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power."
He already has 11 Grammy Awards, one Academy Award, and one Golden Globe Award. He has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Songwriters Hall of Fame.
In a rare speech last year, Dylan said of his music and its place in history: "Don't be fooled. I just opened up a different door in a different kind of way ... I didn't think I was doing anything different. I thought I was just extending the line."
The prize comes with 8 million Swedish kronor, or about $900,000. He will be honored in Stockholm, Sweden, in December.
Asked if he thought Dylan's Nobel lecture — traditionally given by the laureate in Stockholm later in the year — would be a concert, Wastberg replied: "Let's hope so."
Last Modified: October 13, 2016, 11:16 am