The Nobel Prize is the highest acknowledgement a human being can receive for work performed. The accolade of laureate indelibly certifies the recipient as extraordinary — one who possess the rarest of intellectual gifts.
That is, of course, with the exception now and then of the Peace Prize, which is the academy’s political instrument and has on occasion been handed out for reasons other than achievement, critics say.
The merit of colleges and universities around the globe is often measured not by some U.S. News & World Report-like formula, but on how many Nobel recipients are on the faculty and whether they’re actually teaching or not. Just their presence gives the institution an aura of excellence. It should not be taken lightly. So, it is great to hear that Bob Dylan, a native of the Minnesota Iron Range, after seeming reluctance, has graciously decided to accept the Swedish academy’s choice for one of the jewels of the Nobel crown, the prize for literature, joining the ranks of the world’s greatest writers. The literary award has the distinction of reaching the awareness of more of the earth’s citizens than some of the winners for scientific achievement whose name recognition is fleeting. One seldom remembers who won the chemistry medal last year even though what they accomplished may impact the lives of far more than the writing of Hemingway or William Faulkner. Most will recall John Steinbeck or Pearl S. Buck or at least “The Grapes of Wrath” or “The Good Earth.”
Dylan’s selection — derided by some — is the first Nobel to be awarded for musical poetry, and those who chose him should be applauded for having the nerve to pick an artist whose view of mankind and life generally has had an influential impact on his craft for more than two generations. Is the music surrounding his poetry categorized into several popular genres? Yes. But that doesn’t tarnish the depth of his social commentary, which can be as potent and poignant, biting and belligerent as that from the pen of Steinbeck or Faulkner.
I came to appreciate Dylan rather late. I early on considered him a folk voice of a disaffected age, a mixture of pot-soaked hipster and diffident sociologist writing about love and war and death and dope and other aspects of his age from a cloud of detachment. How wrong I was.
Suddenly I became aware that this was a person who had something important to say.
He was not just a shallow entertainer whose major achievement was to encase himself in a cult-like ambiance that drew dissidents to him as their official representative. In fact, his words, no matter how difficult to interpret at times, came at you like a sledge hammer one minute and velvet in the next but were always true and without the impotence displayed by many of his contemporaries.
If one is familiar with the phrasing of the jazz composer and cornet titan Bix Beiderbecke, who made his mark in the earlier part of the last century, he will recognize just that approach. They, Beiderbecke and Dylan, are bookends in cultural creativeness and disposition, both exercising almost catatonic carelessness and diffidence about those around them, both single-mindedly seeking new frontiers to cross and different heights to climb in the restless search for excellence. Dylan fortunately has had more time to accomplish his goals. Beiderbecke was gone at 29, burned up by the furies of his own vulnerabilities and excesses.
Perhaps this is just the gushing of an old man who became wise too late in understanding the importance of men like Dylan to our culture. If that is the case, then it was even more important for Dylan to relieve himself of any reticence in receiving this award on the basis of unworthiness. It is important that the Swedish academy that oversees these enormously important awards has been brought around to a new position, finally.
They have put aside the traditional approach to come to the realization the cutting edge is long and sharp enough to accommodate Robert Zimmerman (Dylan) of Hibbing, Minn. — that it is time to understand that modern literature (and that includes poetry performed as music) is broad enough to include different forms.
Dylan now has reached the pinnacle he always has sought and, despite his initial hesitation, has done the correct thing. Awaiting him is a deserving place in Valhalla. Not bad for a kid from the Range.