What is literature? It’s the beautiful total of our human ambitions. Bob Dylan captured them.
The summer before my senior year, I got my first car: a 1963 Dodge Dart convertible. Push-button transmission and no working radio. So like teens in 1995, we would put a boom box in the back seat and blare tinny CDs into the summer night. Being of a certain bent, the album of that summer, as we moved slowly away from grunge and our Nine Inch Nails phase, was Highway 61 Revisited. My primary memory of that time was the giddy thrill of hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” over and over again, singing along to lyrics we knew better with every repetition, and that we were slowly, agonizingly, with the rumbles of growing up, to understand. How does it feel? And what does it mean?
So, what is literature? It’s a question a lot of people are asking themselves this morning, as the news that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize for Literature begins to seep in. The short answer is literature is a lot of things; the long answer is that it is everything. It’s who we are as a people. It’s the attempt to transmit the mysteries of consciousness and the impossibility of interaction with other conscious beings into a form we can understand. It’s translating the divine, even in the most secular sense. It’s hard to argue, then, that Bob Dylan didn’t do just that.
Through the years, he got grizzled and weird, more of a punchline for some people than a living and breathing artist. He retreated away from the voice of a generation nonsense, which he never embraced, and became more fully the animal he always was: the champion, and the channel, of America’s musical heritage. He pulled from all the traditions, paying homage to its diversity, from hollers of West Virginia to the spirituals of the enslaved to the hobo songs echoing throughout an endless and always receding west, the most beautiful and enduring image of America. He became like putting on every Alan Lomax recording at once, filtered through that increasingly raspy, but still sly and probing, gristle of a voice.
It’s hard to argue, for me, that the man who embodied the finest and most contradictory creative traditions of such a difficult and pained and faltered and flawed and impossible and gracious land couldn’t at least be considered for the Prize.
Even as a young man, these were his traditions, singing homage to Leadbelly and Sonny Houston and Woody.
One can argue, contra tradition, that going electric at Newport was Cervantes taking a vernacular ax to the Latin.
But really, isn’t that a tradition? Loving what came before and channeling it into something new? Something that fit the time? Something that anticipated the strange direction we were going?
Bob Dylan may or may not have been the “voice of his generation”. I don’t think he was a voice, or a prophet. He was a chronicler and a channeler of his time. He brought his weird humor and his prickly aggressions and his intense poetic yearnings and genuinely goddamn great musicianship and used them to reflect on the strange times in which he lived. He was always a mirror, not a sage. He wasn’t a revolutionary; he was a bard who lived in revolutionary times. He was in the great traditions of his country.
There are people who can, and will, talk far better than me about his music, his highs and lows, his comeback, and his settling into being an eminence gristle. But I know that I’ve never once been bored when listening to Dylan, which I have consistently for well over two decades now.
I get a thrill every time the opening lines of “Visions of Johanna” come tumbling down the stairs, and cry a little bit with “If You See Her Say Hello“. I remember a Pennsylvania country sunset, near some Andrew Wyeth field, singing to myself “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” while walking hand in hand with a girl to whom I was saying goodbye. I laugh at the brilliant humor and magical images in “Desolation Row”. I love watching him and Johnny Cash goof on each other in a live version of “Girl From North Country.” And that’s just his first decade!
He’s one of those artists who, while listening to him on a road trip with my wife, I can say “No wait, THIS is my favorite of his songs” dozens of times, and mean it each and every time. Each one has a memory for me and a place in the American tradition. Each one captures something about who we are, who he is, and what this country is. You can talk about “who deserves it more”, but I think it is great that, with a clanging sqwuank of an electric amp, the Nobel committee has expanded what literature actually means, capturing it in all its glory.
If push comes to shove, though, my favorite song is “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”. How can it be any different? It’s what I always thought of during those summer nights, when a bunch of gawky young men, bursting with ideas we weren’t, and still aren’t, smart enough to articulate, but with a desire to explore, and to understand the world, and to find new music and new ways to listen and to know, felt while listening to someone yowl the songs of the road: you’re the reason that I’m traveling on.