Despite his personal stance as a pacifist, Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel amassed a fortune inventing and selling explosives to European militaries throughout the 19th century. Toward the end of his life, however, Nobel experienced a Dickensian awakening. Mistaking his brother’s death for his, a newspaper published an obituary proclaiming, “the merchant of death is dead.” Shaken by the characterization, Nobel began considering how he might reshape his legacy. He altered his will, putting the vast majority of his wealth into a trust that would fund five annually awarded “Nobel Prizes” for Science, Medicine, Chemistry, Literature, and “International Fraternity,” which has become known as “Peace.” The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, just over four years after Nobel’s death.
Today, the Nobel Prizes are considered by many the ultimate recognition of excellence, as well as a form of economic support that allows a pioneer in a field to continue pursuing advancement, regardless of potential monetary gain. Thus, when the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to celebrated musician and lyricist Bob Dylan, debates about the decision raged around the world. People asked: Does songwriting count as literature? Does Dylan’s writing maintain its quality when not performed with music? Will Dylan’s Nobel Award create more awareness for literature, or does it block the voices of less famous writers? Could the monetary award have gone to someone more in need of it than a world-famous Rock star? Even Dylan seemed surprised at the announcement, stating in his acceptance speech that the award got him “to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature.”
Many poets and novelists lamented that an award for literature was going to someone who has already been extensively honored for his music. Novelist Jodi Picoult, for example, sarcastically tweeted, “I’m happy for Bob Dylan. But does this mean I can win a Grammy?” Other writers, like Salman Rushdie, celebrated Dylan’s achievement, positioning him in a long line of influential bards going back to Homer. Music critics were similarly split on the decision. For Dylan admirers, the award was overdue: “What took them so long?” asked New York Times critic Jon Pareles. Others were less enthused, arguing that a figure as universally beloved as Dylan was the safe choice, and more of a reflection of the makeup of the Swedish Academy who chooses winners than anything else. “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel Prize for Literature says nothing about the quality of Dylan’s work,” critic Everett True wrote, “and everything about the age, ethnicity and gender of the Nobel Prize for Literature judges.”
Perhaps the most severe criticism of Dylan’s win concerned his originality. In a tweet, novelist Hari Kunzru wrote, “does this mean we get to have a serious conversation about Dylan as appropriator and boundaries between that and plagiarism?” Kunzru’s critique of Dylan has a long history: readers have found multiple instances of plagiarism in his memoir Chronicles: Volume One, as well as in his albums Modern Times and (the appropriately titled) Love and Theft. Dylan’s Nobel acceptance speech even plagiarized text from “Sparknotes,” a study guide website.
Yet, what some call plagiarism, Dylan and many others refer to as “borrowing,” or “inspiration.” Many would argue such practices are an essential part of an American songwriting tradition that generously borrows from the cultural melting pot that is the United States. As Dylan once expressed, American folk songs “gave me the code for everything that’s fair game, that everything belongs to everyone.”
The Swedish Academy awarded Bob Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” In this lesson, students consider the role Dylan has played in both literature and the American song tradition, and debate whether his work indeed constitutes “new poetic expressions” worthy of the prestigious award.