Bob Dylan's impact on popular music and the arts is undeniable, but his role as an important literary figure was questioned in 2016 when the aging troubadour was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. He was the first songwriter to garner the prestigious award.
Dylan's validity as a literary figure is the subject of Harvard classics professor Richard F. Thomas's new book, "Why Bob Dylan Matters." Thomas is set to appear at 4 p.m. Feb. 17 at the Lutheran Church Sanctuary during the Savannah Book Festival.
Thomas is a Dylanologist, but he's spent the majority of his career teaching on the classic lyrical poets - Virgil, Homer and Ovid. In his youth, during the golden era of folk music of the mid-1960s, Thomas became infatuated with Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Throughout his life, and teaching career, he had often made notes of the parallels of modern poets and the classic poets. These sidebar thoughts would later culminate into essays and eventually a class at Harvard on Dylan.
In 2016, when the Nobel Prize was announced, an expansive debate stirred, crossing the worlds of music journalism and literary critique. Dylan himself seemed mystified as well, not appearing to want his prize. He didn't release a public statement for months, nor did he respond to phone calls from the Swedish Academy. He finally accepted the award in a private ceremony in 2017.
For Thomas, it all made rather perfect sense.
"The backlash is sort of lionizing," Thomas said. "I've been teaching [a class] every four years since 2004. I happened to be teaching it on the day of the Nobel announcement. I had been thinking about doing a book one of these years. I've written a couple articles on him and the classics over the years.
"I know guys who have been putting Dylan up for the Nobel for years. The committee has been reading some serious Dylan writing. Salman Rushdie and Stephen King coming out and applauding it."
Last year's Nobel winner, Kazuo Ishiguro, said Bob Dylan had a lot of influence on him and had a lot to do with his wanting to be a writer, Thomas added.
"Joni Mitchell might complain about Bob not being original, but every musician, whether they're folk, punk, or metal, they revere Dylan," Thomas said. "That shows that something, however you define it, something is going on there that we're not going to see again in our lifetime."
In approaching the book, Thomas only dabbled in an academic approach, primarily writing from a personal experience that explores his own journey through Dylan's music contrasted with his rigorous study of classical poets. Confirming his hypothesis in a sense, Dylan has begun drawing inspiration from the likes of Virgil and Homer in the past two decades of his songwriting.
"I am not a musician, but the music of Dylan and the music of English poetry, American poetry, has always been part of my blood in a way," Thomas said. "I don't think Dylan, back then, was reading any of these poets. I think, accidentally, culturally and musically America and Rome have similarities. The two came to be not unrelated in my mind. That was a pretty academic way to look at Dylan, and not just Dylan, but Cohen as well. Cohen was sort of lapping onto poets like Catullus and Virgil."
For his Nobel lecture, a speech he had to give in order to receive the $891,00 in prize money, Dylan traces the influence of literature and music on his own songwriting. Beginning with Buddy Holly and "Moby Dick," Dylan ends up talking about the "The Odyssey."
"From 2001 on, that is when he starts alluding to and using and creatively reusing actual text, including Homer," Thomas said. "In the lecture, Dylan talks more openly and more honestly than he ever has about how his art came to be. He ends up talking about 'The Odyssey.' I was able to add a bit to the book, because it completely confirmed my hypothesis. Dylan on 'Tempest,' the latest album, the characters on a couple of songs have basically become Odysseus. Dylan, more or less, in the lecture said that's what he was doing."
One aspect of the argument that might undercut the importance of Dylan when compared with literary giants like Shakespeare or Virgil is time. Thousands of years separate us from Virgil, hundreds of years from Shakespeare, and in that distance we see the importance of their work and influence on other writers and artists. Comparably, Dylan's almost 60-year career, which is still active, might be hard to gauge through the lens of long-form literary importance.
"That's a tough one," Thomas said. "Virgil, who I've written the most on, was taught in his own lifetime. I think that's an index for a classic, whether musical or literary terms. It usually takes about a generation to see if the person is going to stick around. Every classic starts out by being pop on some level. If it's not pop, i.e. popular, it's never going to make it. It has to appeal to people. I think a lot of opera buffs forget that opera was entertainment. It was popular.
"We have these stories of Virgil walking into the theater with the emperor and everyone standing and cheering for Virgil," Thomas continued. "He was sort of a rock star in his day. Particularly, if you've suffered under some Latin teacher in school, you tend not to be able to easily recover that aspect.
"I think the believers are outnumbering the critics. I think there's also an attitude, of not wanting academia to spoil Dylan by turning him into some museum piece. â€¦ Which is not what I am doing at all. Just as they don't want the arrangement of 'Blood On The Tracks' to be redone. They don't want their image of Dylan, who's a dropout and a hipster, to be painted by professors."
RICHARD F. THOMAS
Book: "Why Bob Dylan Matters"
When: 4 p.m. Feb. 17
Where: Lutheran Church Sanctuary, 120 Bull St., Wright Square
Hear Bob Dylan discuss his 2016 Nobel Lecture in Literature at DoSavannah.com.