Bob Dylan and his uneasy Nobel predecessors

Dylan leaves Nobel blowin' in the wind
Dylan leaves Nobel blowin' in the wind

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Story highlights

  • Nicolaus Mills: Bob Dylan says he may go to the Nobel Prize ceremonies
  • He joins other winners who were also modest about receiving the honor, Mills writes

Nicolaus Mills is chair of the literature department at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)"A writer should write what he has to say and not speak it," Ernest Hemingway wrote the Swedish Academy in 1954 by way of explaining his decision not to travel to Stockholm to receive his Nobel Prize.

Hemingway was aware that merit often did not guarantee receiving the honor.
"As a Nobel winner I cannot but regret that it was never given to Mark Twain, nor Henry James, speaking only of my own countrymen," he told an interviewer.
Nicolaus Mills
It's hard to know if similar feelings of doubt are behind the distance Bob Dylan has put between himself and the Swedish Academy that earlier this month awarded him this year's Nobel Prize for Literature.
Dylan appears to be of two minds. In a lengthy interview with The Telegraph, Dylan, who has an art exhibit opening at London's Halcyon Gallery on November 5, seemed both willing and tentative about making a special trip to claim his Nobel Prize. "Absolutely, if at all possible," Dylan replied when asked if he would travel to Stockholm for the December 10 Nobel Prize ceremonies.
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Hemingway made a point of telling the Swedish Academy that he had "no facility for speech making and no command of oratory." Dylan, whose best writing is inseparable from his music, has even more of a claim to being a fish out of water at any Nobel ceremony.
But there is a big difference between ignoring winning the Nobel Prize and putting the prize in perspective so that more than one's own accomplishments occupy the center of the Nobel award ceremony.
Two very different Americans -- T. S. Eliot, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, and Martin Luther King Jr., who won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964 -- managed to accept the prize with grace and simultaneously deflect attention from themselves.
Bob Dylan has a chance to do the same.
Eliot began his speech to the Swedish Academy by acknowledging the impossible position every Nobel laureate faced. To say he was unworthy of the Nobel Prize was to cast doubt on the wisdom of the Academy. To praise the Academy was to indulge in personal vanity. The way out of this dilemma, Eliot went on to say, was to serve, as best he could, as a representative of what the Nobel Prize in Literature stood for.
In his case, Eliot thought that meant accepting the prize as emblematic of the "supra-national value" of poetry -- its ability to transcend the language in which it was originally written.
"I stand before you, not on my own merits, but as a symbol, for a time, of the significance of poetry," he declared in the conclusion of his address to the Swedish Academy.
King took a similar stance in Oslo, Norway, when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.
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He viewed the prize as an award given to the American civil rights movement rather than to himself. "I accept the Nobel Prize for Peace at a moment when 22 million Negroes of the United States of America are engaged in a creative battle to end the long night of racial injustice," King observed in the opening sentence of his acceptance speech.
King, who was haunted by his memory of those who had died because of their participation in the civil rights movement, believed the Nobel Prize that he received spoke to the future, as well as the past, of the civil rights movement.
"I conclude that this award which I receive on behalf of that movement is a profound recognition that nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral lesson of our time," he insisted.
Bob Dylan, a poet whose "Blowin' in the Wind" served as an anthem of the civil rights movement, has walked along the paths taken by both Eliot and King. A Nobel Prize speech from Dylan that follows in their footsteps would be consistent with who he is.
What Eliot and King realized was that modesty, at key points in history, requires eloquence to be understood. At Stockholm and Oslo, they did not shy away from that paradox.