Literary canon formation is a curious thing, and Dylan’s Nobel Prize has certainly put the cat among the pigeons on that score. There’s no question about Dylan’s commanding presence in the rock ‘n roll “canon,” if that’s an appropriate word: the canonical rock ‘n roll artists can be corralled in the second half of the 20th century. Rock ‘n roll is no longer the most popular musical form, if it’s still being made at all, and we already know the primary names of the rock canon. Apart from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and its portmanteau approach to inflating the canon by heralding little-known musical influences, no expansion is realistically possible. Rock ‘n roll is now a static form, its history set in concrete, and expanding the rock canon would be like expanding, for example, the canon of Romantic poets. We might find an interesting rocker or early influence whose discovery enriches our understanding and challenges biases, but the definition of the period would remain intact.


Nor is there any question about Dylan’s centrality to the last years of the Second Folk Movement, which can be dated to the late fifties. In an odd (and well-rehearsed) paradox, Dylan probably did as much as anyone to kill off the Folk Movement while remaining, at least to those outside the world of Dylan-watchers, the consummate 60s folksinger. The name Bob Dylan still means “Blowin’ in the Wind,” “The Times They Are A-Changin,’” and “Mr. Tambourine Man,” even if the original cultural context of those songs is long lost – whether they can be revived with cultural force is yet to be determined. And although Sara Danius suggested Blonde on Blonde as a place to start Dylan appreciation, and resist as we might this reductive equation of Dylan with his acoustic-era songs, it must be admitted that, in Stockholm on that fateful night, Patti Smith sang “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” from the acoustic Freewheelin’ album. This is the Bob Dylan even Bob Dylan himself and Patti Smith seem to recognize as his “face value.”


But Dylan didn’t win the Nobel Prize for acoustic folk, folk rock, rock, or any other kind of music (the Swedes don’t give a medal for music). Lest we forget, Dylan won the Nobel Prize in Literature. This genre-bending acknowledgment, regardless of how much we admire the Nobel Committee’s bravery, means that we must think of Dylan as part of the literary canon. He isn’t simply the most significant songwriter of his generation, nor even, to quote Richard Thomas, “the supreme artist of the English language of my time.”[1] Dylan is now a sanctioned figure in the American literary canon.


Or is he? The newest Norton Anthology of American Literature (10th Edition) doesn’t include any Dylan songs (with or without music). Not that this college tome represents the last word in canonicity.[2] But the absence of Dylan’s name, amid the welter of much less well-known authors, none of whom has won the Nobel, inevitably undermines Dylan’s new literary status. To exclude the 2016 American laureate is tantamount to denying the literariness of his work—and defying the Swedish imprimatur. It’s a puzzling omission and a missed opportunity to expand and diversify the literary canon with a homegrown interdisciplinary art form. Is this evidence of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot fighting in the captain’s tower, or simply a case of something happening here, and they don’t know what it is?[3]


Either way, the cat’s among the pigeons. Dylan’s indefinable literary status highlights the conundrum of canon formation. In my view, the Norton omission is an editorial blunder, though it might not be in the short run. But in the longer run, questions about inclusion, exclusion, and interdisciplinary diversity will fill our heads until they fall to the floor.


Redefining the concept of “Literature” with a capital “L” is fundamental to Dylan’s bid for canonicity. Henry Louis Gates addressed a similar redefinition when he edited The Norton Anthology of African American Literature in the 1990s, announcing what was for the time “an innovation in anthology production.” Gates explained that “Because of the strong oral and vernacular base of so much of our literature, we shall include a cassette tape along with our anthology. This means that each period will include both the printed and spoken text of oral and musical selections of black vernacular culture: sermons, blues, spirituals, R&B, poets reading their own ‘dialect’ poems, speeches, and other performances.”[4] According to Gates, “The canon that we define will be ‘our’ canon, one possible set of selections among several possible sets of selections.” And he concludes, “Scholars make canons.”


While I’m skeptical about this last statement, I like Gates’s knitting together of printed text and oral performance to form the “vernacular base” of literature.[5] Dylan himself hints at the same sort of knitting-together in his Nobel lecture. As Richard Thomas points out, Dylan offers “a fascinating description of how he gained mastery of the ‘vernacular’ of the early folk artists by singing the songs: ‘You internalize it. You sing it in the ragtime blues, work songs, Georgia sea shanties, Appalachian ballads and cowboy songs. You hear all the finer points, and you learn the details.’” Dylan’s lecture provides a kind of road map of personalized canon formation. Thomas summarizes it this way: “Just as he becomes Odysseus later in the lecture – ‘You too have had the drugs dropped in your wine’ – so too here he has entered into the folk songs and ballads which he has hardwired and whose world he inhabits. This is what it means to live inside the world of literature and song.”[6]


Notable by their absence are the scholarly canon-makers. Dylan’s reflections demonstrate how an artist internalizes prior works and reimagines them in his own songs, and, as Thomas highlights, Dylan’s attention to the vernacular is invaluable. Gates and his co-editors expansively define “vernacular literature” to embody popular and highly influential Black musical forms. Yet, try as we might, it’s difficult to think of Robert Johnson or Billie Holliday or Duke Ellington as literary figures. Dylan, too, has a credibility problem in terms of literary status, his lyrical genius and Nobel Prize notwithstanding. Academic curricula and public impressions make it abundantly clear that – though hope springs eternal – the redefinition of “literature” is still a work in progress. Perhaps that’s as it should be – perhaps the precise definition of literature should always be in statu nascendi: in a dynamic state of coming into being. In any case, as is also abundantly clear, no canon can be determined by fiat.


Not that Dylan’s serious audience ever worried much about that. We were convinced his survival outside the conventional canon was guaranteed because we had a card up our sleeves: the irresistibility of the songs themselves. The songs would straddle canonical limits and live on in (relative) perpetuity. As Milton said about Shakespeare in 1632, before the onslaught of Bardolatry:


What needs my Shakespeare for his honored bones,
The labor of an age in pilèd stones,
Or that his hallowed relics should be hid
Under a star-ypointing pyramid?[7]


Why should Shakespeare need a marble tomb to preserve his memory? Why should his “relics” be buried under a pyramid? Such preservation efforts are pointless: Milton apostrophizes Shakespeare, asserting “Thou…hast built thyself a livelong monument” with “easy numbers” and “the leaves of thy unvalued book.”


As has Dylan, with his 600-plus songs and his numberless recordings making up his “unvalued book.” And surely Dylan’s “easy numbers,” so riveting and transformative over the years, will be enough to build a “livelong monument.” Surely our bard, our vates, has written and played and sung himself into the canon.


But which canon? Formulated how? Sustained in what medium?


I repeat the refrain: canon formation is a curious thing. For example—if I can digress from literature – Ted Gioia recently wrote in The Atlantic that, mirabile dictu, old music was far outselling new music:


Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music – especially that endangered species known as the working musician – should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.


He records his surprise when a young cashier is singing “Message in a Bottle,” and then again at a diner, “where the entire staff was under 30 but every song was more than 40 years old.”[8]


Gioia marvels that “Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact. In fact, the audience seems to be embracing the hits of decades past instead. Success was always short-lived in the music business, but now even new songs that become bona fide hits can pass unnoticed by much of the population.” As fascinating as this phenomenon is, however, Gioia doesn’t address the converse situation, the elephant in the room regarding canonicity. It’s one thing to call attention to the unique historical situation where new tracks become hits “while generating so little cultural impact.” But there’s no reason to suppose that, conversely, the old songs now representing 70 percent of the US music market are generating any impact on contemporary culture. The old songs lack present identity: they’re interchangeable, it seems, a kind of musical wallpaper. Gioia asks his server in the diner, perhaps with cultural impact in the back of his mind, “‘Why are you playing this old music?’ She looked at me in surprise before answering: ‘Oh, I like these songs.’”


The banality of the server’s answer says it all: there’s no cultural connection to New Wave and the Police, just as singing along with “Norwegian Wood” would bring no thrill of contraband, no shared code – i.e., illegal marijauna. Would even the searing accusations of Neil Young’s “Ohio” be detected and understood? Fewer Dylan songs seem to stream through the restaurants and supermarkets, but if they did, how much cultural frisson could we expect from inadvertent listeners to “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” or even “Masters of War.” The excitement, or incitement, of 60s, 70s, and 80s songs has been absorbed into the sponge of streaming culture.


Some of us have been resisting this kind of absorption for a long time, trying to keep the context alive. We’ve been teaching Dylan courses, and Dylan in courses, throughout our careers. But for my part, I can’t say confidently that my Dylan courses have become part of the curriculum. They certainly don’t have the prestige or regularity of standard department seminars on Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Woolf, or Morrison, and Dylan isn’t assigned alongside other 20th-century poets in survey courses. This absence is understandable, perhaps, since Dylan’s official elevation to literary ranks is recent and teaching him has, until now, been a niche vocation. Not to mention that bringing Dylan into the literary classroom has always presented a technical issue, while expecting literature students to know something about folk music and the blues is often a bridge too far. Nevertheless, like many another Dylanista, I keep my hand on that plow and hold on, continuing to translate Dylan into the literary classroom.


But this alone won’t make Dylan part of the literary canon. Pace Gates, scholars don’t make the canon and professors can’t shoehorn him in. The best we can do as scholars is to facilitate future canon-makers. The best we can do is hope that, by interpolating Dylan into our teaching and research, we can inspire future poets, novelists, playwrights (and maybe poet-musicians) to respond to Dylan’s work, thus giving them the chance to internalize Dylan, to “master” him as part of the vernacular. Dylan’s canonical status is in their hands.


I’d like to be sanguine about this process. I’d like to think the founding of the spectacular Bob Dylan Archive in 2017 will have a trickle-down effect. But the song it is long and there’s more to be sung.


Allow me to close with an anecdote, a personal tale of erosion. Not so long ago in my university courses I would occasionally quote lines like “The pumps don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handles” or “there’s nothing, really nothing to turn off,” or, perhaps (with reference to upcoming grades), “A hard rain’s a-gonna fall.” I quoted Dylan—as one might quote “To be, or not to be”—to illustrate a point, serendipitously, in Paradise Lost, say, or to link a passage in Mary Wroth to the ”sound of the street.” The Dylan lines would resonate familiarly with the class, bringing a smile of recognition (and, ideally, an LED of connection). But gradually, and then abruptly, the recognition disappeared. It seemed to me to be a precipitous erosion, a mudslide. Like Hemingway’s going bankrupt: gradually, and then all at once. And while I’d like to believe Ted Gioia’s statistics about old music, I haven’t seen much evidence of it. As things stand now, alas, I get more resonance in class from straight Milton quotes than from Dylan: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” draws nods and smiles; “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” produces blank faces.


Canonicity always has an element of unpredictability – waiting for the right configuration of admirers to come along, for the times to be ready for the specific kind of innovation a writer offers. John Donne is one example of this. Known and admired in his lifetime, he never published his poetry, which only appeared in a posthumous volume. His reputation waned and by the 18th century he’d become all but invisible: Samuel Johnson didn’t even include Donne in The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets.[9] It took Herbert Grierson’s 1912 Oxford edition of Donne and T.S. Eliot’s book review of that edition to set Donne into the firmament. This is a good example of how scholars and poet/critics depend on each other. Anna Laetitia Barbauld offers another, perhaps more significant example. Celebrated in her day for her poetry and novels, she had a measurable influence on Romantic poets around the time of the French Revolution. But she was forgotten until the late 20th century, when her importance required a re-historicizing of the Romantic context and a reassessment of the Romantic canon, if not of canonicity itself.


It might be that a genuine classic like Milton reasserts himself, even if he temporarily goes out of fashion, while someone like Dylan hasn’t yet had that advantage. Time is a critical factor. Milton has had centuries to acquire his status, whether through other poets’ imitation or simply through habitual anthologizing. But Milton is a rarity. In other cases, there are lapses, as happened with Emily Dickinson or even Whitman, who was revered by a coterie after his death but needed William Carlos Williams and the Beats to acquire the canonicity he now enjoys. Melville became instantly famous with his first novel, yet when he died the New York Times misspelled his name. Critics always recognized how crucial he was to the American literary canon – Lewis Mumford’s 1929 book about him was a major effort to reestablish his importance in the public mind, as was F. O. Matthiessen’s 1941 American Renaissance. But it took John Huston’s 1956 film (script by Ray Bradbury), with Gregory Peck stumping around as Ahab, to affix Melville’s name in the cultural consciousness.


Despite the Nobel Committee’s top-down decision, Dylan’s time hasn’t yet come, at least not the way it has for others. As my own experience in class shows, in terms of Dylan’s cultural recognizability, we’re still in the cycle of ups and downs other many major cultural figures have survived. Maybe Dylan will never have the same status Milton does now, but meanwhile we’re doing all we can to ensure that the current upswing in Dylan’s reputation continues. And though we realize that scholars alone don’t make canons, the Dylan Review is our contribution – one of many from California to the New York island – to the current (and future) moment.




[1] Richard F. Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 322.

[2] None of the other anthologies I checked included Dylan, although I’ve seen his songs in the past. Notably, Edward Hirsch’s fairly selective The Heart of American Poetry (Library of America, 2022) includes Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues [Take two]” but no Dylan.

[3] As an example of what I mean – a literary friend of mine read this last phrase and didn’t
recognize the reference.

[4] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Canon-Formation, Literary History, and the Afro-American Tradition: From the Seen to the Told,” in Falling into Theory: Conflicting Views on Reading Literature, edited by David H. Richter (Boston: Bedford), 180. The cassette tapes have evolved into CDs and password-protected digital content accompanying each copy of the book.

[5] Though beside the point here, I’m more inclined to agree with Harold Bloom, the bête noire of the canon debate. Bloom used to tell his students, “Critics and scholars don’t make the canon. Poets do.” He expanded on this idea in many books, as for instance in The Western Canon: “Poems, stories, novels, plays come into being as a response to prior poems, stories, novels, and plays, and that response depends on acts of reading and interpretation by the later writers, acts that are identical with the new works.” See The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994), 9. This is a many-sided, complex debate, beyond the purview of this column. Cf., inter alia, John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Contingencies of Value: Alternative Perspectives for Literary Theory (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988).

[6] Thomas, Why Bob Dylan Matters, 312-313; 314.

[7] John Milton, The Complete Poetry and Essential Prose, edited by William Kerrigan, John Rumrich, and Stephen M. Fallon (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 34.

[8] Ted Gioia, Is Old Music Killing New Music? The Atlantic, January 23, 2022; date accessed: June 17, 2022.

[9] Johnson’s Lives, though indicative of a celebrated critic’s selection, is by no means definitive. He leaves out Ben Jonson too, while including the notorious John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. And, predictably, there are no women at all in Johnson’s Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (1779-81).