Bob Dylan, Nobel Laureate: Yah-Boo!

John Hughes is Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Gloucestershire, and is the author of Invisible Now: Bob Dylan in the 1960s (Ashgate, 2013).


Bob Dylan’s elevation to Nobel Prize winner is something that has been in the wind for a while you can say, since every year his name is mooted as a candidate, a kind of standing reproach for some to the literary elitism of the Nobel committee. However, as so often with Dylan, the actuality of the prize has been divisive, testifying to his continuing power to stoke controversy over the value of what he does: specifically the literary quality, or even literary status, of his work.  On the one hand, poets and writers throng to celebrate the award, and Seamus Perry, Chair of the Oxford English Faculty, makes an enthusiastic claim (with which I find it hard to disagree): that ‘Dylan winning the Nobel was always the thing you thought should happen in a reasonable world but still seemed unimaginable in this one’. On the other hand, the briefest glance at the internet or social media shows how actually how totally unimaginable it appears to so many people in fact that it should have been awarded in this world. Above all, the award has just irritated so many people who appear bamboozled by it, leading novelist Irving Welsh to claim in an oft-repeated tweet, that it was a ‘nostalgia award’ wrenched from ‘senile, gibbering hippies’. 

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‘Hardy and the Inaugural’: Professor John Hughes’s Inaugural Lecture at the University of Gloucestershire

Stinsford Church, Dorset, burial site of Hardy’s heart.

Old and new friends and colleagues gathered together last Wednesday to hear John Hughes, Professor of Nineteenth-Century English Literature, give his Inaugural Lecture. The poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, about whom John has published for many years, is fascinated by beginnings and transitional states. In his lecture ‘Hardy and the Inaugural’, John took up the notion of the ‘inaugural’ as a particular quality of lyric poetry. He remarks:

The lecture explores the idea of the inaugural as to do with transitions, turning points, transformations, and new beginnings. It links this discussion to an account of the effects of poetic language in general, and to some examples drawn from the poetry of Thomas Hardy, in particular. 

And, he might have added, from Bob Dylan. In an unexpected departure**, John drew insights from Hardy’s poetry to show how Bob Dylan represented an inaugural stage of 1960s culture, a poet who shares Hardy’s awareness of creative moments of transition. Dylan is as famous for the way he appears in photos as for the way he sounds; John argued persuasively that these visual representations contained what Hardy would have called poetic ‘Moments of Being’. Even politicians are keen to borrow some of Dylan’s aura for themselves; one of John’s lecture slides, showing David and Samantha Cameron in a photo from the Huffington Post in which their body language imitated that of Dylan and Suze Rotolo on the cover of The Freewheeling Bob Dylan, brought the house down. But John was making a serious point about how the inaugural can be recuperated, morally, politically and aesthetically, so that its representations can create the illusions of transitions.

The Vice-Chancellor, Stephen Marston, introduced John, and Professor Peter Childs proposed the traditional vote of thanks afterwards.

**but we await eagerly Professor John Hughes’s book Invisible Now: Bob Dylan in the 1960s, to be published by Ashgate in August 2013.