Thanks to Bob Dylan, rock ’n roll has finally broken through the Pulitzer wall.
Dylan, the most acclaimed and influential songwriter of the past half century, who more than anyone brought rock from the streets to the lecture hall, received an honorary Pulitzer Prize on Monday, cited for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”
It was the first time Pulitzer judges, who have long favored classical music, and, more recently, jazz, awarded an art form once dismissed as barbaric, even subversive.
“I am in disbelief,” Dylan fan and fellow Pulitzer winner Junot Diaz said of Dylan’s award.
Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” a tragic, but humorous story of desire, politics and violence among Dominicans at home and in the United States, won the fiction prize. Diaz, 39, worked for more than a decade on his first novel — “I spent most of the time on dead-ends and doubts,” he told The Associated Press on Monday — and at one point included a section about Dylan.
“Bob Dylan was a problem for me,” Diaz, who has also published a story collection, “Drown,” said with a laugh. “I had one part that was 40 pages long, the entire chapter was organized around Bob Dylan’s lyrics over a two year-period (1967-69). By the end of it, I wanted to throttle my like of Bob Dylan.”
The Pulitzer for drama was given to Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” which, like Diaz’s novel, combines comedy and brutality. Letts calls the play “loosely autobiographical,” a bruising family battle spanning several generations of unhappiness and unfulfilled dreams.
“It’s a play I have been working on in my head and on paper for many years now,” said Letts, reached by the AP in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Theater Company, where “August: Osage County” had its world premiere last summer.
“There were just some details from my grandmother, my grandfather’s suicide (for example) that I had played over and over in my head for many, many years. I always thought, ‘Well, that’s the stuff of drama right there.”’
Former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, already a National Book Award winner for “Time and Materials,” won the poetry Pulitzer, as did Philip Schultz’s “Failure.”
“This is the book ... I have always wanted to write,” Schultz told the AP. “Everyone is expert on one subject and failure seems to be mine. ... I was born into it. My father went bankrupt when I was 18 and he died soon afterward out of (a) terrible sense of shame. And we lost everything, my mother and I.”
Other winners Monday: Daniel Walker Howe, for history, for “What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848”; Saul Friedlander, general nonfiction, for “The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945”; for biography, John Matteson’s “Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father.”
“I wrote my book in a way that is generally accessible to the curious literate reader,” Howe said. “And I think that’s very important, and I wish more books were written that way.”
“It’s a special honor because it ties me even more to the country of which I’m now a citizen,” said Friedlander, who became a U.S. citizen seven years ago and won the German Booksellers Association’s 2007 Peace Prize for his work on documenting the Holocaust.
“I am surprised, grateful, overjoyed — and a little embarrassed to do this with my first book,” said Matteson, a professor of English at John Jay College in New York City who added that his 14-year-old daughter was an inspiration.
“Not only did I understand parenting better after writing the book, but being a parent helped me to write the book.”
Dylan’s victory doesn’t mean that the Pulitzers have forgotten classical composers. The competitive prize for music was given to David Lang’s “The Little Match Girl Passion,” which opened last fall at Carnegie Hall, where Dylan has also performed.
“Bob Dylan is the most frequently played artist in my household so the idea that I am honored at the same time as Bob Dylan, that is humbling,” Lang told the AP.
Long after most of his contemporaries either died, left the business or held on by the ties of nostalgia, Dylan continues to tour almost continuously and release highly regarded CDs, most recently “Modern Times.” Fans, critics and academics have obsessed over his lyrics — even digging through his garbage for clues — since the mid-1960s, when such protest anthems as “Blowing in the Wind” made Dylan a poet and prophet for a rebellious generation.
His songs include countless biblical references and he has claimed Chekhov, Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac as influences. His memoir, “Chronicles, Volume One,” received a National Book Critics Circle nomination in 2005 and is widely acknowledged as the rare celebrity book that can be treated as literature.
According to publisher Simon & Schuster, Dylan is working on a second volume of memoirs. No release date has been set.