Bob Dylan is at it again: plagiarism.
Such is the latest charge levied against the septuagenarian singer-songwriter. His long-awaited, late-delivered acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature he was awarded last year — a disquisition on the nature of art and literature, with references to Moby Dick, Homer’s Odyssey, and All Quiet on the Western Front — apparently contains portions that match, almost word-for-word, the Sparknotes entries for Moby-Dick. It’s an amusing image: Bob Dylan, hunched over his computer late at night, the room lit only by the screen display of a website not typically visited by anyone over the age of 22.
Even in a world hyper-sensitive to the sin of plagiarism, I haven’t yet seen anyone of note arguing that Dylan should be stripped of his prize, although one website did call him “one giant a**hole.” That assessment is incorrect. Look through the corpus of Dylan’s career and you’ll see gratuitous borrowing throughout, though it may have become more common in his old age. But this isn’t the lazy sort of plagiarism you’d see from a high-school junior desperate to finish an essay on a half-skimmed copy of Macbeth. Dylan’s plagiarism betrays a mind voracious and vastly read, with far too much bubbling out to keep locked inside. If anything, Dylan’s is a positive plagiarism, one that speaks to the genius of the author rather than his impotence.
Consider Love and Theft, Dylan’s album released on September 11, 2001. It contains multiple lines overtly lifted from an obscure Japanese memoir entitled Confessions of a Yakuza alongside quotes from The Great Gatsby. One song even features a description of food cooked in garlic and olive oil taken from a New Orleans travel guide. “Early Roman Kings,” on the 2012 album Tempest, is little more than the Muddy Waters song “Mannish Boy” spruced up with a new set of lyrics. None of this is surprising, coming as Dylan does from a folk tradition that prizes the process of borrowing and reinvention. For Dylan, this process began at a very early age: His famed cover of “House of the Rising Sun” was almost identical to the version he had learned from his Greenwich Village folk mentor, Dave Van Ronk, leaving the latter sour about what he considered an egregious theft. Whether it was indeed theft remains open to dispute.
Dylan’s greatest festival of plagiarism is his 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. In it, he borrows liberally from Jack London, old issues of Time magazine, writings of the rock journalist Gerry Hirshey, the poet Archibald MacLeish, author John Dos Passos, and the Clinton-era bestseller The 48 Laws of Power. That’s only a smattering of discovered instances of plagiarism: Far more likely exist, too esoteric for even the most fanatical of Dylanologists to uncover. And it’s not just choice words and eloquent lines that Dylan seems to have borrowed; often, it’s entire passages, paragraphs composed of phrases found in various parts of a work, making Chronicles seem at times like a cut-and-paste job collating all the great and not-so-great works of American culture.
That is the genius of Dylan’s peculiar latter-day style. Having mastered the wide field of American culture — indeed, having contributed so much American culture as it exists today — he now sees fit to create works linking all its pieces together. In a single work, he unifies what often seems like an unruly, disparate American mishmash in contrast to the thick national iconographies of Europe. Through his plagiarism he distills the body of American culture into the work and persona of one man — a fitting accomplishment for one of the artistic behemoths of his nation now nearing the end of his decades in public life.
Chronicles seems at times like a cut-and-paste job collating all the great and not-so-great works of American culture.
To use the word “plagiarism” to describe what Dylan does, then, seems incorrect, tarnished as the word is with allegations of theft and deceit. The intention, in Dylan’s case, could not be further from the truth. The works of others are not something he turns to in times of sloth-induced desperation to pass off as his own. Rather, they are wellsprings of invention and interpretation, works to pair with others to create something new and, in many cases a whole greater in quality than the sum of its parts.
There’s a well-known saying, possibly apocryphal, attributed to Picasso: “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” (Appropriately, this may well have been a rephrasing of something T. S. Eliot once wrote.) If what Dylan does is plagiarism, let it be; we are all the better for it.