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Local View: Dylan’s Nobel a confirmation of Duluth’s vibrant arts scene

(Luojie / Cagle Cartoons)

On Saturday, Bob Dylan will be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Of 112 such awards, only 12 Americans have been so honored, including William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck. The first American laureate was another Minnesotan, novelist Sinclair Lewis, in 1930.

Bob Dylan, of course, was born in Duluth in 1941 as Robert Zimmerman, moving with his family to Hibbing in 1947. After landing briefly at the University of Minnesota in 1959, he left for Greenwich Village in New York and, as the saying goes, the rest is history.

Sinclair Lewis was a native of Sauk Centre, Minn. He left for college at age 17 but never completely severed his ties to his home state. It’s worth noting that Dylan, too, has retained a part-time home in Minnesota for many years. There are some other parallels.

The Nobel nomination for Lewis, best known for his novel, “Main Street,” cited him for “his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humour, new types of characters.” H.L. Mencken said of Lewis that he had “an authentic calling to his trade.” And his biographer, Sheldon Grebstein, called him “the conscience of his generation.”

Those descriptions might easily be applied to Dylan as well, who already was being called “the voice of his generation” in the 1960s. Dylan’s Nobel nomination cites his “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Christopher Ricks, a former professor of English at both Cambridge and Oxford universities, and who has written extensively on Dylan, John Keats, John Milton, T.S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett, sees Dylan as bearing serious comparison with William Shakespeare.

Lewis was living in Duluth from 1943 until 1945 — at the exact same time as the Zimmerman family. Remarkably, for a period of two years or so, there were two Nobel literature laureates, one known and one as yet unknown, living in the same, small, unique city at the western tip of Lake Superior.

Though brief, Sinclair Lewis’ time in Duluth was not merely tangential to his life. In 1947 he published “Kingsblood Royal,” which was seen by some critics as an enlarged and updated version of “Main Street,” based on his Duluth experience. His earlier novel, “Babbitt,” described a fictional Midwestern city called “Zenith,” not necessarily specifically about Duluth but an interesting choice of a name given Duluth’s association with the term “Zenith City.” It was while living in Duluth that his only child, Wells Lewis, was killed in action in France.

For Dylan, the association with Duluth is of the most basic and indelible kind. He drew his first breath here, took his first drink of water, walked his first steps, spoke his first words, and, certainly, heard and sang his first songs. It was here, too, that his father was stricken with polio. He repeatedly and fondly has recalled Duluth and Hibbing, directly and indirectly, in songs and interviews. Anecdotes still have him making occasional quiet visits to the area.

Dylan’s Nobel award puts an exclamation point on the fact that Duluth is an artistic city, a place that is much more than raw materials, transportation, manufacturing and tourism. This place has a vibrant arts scene that includes, but is not limited to, music, painting, theater, ballet, glassblowing, metal sculpture, printmaking, architecture, stained glass, photography, and, yes, literature. And that’s not everything by any means. More than a few Duluthians derive their living entirely or in part, directly or indirectly, from some form of art.

So while it’s pleasant to be associated with Nobel laureates, we Duluthians should be taking this circumstance to heart as part of our self-

awareness. After a century and a half this city is really just beginning to find its own, authentic identity.

Donald Dass of Duluth is a poet and a past member of the Duluth Arts and Heritage Preservation Commission.