Did Bob Dylan steal parts of his Nobel lecture?

A writer for Slate writes today that Bob Dylan appears to have lifted some passages in his Nobel Prize lecture last week.

Andrea Pitzer writes that in his lecture, Dylan cited three works as influencing his songwriting: The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Moby-Dick.

In his lecture, Dylan says a “Quaker pacifist priest” tells the third mate in Moby Dick, “Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness.”

There’s no such line in Moby Dick.

It’s in a SparkNotes character list, she says.

That sent her investigating the rest of the lecture.

Following up on this strange echo, I began delving into the two texts side by side and found that many lines Dylan used throughout his Nobel discussion of Moby-Dick appear to have been cribbed even more directly from the site. The SparkNotes summary for Moby-Dick explains, “One of the ships … carries Gabriel, a crazed prophet who predicts doom.” Dylan’s version reads, “There’s a crazy prophet, Gabriel, on one of the vessels, and he predicts Ahab’s doom.”

Shortly after, the SparkNotes account relays that “Captain Boomer has lost an arm in an encounter with Moby Dick. … Boomer, happy simply to have survived his encounter, cannot understand Ahab’s lust for vengeance.” In his lecture, Dylan says, “Captain Boomer—he lost an arm to Moby. But … he’s happy to have survived. He can’t accept Ahab’s lust for vengeance.”

Across the 78 sentences in the lecture that Dylan spends describing Moby-Dick, even a cursory inspection reveals that more than a dozen of them appear to closely resemble lines from the SparkNotes site. And most of the key shared phrases in these passages (such as “Ahab’s lust for vengeance” in the above lines) do not appear in the novel Moby-Dick at all.

Pitzer says Dylan lifting the work of others is nothing new and checking his work has sparked a cottage industry.

Dylan got $923,000 for his lecture as part of his Nobel Prize in literature.

Pitzer says he should give some of it to the authors of the work he used.

  • Gary F

    He did some “sampling” .

  • I’m sure Herman Melville, Homer and Erich Maria Remarque will appreciate their share of the prize money.

    • KTFoley

      I’m pretty sure that Ms. Pitzer meant the writers on the SparkNotes site.

      • I think a story about the people who write SparkNotes would be fascinating. Is it freelance? Do they pay by the book? Do they make interns do it? I’m so curious!

        • KTFoley

          Good question. I envision high school English teachers who bemoan the fact that their students use these but who also need summer work.

          In my imagination, the not-so-accurate character summaries are a gift to their peers, planted to easily pick out which theme papers/Nobel speeches were written without the benefit of ever having read the book. They might also be used to pick out stolen content a la the deliberate errors on maps that cartographers use to catch people copying their work.

          • Subterfuge! I’m going with your theory until I learn otherwise 😀

  • Rob

    Gives new meaning to the title of Dylan’s “Love and Theft” album. Or, as the old adage goes: Good artists borrow; great artists steal.

  • joetron2030

    “Sampling”, “stealing”, or “borrowing”, call it what you will. He’s been doing it his entire career.

    And, I don’t say that as a charge or complaint. I say that as a fan.