The most influential songwriter of his time has become the first rock star voted into the elite, century-old American Academy of Arts and Letters, where artists range from Philip Roth to Jasper Johns and categories include music, literature and visual arts. According to executive director Virginia Dajani, officials couldn't decide whether he belonged for his words or for his music, so they settled on making him an honorary member, joining such previous choices as Meryl Streep, Woody Allen and a filmmaker who has made a documentary about Dylan, Martin Scorsese.
"The board of directors considered the diversity of his work and acknowledged his iconic place in the American culture," Dajani said recently. "Bob Dylan is a multi-talented artist whose work so thoroughly crosses several disciplines that it defies categorization."
Dylan's manager, Jeff Rosen, had no immediate comment on Dylan's reaction—Dylan did accept membership, a condition for the vote to go through—or whether he would attend the academy's April dinner or May induction ceremony. Dylan usually tours in the spring and is already booked for much of April for shows in the East and Midwest, none of them in the New York City area.
"I would guess it's unlikely," Dajani said of whether Dylan would show up for either occasion.
On Tuesday, the academy announced three other honorary choices, all from overseas: Spanish architect Rafael Moneo, South African writer Damon Galgut and Belgian artist Luc Tuymans.
Excluding honorary picks, the academy consists of 250 artists, musicians and writers. Openings occur upon a member's death, with current inductees nominating and voting in new ones. Members have no real responsibilities beyond agreeing to join, although some become active in the academy, which awards prizes worth as much as $200,000.
Founded in 1898 and based in upper Manhattan, the academy once was designed to keep the likes of Dylan away, shunning everyone from jazz artists to modernist poets. Even now, the vast majority of the musicians come from the classical community, with exceptions including Stephen Sondheim and Ornette Coleman. Dajani and other officials have said that the academy is reluctant to vote in rock performers because they already have organizations, such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, to honor them.
The 71-year-old Dylan is already the first rock performer to receive a nomination from the National Book Critics Circle, for his memoir "Chronicles: Volume One"; and the first to receive a Pulitzer Prize, an honorary one in 2008. He's routinely mentioned as a Nobel candidate and for decades has been scrutinized obsessively by academics and popular critics.
Dylan has had fans and even friends in the academy, among them the late poet Allen Ginsberg. A Dylan admirer and 2012 inductee, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, will give the keynote address at the May ceremony. The title will be "Rock 'n' Roll."