Bob Dylan Shatters American Academy of Arts and Letters' Glass Ceiling

Icon is first rock musician honored by elite organization

bob dylan, american academy of arts and letters
Bob Dylan / Photo by Getty Images
Kyle McGovern WRITTEN BY
Kyle McGovern

Bob Dylan keeps racking up the honorifics. After a praise-filled 2012 — the Freewheelin' Dylan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, was recognized by the Grammy Hall of Fame, and (most prestigious of all) earned an Essential tag from SPIN — the iconic singer-songwriter has just become the first rock musician voted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

The elite honor society, founded in 1898 and located in upper Manhattan, recognizes achievements in literature, music, and the fine arts. According to executive director Virginia Dajani, officials couldn't decide whether the "Mr. Tambourine Man" singer deserved the distinction for his words or his music; instead, Dylan was inducted as an honorary member, joining such previous selections as Woody Allen, Meryl Streep, and Dylan documentarian Martin Scorsese.

"The board of directors considered the diversity of his work and acknowledged his iconic place in the American culture," Dajani told the Associated Press. "Bob Dylan is a multi-talented artist whose work so thoroughly crosses several disciplines that it defies categorization."

Dylan's manager, Jeff Rosen, reportedly had no comment on the sometimes ornery musician's reaction to the honor, but Dylan did indeed accept the membership, otherwise the vote wouldn't have gone through. Rosen also did not reveal whether Dylan would attend the Academy's April dinner or May induction ceremony.

The American Academy of Arts and Letters was at one time designed to keep pop-friendly musicians like Dylan out of its inner circle — even jazz artists and modernist poets have a history of being overlooked. Dajani explained that rock musicians are still largely snubbed because of already existing organizations that honor them, such as the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Other notable exceptions to this exclusionary thinking include composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and jazz innovator Ornette Coleman.

Aside from the special honorary picks, of which Dylan is one, the Academy consists of 250 artists, musicians, and writers. Openings only become available once a member dies, and is followed by a nomination and voting process conducted by the remaining members.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author, 2012 Academy inductee, and noted Dylan fan Michael Chabon will serve as the keynote speaker for the May ceremony and deliver a speech reportedly titled "Rock'n'Roll." Because nothing screams rebellion like a super-exclusive intelligentsia gathering.

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