Bob Dylan may have plagiarized portions of his Nobel Prize lecture from SparkNotes, an online version of CliffsNotes, according to a new piece from Andrea Pitzer on Slate. Pitzer uncovered the similarities between the SparkNotes entry on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick – one of three books Dylan discussed in his lecture – after writer Ben Greenman noted that Dylan might have made up a quote from Moby-Dick.
Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last October, though he declined to attend the December ceremony. On June 4th, he delivered a lecture to the Swedish Academy in Los Angeles, fulfilling all the requisites to receive the $900,000 award that accompanies the Nobel Prize. Along with Moby-Dick, Dylan discussed the influence of Homer’s Odyssey and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
As Greenman first pointed out on his website, Dylan seemingly invented a moment in Moby-Dick when a “Quaker pacifist priest” tells Captain Ahab’s third mate, Flask, “Some men who receive injuries are led to God, others are led to bitterness.” While Greenman was unable to find the relevant quote in several editions of Moby-Dick, Pitzer discovered that SparkNotes described the preacher as “someone whose trials have led him toward God rather than bitterness.”
In all, Pitzer said she found at least 20 sentences in Dylan’s lecture that resembled the SparkNotes entry on Moby-Dick. Representatives for Dylan, the Nobel Prize committee and SparkNotes did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
In collecting the instances where Dylan seemed to crib from SparkNotes, Pitzer noted where certain key phrases appeared on the site but not in the book. For instance, Dylan says of Captain Ahab, “He calls Moby the emperor, sees him as the embodiment of evil.” While “embodiment of evil” never appears in Melville’s novel, SparkNotes says of Ahab, “he sees the whale as the embodiment of evil.”
A handful of especially glaring similarities Pitzer uncovered are below, while a full breakdown is available on Slate.
Dylan: “Finally, Ahab spots Moby … Boats are lowered … Moby attacks Ahab’s boat and destroys it. Next day, he sights Moby again. Boats are lowered again. Moby attacks Ahab’s boat again.”
SparkNotes: “Ahab finally sights Moby Dick. The harpoon boats are launched, and Moby Dick attacks Ahab’s harpoon boat, destroying it. The next day, Moby Dick is sighted again, and the boats are lowered once more … Moby Dick again attacks Ahab’s boat.”
Dylan: “Tashtego says that he died and was reborn. His extra days are a gift. He wasn’t saved by Christ, though, he says he was saved by a fellow man and a non-Christian at that. He parodies the resurrection.”
SparkNotes: “Tashtego … has died and been reborn, and any extra days of his life are a gift. His rebirth also parodies religious images of resurrection. Tashtego is ‘delivered’ from death not by Christ but by a fellow man – a non-Christian at that.”
Dylan: Another ship’s captain – Captain Boomer – he lost an arm to Moby. But he tolerates that, and he’s happy to have survived. He can’t accept Ahab’s lust for vengeance.
SparkNotes: “…a whaling ship whose skipper, 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.”
As Pitzer points out, Dylan’s Nobel lecture does not mark the first time he’s been accused of plagiarism. He’s long borrowed lyrics from other sources, with his 2001 album Love and Theft drawing criticism for lyrics seemingly culled from Junichi Saga’s book Confessions of a Yakuza and Henry Timrod’s Civil War poetry. Even Dylan’s paintings from his 2011 exhibit, “The Asia Series,” came under fire for their similarities to well-known photographs taken by Henri Cartier-Bresson and Léon Busy.
In a 2012 interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan responded to the accusations of plagiarism pertaining to Love and Theft. “I’m working within my art form,” he said. “It’s that simple. I work within the rules and limitations of it. There are authoritarian figures that can explain that kind of art form better to you than I can. It’s called songwriting. It has to do with melody and rhythm, and then after that, anything goes. You make everything yours. We all do it.”