Speaker: Lewis Hyde

A True Artist on Creativity, The Commons, and Forgetting

Myth, imagination, art, the public domain, tricksters and the gifts of forgetting are just a few of the topics that interest acclaimed poet, writer and cultural thinker Lewis Hyde.  Hyde has been writing and publishing for more than three decades, receiving numerous high-profile awards along the way, including a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1991. David Foster Wallace called him “one of our true superstars of nonfiction.” According to a New York Times profile, “Hyde’s fans — among them Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem — routinely use words like ‘transformative’ and ‘life-altering’ to describe his books, which they’ve been known to pass hand to hand like spiritual texts or samizdat manifestoes.”

In continuous publication since 1983, his book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (originally subtitled Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, and also sometimes subtitled How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World) continues to inspire dialogue about the balance between individual ownership and the value of the public domain for artists, writers and other cultural producers by illuminating and defending the non-commercial portion of artistic practice. The book has been praised as the most subtle, influential study of reciprocity since the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss’s 1924 essay of the same name.

His next book, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (1998), is referred to by Hyde himself as “an outsider’s critique” of the ideas he presented in The Gift around the gift economy. Trickster examines ancient myths alongside more contemporary stories to demonstrate how this wily archetypal character of the trickster helps create the complexity and chaos so necessary to creative innovation.

Listening to Hyde speak, one gets a sense of hearing only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Hyde’s vast knowledge of folktales, myths and legends. Filling in his talks with thoughtful quotes that vibrantly illustrate the topic at hand, Hyde in no way wanders with his anecdotes.  His unique mind so skillfully weaves story and information together that he makes it easy for listeners and readers to grasp concepts and proceed with new ideas of their own. And it’s a journey worth taking.

Most recently, Hyde has been interested in human memory, specifically how forgetting can be beneficial. Society tends to place a high value on holding onto memories:  the accomplishments of our heroes and heroines, remembering the horrors of the past (so as not to repeat them) and the ability to remember facts and therefore impress others with one’s superior intellect. Yet, our trickster Hyde explores the value of forgetfulness, of letting things go.

In the introduction, Hyde describes his new book, A Primer for Forgetting, partly as a “thought experiment” that “seeks to test the proposition that forgetting can be more useful than memory, or, at the very least, that memory functions best in tandem with forgetting.” Inspired by his observations of his mother’s failing memory, the book includes autobiographical anecdotes alongside the brilliant ruminations that fans of his work are so taken with. Freshly published this June, A Primer for Forgetting is unique in both thought and form. Form-wise the book tends more towards a scrapbook, presenting and inviting the free-association of thoughts for the reader. Hyde says, “I’d like this book to be more thought-provoking than thought-insisting,” a suitable description of his own agile mind.

While his parents pursued science – his father an optical engineer and his mother holding a Master’s in psychology – Hyde chose the path of the poet. Robert Bly, John Berryman and Garrison Keillor encouraged his writing at the University of Minnesota where he graduated with a degree in sociology. After working as a carpenter and an electrician to make ends meet, he ended up in Boston and was hired as the night attendant in a psychiatric hospital. Here he began thinking deeply about the roots of creativity and published the widely-anthologized essay, “Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking,” which won him an NEA grant.

The grant money allowed him time to muse during which he discovered French sociologist Marcel Mauss’s ideas on gift exchange. In indigenous concepts of the “gift economy,” the person of consequence – the man or woman who is deemed worthy of adulation, respect and emulation – is not the one who accumulates the most goods but the one who disperses them. This idea of circulation and connectivity spoke to Hyde’s own predicament as a poet trying to make a living in a capitalist society. It took him seven years to write The Gift, the publication of which incited heated controversy and debate over the subject.

In defense of the book, writer Margaret Atwood says, “In a society that mostly talks about money, Lewis carved out a little island where you can say, ‘Life doesn’t always work that way.’” Upon reading Hyde, one discovers a mind unwilling to make black and white conclusions about anything. Think of the yin-yang symbol not as a static image, but a swirling mandala that acknowledges that neither black nor white can exist without the other. Writer Lloyd Schwartz describes Hyde’s writing as “like turning and turning a many-faceted prism in more directions that you thought possible.” Hyde says that his non-fiction writing is as painstakingly crafted as his poetry, pulling ideas from past and present, across disciplines and from culture to culture.

After publishing The Trickster, Hyde’s attention was snagged by a bill introduced in Congress in 1994 dealing with copyright laws. He spoke passionately about the bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee and has since spent decades thinking, speaking, and writing about the problematic relationship of private ownership and the public domain. His resulting book, Common as Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, published in 2010, revisits the gift economy idea in The Gift as a “stirring defense of our commons.”  The term “commons” was originally applied in medieval England referring to land on which a “commoner” had rights, even though it was owned by a lord. Commons later came to include cultural products such as literature, art and film.

Since the publication of these three books, along with his essays, translations and poetry, Hyde has been in high demand as a speaker and lecturer. His wonderful humor and soft-spoken nature spark intellectual exchanges that reach across disciplines. Hyde is also a very gifted storyteller, as exemplified in the delightful video “Lewis Hyde: The Trickster Trap of Appetite” recorded at the 1995 Minnesota Men's Conference in which he tells the indigenous Tsimshian story "Raven Becomes Voracious."

Hyde was the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College, and was previously the director of the undergraduate creative writing program at Harvard University. He is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, including a Columbia University Translations Center Award and the Pushcart Prize (three times). Hyde retired from teaching in 2018 and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with his wife.

Hyde’s other book publications include a book of poems, This Error is the Sign of Love (1988), and two volumes of translations of Spanish poet Vicente Aleixandre’s poetry. He is also the editor of On the Poetry of Allen Ginsberg (1984) and The Essays of Henry D. Thoreau (2002). And in keeping with his beliefs in the commons, many of his essays are available here in PDF form.

Please join us for warm and fascinating conversation with this modern-day philosopher and trickster!

Anjali Desai

Anjali Desai

Jan 26, 2013

Lessons from Slum Children

Vijaya Nagarajan

Vijaya Nagarajan

May 22, 2021

Rituals of Generosity

Jacob Needleman

Jacob Needleman

May 30, 2015

Money and the Meaning of Life