Hyde knows the area well — among his ongoing projects is a detailed series of annotations of Henry David Thoreau’s essays — and he led me down a dirt path from the parking lot to the site of the cabin where, more than 150 years ago, Thoreau wrote his celebrated paean to solitude and self-reliance. The cabin no longer exists. In its place there is a lightly excavated, cordoned-off square of soil and, to its side, a waist-high cairn erected in commemoration by generations of pilgrims.
Our own visit wasn’t commemorative, but it was a pilgrimage of a sort. Hyde has been writing and publishing for more than three decades, and he has received numerous high-profile awards, including a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1991, but his name is still obscure to most readers. His body of work is slim; he has published two books, a volume of poems and a smattering of essays, translations and edited anthologies. His reputation, however, is rich. David Foster Wallace called him “one of our true superstars of nonfiction.” 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 samizdatmanifestoes. The source of much of this reverence is Hyde’s first book, “The Gift” (1983), which has never been out of print (it was recently rereleased by Vintage in a 25th-anniversary edition) and which tries to reconcile the value of doing creative work with the exigencies of a market economy.