Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What Is Art For? // Lewis Hyde examines “the public life of the imagination”

Here is a classic article from 2008 which profiles acclaimed (but still largely unknown) poet and essayist Lewis Hyde. David Foster Wallace called Hyde, "one of our true superstars of nonfiction," and, as Daniel B. Smith notes in this piece, Hyde's "fans — among them Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem— routinely use words like “transformative” and “life-altering” to describe his books."

It's a bit of a longer article, but well worth your time since it asks such cogent and thoughtful questions about the meaning of art while leveraging provocative points about topics such as the "cultural commons" in a digital age; the relationship between art and the exigencies of commerce; as well as discussing and elucidating Hyde's lifelong project to "examine the public life of the imagination."

Excerpt Below // Full Article Here

Last April I asked the writer Lewis Hyde if he would take a trip with me to Walden Pond, in Concord, Mass. At 63, Hyde has boyishly tousled brown-gray hair, freckled, soft-looking cheeks and the slightly abstracted gaze of a man who spends a disproportionate amount of his time in library carrels. He has an ironic streak, but his default mode is a kind of easygoing acquiescence, and so one slate gray Saturday afternoon he picked me up in Cambridge, where he lives and works half the year, and drove us the 12 miles west to Walden.

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.

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