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‘The Gift’ that keeps on giving

By Sherri Kimmel


Lewis Hyde visited the Swarthmore campus during a speaking engagement in January. Photo by Laurence Kesterson

Thirty years ago, Lewis Hyde finally published the book he’d been laboring over for a decade. The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property explores the conflict that arises for artists between earning a living and creating art (how does the artist survive in today’s market economy?).

Though Hyde says the book was written “for people who practice art,” and even though the literary likes of Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, and David Foster Wallace have found it inspirational, so have intrepid thinkers outside the arts, including Arlie Russell Hochschild ’62. She has used The Gift as a text in her sociology courses and acknowledges that Hyde’s concept that the spirit of a gift continues through time has been important in her own latest work The Outsourced Self.

The Gift, considered a sensation 30 years ago, is burning bright today. The New York Times Magazine recently invoked Hyde’s masterwork in an article about crowdfunding websites, noting Hyde’s focus on “the artist as creator and gift-giver.”

The Gift was in fact a gift to the Swarthmore campus this winter. To promote an intentional community of scholars (another idea championed by Hyde), the Institute for the Liberal Arts offered free copies to anyone who wanted to participate in a reading group. About 20 students, faculty, and staff read the book and met for a 90-minute discussion in late January, a week before Hyde gave a talk sponsored by Phi Beta Kappa.

Hyde, who teaches at Ohio’s Kenyon College in the fall as the Richard L. Thomas Professor of Creative Writing, spends his spring semesters in Cambridge, Mass., writing poetry and working on a new book “in favor of forgetting,” which is partially inspired by the Zen Buddhist saying, “We study the self to forget the self, and when we forget the self, the world becomes magical.”

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