Swimming in Walden Pond with Lewis Hyde

When I was working at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, I would sometimes sit in on lunch seminars or gatherings of the research fellows in which Lewis Hyde was a participant. While most of the fellows at Berkman had a background in the law, Hyde’s academic resumé consisted of a tenured teaching position — in English — at Kenyon College in Ohio. That, and that he wrote a book about the “erotic life of property,” and that he was a poet, were all that I knew about Lewis Hyde’s scholarship.

And I suspect the same was true of many of Berkman’s other researchers, because they always seemed astonished when, after someone would make an astute point about some aspect of the cultural commons, or what have you, Hyde would pipe in to say something like, “I actually explored that issue in a chapter of the book I published in 1975,” or, “that’s what I’ve been working on with the blah de blah foundation for the last ten years.” They’d throw vexed looks that exclaimed, “Who is this guy? And was he actually thinking about these things back when I was in pre-school?”

This week’s New York Times Magazine features a profile of Lewis Hyde penned by Daniel B. Smith and titled, “What is Art For?“. It sheds a lot of light for me on what Lewis Hyde is all about and the fascinating, methodical journey he has been pursuing for much of his life.

His first major quest was to explore how the fundamental nature of man to be creative and sharing clashed with market-driven societies, and how artists can survive, and perhaps thrive, under such strictures. His continued work often dealt with ways to encourage and reward creativity in modern America. And his current great project is aimed at expanding society’s understanding of the commons and its centrality in both creativity and progress. To do so, he weaves in the ideas and opinions of, among others, great American founding thinkers like Jefferson and Franklin, who well understood the need for a vibrant shared commons of ideas and thought to encourage innovation.

Is is this “capacious” cultural commons that Lewis Hyde strives to open to all of us, and it is, I think, a noble quest. And the methodical and deliberate way in which he goes about it is a marked — and welcomed — change from our modern politics as well as from the thinking of traditional scholars in this field, which is often strongly couched in the language of the law, sometimes to its detriment.

When I was at Berkman, I interacted every day, often in very mundane ways, with thinkers and explorers of great wisdom and great curiosity. It is interesting to occasionally check in on some of them, and a little disappointing to realize that I might have missed some neat opportunities to learn from these folks. Something to keep in mind for future jobs and circumstances.