This book has been published under various subtitles since it first appeared in 1983: "Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property", "How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World" and "Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World". None of these quite captures what it really is, and that's probably because the book doesn't know what it really is, either. Lewis Hyde takes obvious delight in his work's ability to defy categorization or the pithy summary. Unique books have that quality. So do many that are poorly written. It took me a while to figure out which kind this is.
Hyde's central theorem - that true art does, and must of its nature, stand outside the market economy, and this therefore presents a serious problem for the artist forced to live in a world increasingly subsumed by the market economy - could have achieved its full elaboration in the space of a single chapter. In the first half of the book we get that, but we also get quite a lot of wide-ranging argument about economics and the traditional tribal life of gift exchange. Not all of this is relevant, but it's all admittedly fascinating. Less fascinating are Hyde's attempts to locate contemporary examples. For example, he argues rather unconvincingly that the scientific community is "a gift community to the extent that its ideas move as gifts". Fair enough, but the extent to which they do in fact move as gifts is negligible. Scientists are among the most egotistical, petty and jealously self-serving academics ever born. Science isn't about sharing ideas, or not only that. It's about promoting "my ideas" and having "my name" forever associated with them. It's about personal prestige and glory. Ask any scientist how he or she would feel about all work being published in journals anonymously, and used thereafter without attribution.
The second half of the book is given over to two long essays on poets, and here Hyde - a poet himself - is clearly on stronger ground. One is a very engaging treatment of Walt Whitman which traces elements of "the gift" idea through his poetry and sad personal life, though for some inexplicable reason Hyde doesn't quite want to state clearly what he constantly implies: that Whitman's charitable works had a good deal more sublimated homosexuality in them than they did Christian love for his fellow man. The other is an interesting analysis of Ezra Pound which traces the arc of his genius and generosity, and yet doesn't hold back from depicting him as a frustrated bigot and fascist lunatic who only recanted his vile "suburban prejudice" (anti-Semitism) at the very end.
The conclusion and afterword link elements of the gift argument to the support for the arts in postwar America and its relationship to the Cold War.
Margaret Atwood overstated the case when she apparently called this book "a masterpiece". It's very good, but it isn't that. It's overlong, weirdly structured, and in places poorly argued. Hyde often makes huge leaps in order to connect the "evidence" with his argument, or asks us to assume an assertion is true and then builds a case on the assertion without ever coming back to prove it. Disappointingly, there is very little synthesis here, nothing that binds all of these ideas into a consistent argument - and very little in the way of recommendations about how art might flourish in a market economy. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. I came away from this book uplifted and refreshed, with a whole new way of looking at Whitman and Pound, and a new way of looking at art's place in the world. There really is no place for art in the market economy, and that's probably why art will outlive it. There is something primal and fundamentally human in art and "the gift" economy on which it relies. Both are necessary functions of human life.