University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Tales of a Life

Writer Lewis Hyde has followed his pen from a start at the Minnesota Daily to being lauded by literary heavyweights like Margaret Atwood.

Photo by Steve Bisgrove

Writer Lewis Hyde (B.A. ’67) is something of an escape artist.

The former Kenyon College professor of creative writing and literature has long been acclaimed for his ability to break free of convention with deep-think books on wildly diverse subjects such as forgetting, copyright, or the anthropological figure the trickster. He’s also mused and written on subjects ranging from poetry to philosophy, and the essence of creativity.

“Part of the privilege of being a writer is you can move your tent,” says Hyde. “It’s a kind of a willing freedom to follow my curiosities.”

Over his long career, Hyde has taught English at Harvard; served as a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society; won an Academy of American Poetry Prize; served as a curator of rotating exhibits at the Bob Dylan Center of Tulsa, Oklahoma; and received a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1991.

And at the beginning, he started his writing career at the U of M on the Minnesota Daily and literary publication the Ivory Tower (now The Tower) when Garrison Keillor was editor. “He was wonderful,” says Hyde.

As a sociology major in the ’60s, Hyde felt drawn to the humanities. He studied under poet John Berryman and became friends with Minnesota poet Robert Bly. Faced with a semester-long project for Spanish Professor Emerita Constance Sullivan, he took Bly’s advice and translated the works of little-known Spanish poet Vicente Aleixandre into English, the first time that had been done.

Then Hyde and Bly published a book of Aleixandre’s poems, and the next year, Aleixandre won the Nobel Prize. “I’ve always been grateful to Constance for having the wisdom to let me do something different, and it bore fruit,” says Hyde, whose Minneapolis-born parents were both avid readers. (Hyde himself was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts.)

Another unconventional move marked his early adulthood. After graduating from the U of M and earning a master’s at the University of Iowa, he and several U of M friends rented a getaway retreat in the hamlet of Clarkfield, Minnesota. Hyde settled in to write but soon found he needed to help pay the rent.

“There were no jobs for poets or translators in western Minnesota,” he recalls. He found work as a carpenter and as an electrician in a nearby factory in Montevideo, Minnesota. Later, back in his hometown of Cambridge, he found work on the night shift in a hospital’s alcoholism ward.

Today Hyde’s admirers include heavyweight literary figures Michael Chabon and Margaret Atwood, the author of the book The Handmaid’s Tale, among many others.

“He’s one of those quirky, eccentric Wise Children the United States sometimes throws up—a sort of Thoreau-cum-anthropologist-cum-seer, an asker of naïve questions that turn out to be the reverse of naïve,” wrote Atwood in a Los Angeles Times review of Hyde’s much-praised 1983 work The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, which explores the ways art is both a gift to the artist and those who receive it.

The Star Tribune also hailed Hyde's 2019 book, A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past as “startling,” a work that “leaves your mind almost thrummingly alive.” Wrote reviewer Weston Cutter, “[Hyde] is one of the best writers we’ve got going.”

In Forgetting, Hyde weighs the amnesiac pleasures of letting memories fade against the duty to do justice to past civic traumas by refusing to let them ebb away. He explores in detail the journey from vengeance to forgiveness of Thomas Moore, the brother of Charles Moore, who was killed in 1964 by the KKK.

“Racism is always going to be with us,” says Hyde. “The problem is to always have the skills to respond and do the work that needs to be done."

DURING COVID, Hyde had a tranquil escape hatch. He often trekked from his Cambridge home to the fields at Walden Pond, 12 miles west in Concord, Massachusetts. There with a collapsible butterfly net in hand, he pursued his childhood hobby of butterfly hunting, a topic that, along with environmental themes generally, imbues his next book.

Hyde relishes spotting rare species like the Bog Copper, so named for its copper tinge, that only flutters in cranberry bogs. But his goal at Henry Thoreau’s contemplative retreat is more sublime and in keeping with the philosopher’s rejoicing in life’s small, quiet moments.

“By virtue of looking for butterflies, you are differently aware of everything that is not butterfly,” Hyde wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed. “Once the eyes adjust, many wonders are illuminated by the halo of your search image. Capture is a very tiny part of hunting, but its possibility activates the field, so that for the rest of the time there is the rest of the world, spread evenly around the hovering, delighted mind.”

The insistent multiseason song of the cricket also helps modulate Hyde’s life. He noticed references to the chirruper in Walden, Thoreau’s meditations on nature, and began to mull what this tiny “master of fruitful leisures” could teach us about ourselves.

“We have conflicting ways to hear the creaking of the crickets and both are true: time is limited, and time is endless; you must get to work and you may relax. Thoreau was clearly familiar with both states of mind,” Hyde wrote in another recent New York Times essay.

Hyde is grateful that he has been able to lead the life of a writer. He writes slowly, sometimes taking as long as 10 years to finish a book. Each one is “an exploration,” according to him. “It extends out into unknown territory.” He also attributes his methodical pace to his early interest in writing poetry. “I’ve been wounded by poetry into paying too much attention to each sentence,” he says. “What poetry did for me was to teach me close attention to language.

“I’m an egghead,” Hyde adds. “I care about ideas. I care about thinking critically about whatever comes to me. I care about the truth. I don’t mean that simply in the current political sense of getting rid of the lies people are telling … in my work, I try to always be sure I have the details right and the facts right, and to check in with people who’ve done work in greater depth on something I’m beginning to be interested in.

“I know my path has been different from many people’s but one element of it was the freedom to experiment with my life,” he says.

George Spencer is a freelance writer in North Carolina.

If you liked this story, Minnesota Alumni magazine publishes four times a year highlighting U of M alumni and University activities. Early access to stories and a print subscription are benefits of being an Alumni Association member. Join here to receive a printed copy at home.

Read More