Luce Professor Lewis Hyde plays with trickster figures

W hat do Brer Rabbit and Wile E. Coyote have in common? The furry characters are both trickster figures from North America, the former from the days of slavery, the latter from Native American culture.

But these are not the only characters who dance and deceive their way around the world. Every culture has its trickster. China has its Monkey King, Greece its Hermes the Thief, West Africa its Eshu character, Scandinavia its mischief maker Loki, and so on. They are culture heroes who use devious means to achieve their goals. Sometimes funny, often sly, and always subversive, these mythological characters transcend boundaries and time. They create a world, both real and imagined, that largely shapes the way we humans live, how we think and act today. And they've been working at it--manipulating our perceptions--for eons.

So says Lewis Hyde. And he knows something about tricksters. Kenyon's Luce Professor of Art and Politics, Hyde literally wrote the book on them--it's a new book titled Trickster Makes This World--just published by New York City-based Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. The four-hundred-page work examines the old world of trickster mythology and relates it to today's world of increasingly complex living.

Hyde says tricksters invented fire and language. "Some stories even suggest that tricksters invented culture itself," he says, "the implication being that we humans need liars and thieves to help us create the cultures we live in." The devious and disruptive nature of tricksters "keeps the world from getting stale," explains Hyde. "Tricksters are amoral characters, and so their antics offer a relief from morality, a relief we all need now and then." In his book, he explores the creative means that tricksters use to influence how we think about art, hunger, lying, myths, obscenity, prophecy, theft, and other timeless subjects. Then Hyde examines these in relation to the work of creative, trickster-like people, including composer John Cage, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, poet Allen Ginsberg, writer Maxine Hong Kingston, artist Pablo Picasso, and others.

"I want to describe and then defend disruptive creativity and make it clear why, no matter how settled our world may become, we must never suppress the imagination's mischief," says Hyde, who will soon undertake a fourteen-city book tour. And his prose succeeds in its mission. As one reviewer writes, the book is "a classic study . . . that . . . demonstrates the vitalizing, world-making, morally fortifying powers of the creative imagination."

Since coming to Kenyon in 1989, Hyde has taught such diverse courses as Buddhist poetic practice, the life and work of Henry David Thoreau, and the art of memory. Students are attracted o his eclectic, interdisciplinary approach. His classes fill quickly. This coming fall he will teach a course entitled "Models of Artistic Practice." "The course will examine professional artists and how their views of art and imagination, for example, differ from our own," Hyde says. "This will help students to get a sense of the variety of artistic models available to them," especially those who aspire to careers in creative or artistic fields.

Hyde has brought a number of highly respected, creative people to campus in recent years, including novelist Margaret Atwood, writer Robert Bly, Ginsberg, installation artist Ann Hamilton, Kingston, and video artist Bill Viola.

In some ways, Hyde is a trickster-like character himself. The one-time carpenter, electrician, and alcoholism counselor has shaped his world--and the worlds of others who know him or read his work--through a cunning combination of experiential and intellectual feats that have turned him into a kind of literary culture hero. With such laudable achievements comes deserved recognition. Educated at the universities of Minnesota and Iowa, Hyde has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and, in 1991, the prestigious MacArthur Foundation. In 1997, he received an honorary doctor of fine arts degree from the San Francisco Art Institute for his contributions to art education. Along the way Hyde also spent six years teaching creative writing at Harvard University, where, in his last year, he was director of the creative-writing faculty.

The quiet creator has written, edited, and translated several books, including This Error is the Sign of Love, Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking, On the Work of Allen Ginsberg, and the highly acclaimed The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, a work that examines creative artists in a commercial society, which another reviewer called "one of the more extraordinary nonfiction books of the past twenty years." Hyde's poetry and essays have appeared in numerous journals, including the American Poetry Review, the Kenyon Review, the Nation, and the Paris Review. Reviews and editorials by the literary critic have appeared in the New York Times Book Review and such newspapers as the Boston Globe, Minneapolis Tribune, and Los Angeles Times.

When he's not teaching at Kenyon, Hyde--not unlike the subjects in his latest book--slips elusively into another world. He departs the rural, academic enclave of Gambier, Ohio, to resurface in the bustling metropolis of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he also lives and writes.

--Tom Bigelow

Back to Top