The Gift

Behold I do not give lectures or a little charity,What I give I give out of myself.

So Walt Whitman wrote in 1855, and so he gave out of himself a remarkable gift to the world, the incomparable “Song of Myself.” After having immersed himself in the life around him, in all of its sensory pleasure and plenitude, he was not content to keep it all to himself: “Walt you contain enough, why don’t you let it out then?” Let it out he most assuredly did, in thousands of glorious lines, perpetually giving of himself:

Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,Not asking the sky to come down to my goodwill,Scattering it freely forever.

Whitman’s characteristic response to the world—both receptive and bestowing—is the quintessence of what literary critic Lewis Hyde, following numerous anthropologists, calls a “gift economy.” Such an economy is not, however, the characteristic mode of exchange in the United States or most of the modern world. In contemporary life, as in the America that Whitman knew a century and more ago, it is the market economy that prevails, with everything and everyone having a carefully calculated value.

It was this more modern spirit that was captured by another great American poet, Ezra Pound, writing in a more cynical age, the 1930’s, when the world was suffering economic collapse and the banks, in which people had put their trust (and their life savings), simply failed. Pound’s Canto 45, written and published in the mid-1930’s, bitterly castigates the mentality that seeks profit and usurious interest above all, where gifts are casually slighted:

With usura hath no man a house of good picture is made to endure nor to live withbut it is made to sell and sell quickly................................

There are certain labors, writes Lewis Hyde in his penetrating study The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, for which profit-and-loss accounting is utterly inappropriate. Nevertheless, such accounting dominates contemporary attitudes. Witness the 1984 book written by Joanna T. Steichen, Marrying Up: An American Dream and Reality, in which women (primarily) are encouraged to boost their status in an entirely profit-oriented quest, a total perversion of the spirit of Eros, which presumably motivates most modern relationships. However, the spirit of Eros is clearly being overwhelmed by the spirit of Logos, the analytic powers of the mind.

Hyde’s book is a fascinating work of analysis, examining the contrasting economies of the gift and the market, and, even more notably, a synthesis of tribal customs, folk tales and myth, economics, contemporary behavior, and literary criticism to comment on a significant lack in today’s world: the lack of a true feeling for the gift.

The book’s springboard was Hyde’s concern that the labors of art rarely receive compensation commensurate with their absolute worth (as opposed to calculable value) in a world dominated by market exchange. As a poet and translator (among his...

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Library Journal. CVIII, March 1, 1983, p. 514.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 29, 1983, p. 4.

Nation. CCXXXVI, June 4, 1983, p. 709.

National Review. XXXV, April 15, 1983, p. 448.

New England Review. V, Spring, 1983, p. 417.

The New Republic. CLXXXIX, October 24, 1983, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, May 15, 1983, p. 16.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIII, February 4, 1983, p. 364.