Beneath its facade of unassailable erudition, David Wallace-Wells’s article on Lewis Hyde ["The Pirate’s Prophet," Nov. 15] bears all the markings of that most unserious of critical genres: the hit piece that doesn’t even bother to get its facts right. Wallace-Wells seems determined to portray Hyde—erroneously, sneeringly—as some starry-eyed Romantic, and he isn’t above misrepresenting the evidence to achieve his ends.
As the author of a profile of Hyde on whose reporting Wallace-Wells sometimes relies, I feel a duty to point out one particularly egregious misrepresentation. Wallace-Wells writes that Hyde’s new book, Common as Air, "peddles an attractive but confected fantasy" about the pre-modern English agrarian commons. To support this claim, he cites "what the historian Jackson Lears has called Hyde’s ‘prelapsarian vision,’ one that is ‘common to some Marxists, most romantics and all Christian nationalists: Once upon a time, people lived in harmony with their world and one another; then they fell from grace—prodded by capitalism, scientific rationality or original sin.’"
These remarks by Lears appeared in a 1983 Nation review of Hyde’s landmark book The Gift; they follow Lears’s summary of a chapter in it devoted to a history of usury. Lears’s remarks read: "Summarized quickly, this view of history seems threadbare. It is a prelapsarian vision common to some Marxists, [etc.]… The nostalgia pervading this view makes it an easy target for the slings and arrows of historians, but Hyde sidesteps the volleys. He is well aware of the corruption and cruelty of medieval Christianity, the vicious anti-Semitism that sometimes powered the opposition to usury, the oppressive restraints of tribal community." Lears’s point is precisely that The Gift does not join in this widespread "prelapsarian vision." Wallace-Wells is a takedown artist, but takedown is an exacting business, and honesty and accuracy are its prerequisites.
DANIEL B. SMITH
It was dismaying to find Lewis Hyde lumped in with copyleft extremists in David Wallace-Wells’s review of Common as Air. Hyde’s discussion of the founders’ debates about what rights in literary property the government should grant makes a refreshing change from contemporary "copyright wars" rhetoric imbued with a strain of cheap moralism in which Wallace-Wells participates.
Hyde points out that the founders sought pragmatic policies that could encourage the making and circulation of culture, always bearing in mind the social costs of monopoly. Wallace-Wells appears commendably interested in keeping culture lively, underneath all that hectic flourishing of his liberal arts education. But while noting grudgingly that Hyde doesn’t "denounce copyright writ broadly or…advocate for the abolition of intellectual property entirely," he charges that "these gestures are accommodationist rather than principled" and urges readers to explore fair use within copyright as an alternative to rejectionism. Hyde has done just that, as an active contributor to three projects to create codes of best practices in fair use that we run at American University (centerfor socialmedia.org/fair-use), for online video creators, media literacy teachers and poets (the last one is forthcoming).