Review of the Nature of Generosity

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Book Review

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Western American Literature



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William Kittredge usefully illuminates the heterodox artistic stance of The Nature of Generosity when he concedes, “This book proceeds more like a dance than an argument” (29). As a choreographic interweaving of travel narrative, memoir, nature writing, literary history, anthropology, science, and a persistent strand of political polemic, the book resists easy containment in conventional formal categories. Part of the reason for such structural indeterminacy is that the aim of the book is both simple and dazzlingly ambitious. Kittredge’s project may be summarized as an extended meditation on that most mundane and fundamental expression of generosity, “neighborliness” (33). As he states in his introduction, “Extreme long-loop altruism is what I mean to advocate” (34). Kittredge’s primary achievement, however, lies in his ability to embrace vast historical expanses that stretch from the Paleolithic cave paintings at Lascaux to modern-day ranching in Warner Valley, Oregon, while at the same time conveying his personal struggle to master the daily craft of living generously, or what he variously describes as “combating despair by learning” (35). The complexity and abiding beauty of this book reside in the verbal dance that conjoins the particularity of solitary experience with the pursuit of global health, a dance that repeatedly demonstrates the hard truth that even the elevated prospect of generous conduct is never as far as we might like to think from the quagmire of self-absorption. “Generosity,” Kittredge notes, “is part of our commons, as is greed” (236).


Original author is William Kittredge

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