Harold Bloom, 1930–2019
The literary critic who revered the Western canon
Harold Bloom said he knew exactly which books were worth reading, because he had read them all. The famed literary critic and Yale professor was a self-declared “monster” reader, capable of devouring 1,000 pages an hour. Armed with a photographic memory, Bloom claimed he could recite all of Shakespeare, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and the Hebraic Bible. His 1994 magnum opus, The Western Canon, set out the 26 writers—four of them women—who he believed would stand the test of time. Despite his highbrow tastes, Bloom wrote several best-sellers and relished his celebrity. He delighted in attacking feminists, multiculturalists, and African-American literary scholars, lumping their politically aware work into what he termed the “School of Resentment.” “Literature is not an instrument of social change,” Bloom said. “It is more a mode of human sensations and impressions, which do not reduce very well to societal rules or forms.”
He was born in the Bronx, N.Y., to poor Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Russia, said The Washington Post. His parents never learned to read English, but Bloom said he taught himself to read Yiddish at age 3, Hebrew at 4, and English at 5. As a child, he delighted in the works of William Blake and T.S. Eliot; he said their poetry “liberated me into a primal exuberance.” After breezing through Cornell University, Bloom entered a doctoral program at Yale and found himself surrounded by on-trend academics who turned up their noses at the English Romantics. Bloom refused to compromise his literary values, writing his thesis on Percy Bysshe Shelley and adapting it into his first book, Shelley’s Mythmaking (1959). He joined Yale’s English faculty in 1955, and his championing of the Romantics helped get them back on the curriculum in the 1960s.
In his mid-30s, Bloom fell into a deep depression “and began obsessively reading the work of Sigmund Freud,” said the Los Angeles Times. Amid the turmoil, he formulated a theory of poetry that he set out in 1973’s The Anxiety of Influence. It cast poetry as an Oedipal struggle between writers and their predecessors, in which young authors seek to rebel but never achieve true originality. “No poet can write a poem,” he said, “without, in some sense, remembering another poem.” The only genuine original, Bloom insisted, was Shakespeare. “There is no God but God,” he wrote, “and his name is William Shakespeare.”
Bloom was appointed Yale’s Sterling Professor of humanities in 1983, said The New York Times, “in effect becoming a department unto himself.” He came to resemble “a character out of literature,” holding forth from what his students called The Chair and fondly calling his acolytes “dear” and “child.” He authored 40-plus books and edited hundreds of volumes. Some felt he wrote too much, and his enemies claimed “he was windily imprecise, repetitive, and grandiloquent,” said The Times (U.K.). But he remained a proud elitist, railing against Harry Potter, Stephen King, and what he mockingly called “Eskimo lesbian fiction.” “I am your true Marxist critic,” he wrote, “following Groucho rather than Karl, and take as my motto Groucho’s grand admonition, ‘Whatever it is, I’m against it.’”
Justin T. Gellerson/The New York Times/Redux, James Estrin/The New York Times/Redux ■