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Harold Bloom, critic who championed western canon, dies at 89

  • NEW YORK TIMES
                                Harold Bloom in New York on 1990. Bloom, the prodigious literary critic who championed and defended the Western canon in an outpouring of influential books, died today at a hospital in New Haven, Conn. He was 89.

    NEW YORK TIMES

    Harold Bloom in New York on 1990. Bloom, the prodigious literary critic who championed and defended the Western canon in an outpouring of influential books, died today at a hospital in New Haven, Conn. He was 89.

Harold Bloom, the prodigious literary critic who championed and defended the Western canon in an outpouring of influential books that appeared not only on college syllabuses but also — unusual for an academic — on bestseller lists, died today at a hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. He was 89.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Jeanne Bloom, who said he taught his last class at Yale University on Thursday.

Bloom was frequently called the most notorious literary critic in America. From a vaunted perch at Yale, he flew in the face of almost every trend in the literary criticism of his day. Chiefly he argued for the literary superiority of the Western giants like Shakespeare, Chaucer and Kafka — all of them white and male, his own critics pointed out — over writers favored by what he called “the School of Resentment,” by which he meant multiculturalists, feminists, Marxists, neoconservatives and others whom he saw as often betraying literature’s essential purpose.

“He is, by any reckoning, one of the most stimulating literary presences of the last half-century — and the most protean,” Sam Tanenhaus wrote in 2011 in The New York Times Book Review, of which he was the editor at the time, “a singular breed of scholar-teacher-critic-prose-poet-pamphleteer.”

At the heart of Bloom’s writing was a passionate love of literature and a relish for its heroic figures.

“Shakespeare is God,” he declared, and Shakespeare’s characters, he said, are as real as people and have shaped Western perceptions of what it is to be human — a view he propounded in the acclaimed “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human” (1998).

The analogy to divinity worked both ways: In “The Book of J” (1990), Bloom challenged most existing biblical scholarship by suggesting that even the Judeo-Christian God was a literary character — invented by a woman, no less, who may have lived in the court of King Solomon and who wrote sections of the first five books of the Old Testament. “The Book of J” became a bestseller.

Bloom was widely regarded as the most popular literary critic in America (an encomium he might have considered faint praise). Among his other bestsellers were his magnum opus “The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages,” published in 1994, and “How to Read and Why” (2000).

That record of commercial success led many in the academy to dismiss him as a populist. “Mention the name of Harold Bloom to academics in literature departments these days and they will roll their eyes,” the British scholar and author Jonathan Bate wrote in The New Republic in 2011.

The Bronx-born son of a garment worker, Bloom might have been a character out of literature himself. With his untidy gray hair and melancholy eyes encircled by shadows, he was known to hold forth from what his students called The Chair, which he, of ample girth, amply filled, surrounded by stacks of books.

He was fond of endearments, like “little child.” He addressed both male and female students as “dear” and would kiss them on the top of the head.

Gorging on Words

Bloom called himself “a monster” of reading; he said he could read, and absorb, a 400-page book in an hour. His friend Richard Bernstein, a professor of philosophy at the New School, told a reporter that watching Bloom read was “scary.”

Armed with a photographic memory, Bloom could recite acres of poetry by heart — by his account, the whole of Shakespeare, Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” all of William Blake, the Hebraic Bible and Edmund Spenser’s monumental “The Fairie Queen.” He relished epigraphs, gnomic remarks and unusual words: kenosis (emptying), tessera (completing), askesis (diminishing) and clinamen (swerving).

He quite enjoyed being likened to Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century critic, essayist, lexicographer and man about London, who, like Bloom (“a Yiddisher Dr. Johnson” was one appellation), was rotund, erudite and often caustic in his opinions. ( Bloom even had a vaguely English accent, his Bronx roots notwithstanding.)

Or if not Johnson, then the actor Zero Mostel, whom he resembled.

“I am Zero Mostel!” Bloom once said.

Like Johnson’s, his output was vast: more than 40 books of his own authorship and hundreds of volumes he edited. And he remained prolific to the end, publishing two books in 2017, two in 2018 and two this year: “Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind” and “Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism.” His final book is to be released on an unspecified date by Yale University Press, his wife said.

Perhaps Bloom’s most influential work was one that discussed literary influence itself. The book, “The Anxiety of Influence,” published in 1973 and eventually in some 45 languages, borrows from Freudian theory in envisioning literary creation as an epochal, and Oedipal, struggle in which the young artist rebels against preceding traditions, seeking that burst of originality that distinguishes greatness.

Bloom argued that a poem was both a response to another poem and a defense against it. Poetry, he wrote, was a dark battleground where poets deliberately “misread” those who came before them and repress their debt to them.

This was a view that ran counter to the New Criticism, the dominant literary theory in midcentury America that put aside matters like historical context and author’s intentions and rather saw literature as a series of texts to be closely analyzed, their meaning to be found in language and structure.

Bloom crossed swords with other critical perspectives in “The Western Canon.” The eminent critic Frank Kermode, identifying those whom Bloom saw as his antagonists, wrote in The London Review of Books, “He has in mind all who profess to regard the canon as an instrument of cultural, hence political, hegemony — as a subtle fraud devised by dead white males to reinforce ethnic and sexist oppression.”

Bloom insisted that a literary work is not a social document — is not to be read for its political or historical content — but is to be enjoyed above all for the aesthetic pleasure it brings. “Bloom isn’t asking us to worship the great books,” the writer Adam Begley wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1994. “He asks instead that we prize the astonishing mystery of creative genius.”

Bloom himself said that “the canonical quality comes out of strangeness, comes out of the idiosyncratic, comes out of originality.” Begley noted further, “The canon, Bloom believes, answers an unavoidable question: What, in the little time we have, shall we read?”

“You must choose,” Bloom himself wrote in “The Western Canon.” “Either there were aesthetic values or there are only the overdeterminations of race, class and gender.”

His Writing Hall of Fame

Attached to “The Western Canon” is an appendix listing the works of some 850 writers that Bloom thought would endure in posterity. Plato and Shakespeare and Proust are there, of course, but so are lesser-known figures, like Ivo Andric, a Yugoslav who won the 1961 Nobel Prize in literature, and Taha Hussein, an important Egyptian writer and intellectual.

Many in the literary world delighted in trying to decipher the meanings behind Bloom’s sometimes idiosyncratic choices. Some puzzled over his judgment, for example, that of all John Updike’s considerable body of work, only the novel “The Witches of Eastwick” would last. Bloom’s critics noted that Updike had once referred to Bloom’s writings as “torturous.” Philip Roth, a friend of Bloom’s, garnered six mentions. Alice Walker was ignored altogether, but poet J.D. McClatchy and critics David Bromwich and Barbara Packer, all students of Bloom’s, made the cut.

Later, in “The Anatomy of Influence” — a 2011 book he called, prematurely, his “virtual swan song” — Bloom seemed to soften his canonical stance, conceding that a critic of any heritage is obliged to take seriously other traditions, including non-Western.

The spotlight he commanded as a powerful cultural figure did not always flatter him. In 1990, GQ magazine, in an article titled “Bloom in Love,” portrayed him as having had intimate entanglements with female graduate students. (“A disgusting piece of character assassination,” he was quoted as telling Begley in The Times Magazine.) And in a 2004 article in New York magazine, writer Naomi Wolf wrote that he had once put his hand on her inner thigh when she was an undergraduate student. “Beautiful, brilliant students surrounded him,” she wrote. “He was a vortex of power and intellectual charisma.”

Bloom vigorously denied her accusation.

The clarity of his prose was also questioned. “Harold is not a particularly good explainer,” his friend poet John Hollander once told The Times, adding, “He’ll get hold of a word and allow this to generate a concept for him, but he’s not in a position to say very clearly what he means and what he’s doing.”

Still, Bloom won huge book advances — $1.2 million in the case of “Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds” (2002), a popular but erudite work on which great books a person ought to read.

Harold Bloom was born July 11, 1930, in the East Bronx, into an Orthodox Jewish household. He was the youngest of five children of William and Paula (Lev) Bloom, struggling immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father was a garment worker.

The first book Harold read was an anthology of Yiddish poetry. He soon discovered the New York Public Library’s branch in the Melrose section of the Bronx and worked his way through Hart Crane, W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot. He graduated from the exclusive Bronx High School of Science — “that ghastly place,” he called it — and went to Cornell on a scholarship, where he dazzled his professors.

When he graduated from Cornell in 1951, his teachers insisted that he go to another institution for graduate school. “We couldn’t teach him anything more,” said M.H. Abrams, the eminent critic and scholar of Romanticism who was Bloom’s adviser.

At his death he lived in the same rambling 19th-century brown-shingled house in New Haven that he and his wife, Jeanne, a retired psychologist in the Branford, Connecticut, school system, had occupied for more than 50 years and filled with thousands of books, paintings and sculptures. He had married Jeanne Gould in 1958.

In addition to his wife, Bloom is survived by two sons, Daniel and David.

Bloom was ultimately both optimistic, in a narrow sense, and pessimistic, in a much broader one, about the durability of great literature. The books he loved would no doubt always find readers, he wrote, though their numbers might dwindle. But his great concern was that the books would no longer be taught, and thus become irrelevant.

“What are now called ‘Departments of English’ will be renamed departments of ‘Cultural Studies,’” he wrote in “The Western Canon,” “where Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens.”

“Major, once-elitist universities and colleges,” he continued, “will still offer a few courses in Shakespeare, Milton and their peers, but these will be taught by departments of three or four scholars, equivalent to teachers of ancient Greek and Latin.”

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