With the publication of his 1973 book The Anxiety of Influence, Harold Bloom (born 1930) became one of the most widely read literary critics in the Englishspeaking world.
His award-winning book dealt with poetry, and with the relationships of poets to their predecessors, but Bloom, whose erudition is legendary, has written on many other forms of literature. “I cannot think of a major work I have not ingested,” he once told Newsweek. A longtime professor at Yale University, Bloom has written densely theoretical texts in which he marshals terminology steeped in classic literature and philosophy in order to express his ideas. Almost alone among major scholars, however, Bloom has also sought to address a general readership. He has emerged as a defender of the canon (or generally accepted selection) of literary works as traditionally taught in Western countries, and he has been an indefatigable promoter of the idea that reading in general is a vital, creative, and even spiritual act. “His enthusiasm for literature is a joyous intoxicant. He scatters insight with manic profligacy,” noted Adam Begley in the New York Times. A larger-than-life figure in many ways, Bloom has touched both students of literature and general readers with his enthusiasm.
Learned Three Languages as Child
Bloom was born in the New York City borough of the Bronx on July 11, 1930. His parents, William and Paula Bloom, were both working-class Eastern European immigrants who observed the Orthodox Jewish faith. They spoke Yiddish at home, and Harold, the youngest of five children, did not hear the English language regularly until he was six. By that time, however, his gift for absorbing language off the printed page had already begun to show itself. By age three he had taught himself to read Yiddish, and he added Hebrew at four. Starting in on English, he became fascinated with the mystical but rough poetry of English writer William Blake and with the difficult poems of the American author Hart Crane. “I remember my sister Esther at my request took me along to the Melrose branch of the New York Public Library—I couldn't have been more than seven or eight,” Bloom recalled as quoted by Begley, “and I got her to take out the collected poems of Hart Crane, and I think a volume of T.S. Eliot's poetry, and Auden, and I went home and devoured them and fell even more violently in love with Hart Crane's poetry.”
Bloom's prodigious powers of memory have spawned both true and apocryphal stories. He has said that when he was young he could read a thousand pages in an hour, and the encyclopedic nature of the literary references in his writing shows that he retained much of what he read. The New Yorker reported that as an undergraduate at Cornell University, he recited Crane's book-length poem “The Bridge” while drunk. Whatever his exact powers, it is clear that Bloom immersed himself in poetry and fiction as a young person, and that he committed many of the classics of English-language poetry to memory.
Attending the elite Bronx High School of Science, Bloom paid little attention to his classes and got generally poor grades. His academic career was rescued, however, when he turned in a strong performance on the New York State Regents examinations, a statewide standardized test. Admitted on a scholarship to Cornell University in Ithaca in rural upstate New York, he felt out of place at first—the first time he saw a cow in the flesh he was frightened, because he did not know what it was. But he soon began to soak up the university's offerings in the English department. “I came very much under the influence and the kind guidance of M. H. Abrams, Meyer Howard Abrams, who I'm delighted to say is still alive,” Bloom recalled in an interview on the Web site of Barnes & Noble Books. “He's 88 years old now, one of the leading, perhaps the leading scholar of English Romantic poetry in the 20th century.” When Bloom graduated with a B.A. in 1951, Cornell's faculty insisted they had no more to teach him and that he should go elsewhere for graduate study.
Accordingly, Bloom moved on to one of the citadels of East Coast literary studies, the English department at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. He would remain at Yale (and a New Haven resident) for the rest of his life, earning his Ph.D. in 1955 and joining the faculty as an instructor that same year. He did not completely fit in at Yale as a student among the university's tweedy professors. “And I,” Bloom observed to Begley, “am very Jewish, and lowerclass Jewish at that.” Furthermore, Bloom was a specialist in Romantic poetry, while the intellectual fashion at Yale ran toward what was known as New Criticism—a school of analysis primarily oriented toward form and structure that favored the intellectual experimentation of modern poetry.
Published Books on Romantic Poets
Any disagreements Bloom might have had with his intellectual mentors at Yale, however (they included Frederick Pottle and William Clyde Devane), faded before his tremendous productivity. While many junior faculty members struggle to produce even one book, Bloom produced five between 1959 and 1971, beginning with Shelley's Mythmaking and proceeding through The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (1961), Blake's Apocalypse (1963), Yeats (1970), and Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition (1971). Published by the major Doubleday house or by Oxford University Press, these works exerted a strong influence over literary studies, reawakening interest in Romantic poetry as a manifestation of visionary imagination. Bloom accomplished all this while starting a family; he married Jeanne Gould, a child psychologist, in 1958, and the couple had two children, Daniel and David.
Bloom advanced to the rank of assistant professor in 1960, was made associate professor in 1963 (after winning a prestigious Guggenheim fellowship the previous year), and became a full professor at Yale in 1965. Although his career seemed to be going brilliantly, Bloom was troubled by serious episodes of depression, beginning in 1965 and continuing intermittently after that. He sought various forms of intellectual refuge, reading the psychoanalytic works of Sigmund Freud voraciously, delving into philosophy, and exploring the Kabbalah tradition of Jewish mysticism and textual interpretation. Although he had always written very quickly, he labored for several years on a mysterious piece of writing that only piqued the curiosity of his associates— by the late 1960s, Bloom was viewed as an emerging intellectual star.
When the fruits of his labors were revealed, they changed the face of literary criticism. The title of Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence (1973) became part of the American intellectual vocabulary. The book was nothing less than a comprehensive theory of poetry, drawing on Freud's general ideas about the Oedipal competition between sons and fathers and amplifying them with a series of concepts drawn from classical Greek rhetoric. A poem, Bloom argued, cannot be understood without referring to the poems that came before it. Furthermore, a poem represents a specific effort on the part of the poet—an effort to devalue a previous poem by making it seem a mere predecessor to the new poem. Poetry, in Bloom's view, was a constant struggle by poets to overthrow their forerunners. They accomplished this overthrow by what might be called creative misreading (Bloom's word was “misprision”) of earlier poets, manipulating the ideas of the earlier in a variety of modes to which Bloom assigned Greek-derived names such as metalepsis.
Several of Bloom's books after The Anxiety of Influence, such as A Map of Misreading (1975), Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens (1976), and Agon: Toward a Theory of Revisionism (1982) further unpacked the ideas introduced in The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom also applied religious and philosophical ideas to literary studies in Kabbalah and Criticism (1975) and Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present (1989). He himself became devoted to the philosophy of Gnosticism, an early offshoot of Christianity that held that the material world was an imperfect state created by a spirit known as a demiurge; the divine world could be glimpsed only through gnosis or spiritual knowledge.
Resisted New Trends in Criticism
The intensely theoretical nature of The Anxiety of Influence led readers to group Bloom with the hardcore literary theory known as deconstruction, but Bloom, who never lost his focus on the human content of poetry and fiction, rejected that association. Nor was he sympathetic to newer schools of criticism that viewed literature as a response to social conditions and often had strongly political content— he sometimes facetiously grouped Marxists, feminists, New Historicists, and other thinkers together as a “School of Resentment.” A rebel in his earlier days, Bloom by the late 1980s was viewed as reactionary by some of his younger colleagues. He himself rejected any attempt to link his work to a particular political philosophy and had little use for overtly political literature of any kind. Disgusted by the increasing politicization of literary studies, he left Yale's English department in 1974 and took the designation of professor of humanities, becoming a department of one.
Bloom remained popular with students, giving lectures that were wide-ranging intellectual adventures in themselves. In his later years, his focus turned from literary theory (although he continued to expand on his earlier ideas) to writing books about literature for an audience beyond the academic community. He might have been motivated partly by financial considerations; Begley reported that one of Bloom's sons suffered from a disability that required ongoing medical care. (In 1988 Bloom began teaching at New York University on the side.) Bloom himself spoke, in his Barnes & Noble interview, of unease over the decline of reading. “I have reached the very sad conclusion that what most threatens the future of reading is the … real possibility of the disappearance of the book,” he said.
Whatever his motivation, Bloom's second career as a public intellectual was remarkably successful. The Book ofJ (1990), which suggested that parts of the Bible were written by a woman, as imaginative literature, was a bestseller. Bloom was paid an advance of $600,000 for his 1994 book The Western Canon, which surveyed the works of 26 writers from the anonymous author of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh to contemporary playwright Tony Kushner. Among the most acclaimed of Bloom's later works was Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), in which he analyzed each of Shakespeare's 38 plays and argued that the modern understanding of personality has been crucially shaped by Shakespeare's plays. Bloom's How to Read and Why (2000) fell into a long tradition of books introducing American audiences to the art of reading classic literature.
In 1983 Bloom also set out on an ambitious editorial project: he collected essays on specific writers, publishing them in book form with a short introduction of his own. Issued by the small Philadelphia publisher Chelsea House, Bloom's series numbered some 600 volumes by the early 2000s. Although he admitted some contemporary works to the series, Bloom had little use for the major publishing phenomenon of the new millennium. In a widely noted Wall Street Journal article published in 2000, he attacked the Harry Potter series by British author J.K. Rowling. “The two Alice books by Lewis Carroll are the finest literary fantasies ever written,” he told Newsweek. “They will last forever, and the Harry Potter books are going to wind up in the rubbish bin. The first six volumes have sold, I am told, 350 million copies. I know of no larger indictment of the world's descent into subliteracy.” A rotund but charismatic figure who for some evoked the Shakespearean character Falstaff, Bloom was in demand as a speaker into old age and remained active in the mid-2000s, penning an introduction to an edition of Eugene O'Neill's play The Iceman Cometh in 2006. Literature had been his constant companion since early childhood, and he continued to expound its creative power to the wide public that, despite predictions of its demise, still cherished it.
Allen, Graham, Harold Bloom: Poetics of Conflict, Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 67: Modern American Critics Since 1955, Gale, 1988.
New York Times Magazine, September 25, 1994.
New Yorker, September 30, 2002.
Newsweek, March 12, 2007.
Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2000.
Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2007. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (November 1, 2007).
“Meet the Writers: Harold Bloom,” Barnes & Noble Books, http://www.barnesandnoble.com/writers/writerdetails.asp?cid=881671#interview (November 1, 2007).
BLOOM, HAROLD (1930– ), U.S. literary critic. Born to Yiddish-speaking parents in New York City, Bloom taught at Yale from 1955. An authority on Romantic and Victorian poetry, he wrote lengthy studies of Shelley, Blake, and Yeats. Bloom's most significant critical works, including The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973), A Map of Misreading (1975), and Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (1982), explore the issue of influence, asserting that poetic creativity involves an Oedipal struggle between a writer and the great poetic figures of the past. All would-be artists, Bloom asserts, experience the anxiety that the great works have already been written; to deal with this anxiety of belatedness, they misread their precursor's work in order to find space at the poetic table. Bloom has applied this model to religious and Jewish texts. In Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present (1989), he argues that the Hebrew Bible contains a power and sublimity that permeates all of the best of Western literature. In The Book of j (1990), for which he wrote the introduction and commentary, Bloom argues that the J or Yahwist author of earliest elements of the Torah – actually a woman attached to the court of the Israelite successor king to Solomon – was writing an ironic literary critique of the dogmatic, patriarchal religion of her time. Bloom spoke of himself as a "Jewish Gnostic." He delved into Gnosticism and Kabbalah's influences on American spiritual practices in The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation (1992) and Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection (1996), and in Kabbalah and Criticism (1975) he uses Kabbalah as a model for contemporary literary criticism.
With The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994), Bloom aroused widespread interest and controversy, entering into the heart of the American culture wars occurring between those arguing for a multicultural curriculum and those arguing for a return to the Western canon. Many in the press viewed Bloom as the keeper of the canon, asking for his opinions about which contemporary authors did or did not belong in the canon. The more interesting aspect of the work was Bloom's adoption of an organizing principle for literary history based on the 18th-century Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico's cyclical theory of history. Bloom went on to predict the imminent arrival of a new Theocratic Age, possibly Islamic. Mourning the death of reading and attacking what he coined the School of Resentment – the Marxist, feminist, multiculturalist, and historicist schools of criticism, which he characterizes as too focused on a social agenda – for diminishing literature, he argued for the primacy of Shakespeare and Dante, arguing that "the Western Canon is Shakespeare and Dante. Beyond them, it is what they absorbed and what absorbed them." Bloom's celebration of Shakespeare, the j author of the Bible, and other canonical writers continued in later works of popular criticism, including Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), in which he argues that our modern sense of the psychologically complex human originated with Shakespeare, How to Read and Why (2000), and Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? (2004).
[Craig Svonkin (2nd ed.)]
BLOOM, Harold. American, b. 1930. Genres: Novels, Literary criticism and history. Career: Professor of Humanities, 1977-, and Sterling Professor of Humanities, 1983-, Yale University, New Haven, CT (joined Dept. of English, 1955; Professor of English, 1965-77; William Clyde De Vane Professor of Humanities, 1974-77). Berg Professor of English, New York University, 1987-. Publications: Shelley's Mythmaking, 1959; The Visionary Company, 1961; Blake's Apocalypse, 1963; Commentary to Blake's Poetry and Prose, 1965; Yeats, 1970; The Ringers in the Tower, 1971; The Anxiety of Influence, 1973; Kabbalah and Criticism, 1975; A Map of Misreading, 1975; Figures of Capable Imagination, 1976; Poetry and Repression, 1976; Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, 1977; The Flight to Lucifer, 1978; (with A. Munich) Robert Browning, 1979; (coauthor) Deconstruction and Criticism, 1979; Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, 1981; The Breaking of the Vessels, 1982; The Strong Light of the Canonical, 1987; Freud: Transference and Authority, 1988; Poetics of Influence: New and Selected Criticism, 1988; Ruin the Sacred Truths, 1988; The Book of J, 1990; The American Religion, 1992; The Western Canon, 1994; Omens of Millennium, 1996; Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, 1998; How to Read and Why, 1999; Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children, 2001; Genius: A Mosaic of Exemplary Creative Minds, 2002. EDITOR: English Romantic Poetry (anthology), 1961; Romanticism and Consciousness, 1970; (with others) Oxford Anthology of English Literature, 2 vols., 1972; The Romantic Tradition in American Literature, 1972; (with L. Trilling) Romantic Prose and Poetry, 1973; Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley, 1978; Selected Writings of Walter Pater, 1982.