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Harold Bloom ”is arguably the best-known literary critic in America, probably the most controversial and undoubtedly as idiosyncratic as they come—a description with which he would not quarrel,” according to News week writer David Lehman. Describing the influence of the past upon poetry as a relationship of conflict, Bloom’s writings have consistently contradicted mainstream trends in literary theory.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Man of Many Talents
The son of William and Paula Lev Bloom, Harold Bloom was born in New York City and lived there until he entered Cornell University, where he earned a B.A. in 1951. Going on to Yale University for graduate study, he received his Ph.D. in 1955 and has been a member of the Yale faculty since that time. In 1958, he married Jeanne Gould; they have two sons, Daniel and David.
Even in his early years, Bloom read voraciously; it may be a true story that he read English before he spoke it. J. Hillis Miller says that poetry came to Bloom more naturally than prose, and Bloom reminisces about his reading of Hart Crane and Walt Whitman between the ages of eight and twelve. His photographic memory is legendary among his peers; stories tell of his starting to recite Paradise Lost and realizing that he could go on for as long as Milton had. His interests are wide, ranging from baseball to vampire movies, on which he has written an occasional essay for popular magazines.
Bloom’s love of Western literature began at a young age, and formed the foundation of his later beliefs about the importance of the Western canon of literature. He wrote studies on Percy Shelley, William Blake, and Wallace Stevens prior to gaining national fame for his theories on literary criticism, after which he was seen by many as a defender of a more traditionalist Western curriculum. But perhaps his religion was as important to his later theories as the giants of Western literature were.
Raised in a traditional Jewish household, Bloom approached the books of the old Testament with the same devotion he gave to the poets of centuries past. He would argue strongly in later writings in favor of the view that the so-called J author of some of the earliest books of the old Testament was a female scribe, and that her writings were originally intended as ironic critiques of the rather inflexible, male-dominated religion of her time. His interest in spirituality would later manifest in what he called ”Jewish gnosticism,” a complex belief system that views humans as perfect souls trapped in an imperfect world. He would later introduce elements of his gnostic beliefs directly into his literary criticism.
Career in Literary Criticism
In 1973, a small book was published under the title The Anxiety of Influence. It was to mark Harold Bloom’s dramatic entrance into literary theory, and was to mark as well the theoretical discourse of our century. Since the publication of this book, it has been impossible to discuss theories of influence and tradition without reference to Bloom. Before The Anxiety of Influence, twentieth-century criticism had been guided by Matthew Arnold’s humanistic vision of tradition, subscribed to by T. S. Eliot and sustained by the so-called New Criticism. Tradition was viewed as a gathering up, an addition without loss. In The Anxiety of Influence Bloom proposed a radical revision of the concepts of tradition and influence, which he termed ”antithetical criticism.” This criticism trans formed the conventional landscape of literary history into a battleground in which each poet, coming late upon the scene, enters into what might seem to be an Oedipal struggle with his precursors.
Even before the publication of this book, Bloom was a distinguished literary critic. His works on Romanticism had helped bring about a re-evaluation of Romantic poetry and of the critical stances through which Romanticism was being read. His five books published prior to The Anxiety of Influence rejected the modernist and New Critical assumptions which had devalued Romantic poetry. Bloom’s re-reading of this tradition, along with Geoffrey Hartman’s monumental studies of Wordsworth and Paul de Man’s significant work on the Romantics, had the effect of reestablishing the fortunes of British Romanticism.
An Academic Outcast
Bloom is utterly iconoclastic about academic traditions, a fact which has earned him the active antipathy of a certain traditional segment of the academic establishment. In a profession that lives by its curriculum vitae (a sort of academic resume), he refuses to compile one. On occasion, like Whitman, he has written a review of his own work (”The Criticism of Our Climate,” Yale Review, October 1982) though, unlike Whitman, he has signed his name to it. He has been known to write in the middle of a party, oblivious to the crowd around him. The Visionary Company (1961) was written on the dinner table, with his baby son in front of him and dinner displacing the manuscript. In the age of the computer, he writes his books longhand, and they go from typist to print, since he objects forcefully to being copyedited. He quotes entirely from memory and eschews footnotes altogether. These ”stances” (Bloom’s term) are idiosyncrasies to the establishment, but they are rooted in Bloom’s theories of poetry.
His views of Western canon, rooted firmly in Dante and Shakespeare, earned Bloom further enmity during the ”culture wars” of the 1970s and 80s, which pitted the Western-centered approach favored by Bloom against a more multi-cultural program that incorporated contributions from women, non-Western sources, and traditionally marginalized groups.
He writes with some regularity for the New York Review of Books, the New York Times Book Review, and other literary magazines. The author of fourteen books, his work has been translated into many languages, including German, Italian, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, Romanian, and Japanese. He is at present Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University.
Works in Literary Context
As important to literary criticism as he is controversial, Harold Bloom has been a major contributor to academic scholarship for over thirty-five years. His work has been influenced by a wide variety of sources, ranging from Freud and Nietzsche to Gnosticism and Judaism. Most of Bloom’s books are concerned with the development of his theory of poetics, which centers on the notion that poets engage in a constant struggle with their literary forebears. This ”anxiety of influence,” as Bloom has termed it, has been alternately referred to as ”genius” and ”idiosyncratic” by his scholarly peers.
Critic Alan Rosenfeld has referred to Bloom’s work as a ”theory in progress,” noting that as new volumes appear, new influences are brought to bear on his ideas, such as with A Map of Misreading (1980), in which Bloom turns to Lurianic Kabbalism (a form of Jewish mysticism) as ”the ultimate model for Western revision ism from the Renaissance to the present.”
Influence and “Misreading”
At the center of Bloom’s ”anxiety of influence,” the focus of his theory of poetics, is the notion that modern writers wrestle with the writers of the past in an effort to create something new and original. Since the Enlightenment, Bloom contends, writers have suffered from a feeling of “belatedness.” As Denis Donoghue writes: ”Born too late, they find everything already said and done; they cannot be first, priority has by definition, and the indifference of fate, escaped them.” The weak writer fails to find his own voice, while the strong writer challenges his precursor, willfully ”misreading” him so as to clear a space for himself. In the New York Times Book Review, Edward Said comments, ”it is the essence of Bloom’s vision that every poem is the result by which another, earlier poem is deliberately misread, and hence re-written.” Such a vision sets each poem in a hostile relationship with others: ”No text can be complete,” Said notes, ”because on the one hand it is an attempt to struggle free of earlier texts impinging on it and, on the other, it is preparing itself to savage texts not yet written by authors not yet born.” In subsequent books, Bloom further refines his theoretical approach, utilizing psychoanalysis (Freud), philosophy (Nietzsche and Vico), and Jewish theology (Gnosis and Kabbalah) to create an intricate theory of poetics that continues to spur critical debate.
The ”Yale School” of Literary Criticism
Bloom did not achieve this transformation of criticism in twentieth-century America single-handedly. From the 1950s on, critics who were to become known as members of the ”Yale School” began to put into question the humanistic underpinnings of the English language tradition: its assumptions of meaning, the importance of literature, the separation of literature and criticism. The members of this school shared in these challenges to the old humanistic system, but each took off in his own direction: Jacques Derrida, with his rhetorical dismantling of literary and philosophical texts in what came to be called deconstruction; Paul de Man, with the concerns that arose from deconstruction as the undoing of all understanding; J. Hillis Miller, moving from phenomenology to deconstruction; and Geoffrey H. Hartman, undertaking a critique of criticism whose effect was to de-emphasize the Greek philosophical tradition and to bring into contact the ”literary” and the ”critical” endeavors. Bloom, like the other members of this group, attacked humanism and contemporary ideas of form and meaning; but unlike the other members of this group, he also attacked deconstruction and its reliance on philosophical models.
Works in Critical Context
Not unlike Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, Harold Bloom is a literary critic who has received a great deal of critical attention of his own. His work is reviewed widely, attacked critically, and often praised. Many critics have lauded his daring, ”antithetical” approach, while others have called him ”willfully offensive to the profession.” Bloom’s reply to these praises and criticisms is, as Alvin Rosenfeld states, ”perhaps the most outrageous thing of all: he writes another book.” Denis Donoghue, who holds the Henry James Chair of English and American Letters at New York University, frequently reviews Bloom s books and has ambivalent feelings regarding his work, saying in one review that he finds Bloom ”quite wondrous, even when I don t believe him.
Several reviewers charge that Bloom s literary theory is excessively reductive. Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Christopher Ricks notes repetition in the arguments appearing in The Anxiety of Influence, A Map of Misreading, Kabbalah and Criticism, and Poetry and Repression, then declares, ”Bloom had an idea; now the idea has him. . . . He now has nothing left to do but to say the same things about new contests and with more decibels.” However, in a New Republic review of Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, Helen Vendler writes, ”Any collection of essays and addresses composed in the span of a few years by a single powerful mind will tend to return to the same questions, and to urge (even covertly) the same views.
Omens of Millennium
Omens of Millennium (1996) is a more personal book in which Bloom discusses con temporary spirituality and his own Gnosticist beliefs. As Los Angeles Times Book Review critic Jonathan Kirsch writes, ”The whole point of Bloom’s book is that the offerings of the so-called New Age—’an endless saturnalia of ill-defined longings,’ as he defines it—are shallow and silly when compared to what the ancients knew.” Commenting on Bloom’s disclosure of his struggle with depression in his thirties, Kirsch notes that Bloom ”is apparently too courtly, too cerebral and perhaps too shy to engage in much baring of the soul.” Instead, as Washington Post Book World critic Marina Warner notes, Bloom invokes the wisdom of ancient Zoroastrianism, early Christian Gnosticism, medieval Sufism, and Kabbalism ”in order to create an antidote to the New Age.” Praising the ”trenchancy, verve and learning” of the book, Warner writes that ”Omens of Millennium is born of despair, but it focuses throughout on possibility, with a true teacher’s refusal to give up the job of stimulating and informing, no matter how restless the class or desolate the wasteland of the schoolyard outside.”
- Allen, Graham. Harold Bloom: Poetics of Conflict. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.
- Fite, David. Harold Bloom: The Rhetoric of Romantic Vision. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985.
- Scherr, Barry J. D. H. Lawrence’s Response to Plato: A Bloomian Interpretation. New York: P. Lang, 1995.
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