Requiescat in Pace, Harold Bloom

Photo by Wood

Harold Bloom, perhaps the most well-known and prodigiously published literary critic of the 20th century, died last week at age 89 in New Haven, Connecticut. A Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University since 1983, Bloom will be remembered for his books Anxiety of Influence, The Western Canon, and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. He had a near-to-eidetic memory which when combined with his decades of reading and study means we are unlikely to see his type again; Bloom’s memorized knowledge of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Blake and his championing of the Greats of literature in a world grown hostile to the lettered legacy of dead white men are beyond the imagining of academics today. The hundreds of critical essay anthologies he edited for Chelsea House alone guarantee his work appears in the bibliographies of most every postgraduate paper written in the US and UK.

For a sense of the greatness of the man and of his foibles, consult the obituaries printed in The Guardian, The New York Timesand The New Yorker.

Three notes at Bloom’s passing after the jump:

(1) The Most Famous Harry Hater: Harold Bloom was among the first to dismiss Harry Potter and he has few equals for the zeal with which he condemns the adventures of The Boy Who Lived. His editorial in the Wall Street Journal, ‘Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes,’ was, because of his prestige and the article’s bitterly acerbic tone, responsible for the dearth of critical attention in the academy until well after the publication of Deathly Hallows. The piece is also more than a bit maddening for the serious reader because in it Bloom betrays the fact that he speed read the novel (he claimed to be able to read with comprehension at a rate of four hundred pages an hour) or did not read it all. I have said and written more than once that it would be a shame but is not improbable that this poor bit of off-hand criticism of popular fiction may be what most readers remember Bloom for if they ever hear of him at all.

(2) The School of Resentment: I am a Bloom fan for at least two important reasons, both, obviously, despite his disregard for J. K. Rowling as an important and profound literary artist. The first is that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ Bloom, almost alone among critics of his generation, stood firm against the neo-Marxist schools of social justice litmus strip readings of text and the dismissal of the Greats because they were insufficiently ‘representational,’ ‘woke,’ or celebratory of sexual perversion and of liberation of the oppressed, flavor of the week. He grouped critics of this type into the “the School of Resentment,” and they of course responded that this son of a Bronx garment worker and Odessa Jew was an elitist, sexist, colonialist, homophobe, and racist. I think Bloom over-reached in Anxiety of Influence and that his Book of J and American Religion are perhaps the best examples of a literary critic in way over his head; I will always admire and hope to emulate, however, Bloom’s refusal to surrender to the Soviet Realist kommissars who police postmodern thought everywhere today.

(3) Champion of the Canon and Formalist Principles: Bloom wrote that a turning point in his life was reading Northrup Frye’s Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. “It ravished my heart away. I must have read it a hundred times between 1947 and 1950, probably intuitively memorized it, and will never escape the effect of it.” Under this influence and against the strong current of the prevalent school of his time, the so-called New Criticism, Bloom became the advocate of the Romantic poets and American Transcendentalists with special emphasis on Blake, Shelley, and Emerson, an advocacy which revived interest in these writers and their ideas, perhaps even saved them from the intellectual ash heap. He resisted much of the snobbery of the New Critics, but with Frye assumed their method of close reading and attention to text as sufficient artifact of intentional artistry as the means to understanding it as his own.

That he became the Great Gatekeeper of Literary Canon in his dotage speaks to these principles and his resistance to the patronizing of genius by historians, psychologists, political theorists, and social justice partisans all of whom claim to have the best measures for really understanding what a book means. Sadly, it also meant, as Gatekeeper and one who as with Homer nods, that he missed out on the formalist treasures to be found in Rowling’s work, a mistake which unfortunately obscures Bloom’s heroic genius and determination to resist any lowering of canonical standards and for serious reading.

Rest in peace, Harold Bloom; “Rest now, oh valiant warrior, your mission is now complete.” You missed the mark on Harry Potter, but your example in championing the reading of the best books and of how to read them is a grand legacy. Would that all Potter Pundits would read and heed the work of the greatest of all Harry Haters.



  1. Brian Basore says

    Yes, better a good enemy to learn from than an indifferent ‘friend’. The Harry Potter books teach that, with several characters, don’t they?

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