• September 16, 2014

Harold Bloom by the Numbers

Harold Bloom by the Numbers 1

Michael Marsland, Yale U.

Harold Bloom

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close Harold Bloom by the Numbers 1

Michael Marsland, Yale U.

Harold Bloom

If you look up "Bloom, Harold" under "author" in the University of Pennsylvania's main library catalog, the computer shoots back 846 entries. Most are his Chelsea House collections of critical essays on authors, each one "edited and with an introduction" by Harold Bloom.

Now 80, Yale's longtime Sterling Professor of the Humanities has knocked out volumes on, for starters, A.E. Housman, A.R. Ammons, Agatha Christie, Albert Camus, Aldous Huxley, Alexander Pope, Alexander Pushkin, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Alice Munro, Alice Walker. ...

I'd proceed right through the alphabet—or at least to the letter "B"—but my editor insists that I write some of this essay myself. Those volumes, of course, don't include the collections by Bloom, also "edited and with an introduction," on specific works of literature. He's written about Aeschylus's the Oresteia; Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country; Albert Camus's The Stranger; Aldous Huxley's Brave New World; Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X; Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock; Alice Walker's The Color Purple. ...

OK, OK, I'll stop. But what kind of cultural critic could feel comfortable mentioning just a fraction of the works of the scholar under review? And the books I've mentioned don't include the volumes by Bloom on categories of writers, such as African-American Poets; American and Canadian Women Poets: 1930-Present; American Fiction 1914-1945; American Naturalism; American Poetry 1915 to 1945; American Poetry 1946 to 1965; American Poetry Through 1914. ...

All right, all right—no more lists. I'm warmed up. How does one interpret such a Brobdingnagian output? It being nearly Passover as I write this, let me count three ways.

1. Professor Bloom began to need more money in the 1980s. His publisher, Chelsea House, gladly offered it to him, knowing that his name on volumes guaranteed library sales. Bloom organized what he called "the factory" in New Haven, employed 16 full-time staffers at one stage, as well as scores of freelance graduate students, and at his peak knocked out 15 books a month and three introductions a week. 

2. Professor Bloom's singularly capacious mind and reading habits—he once responded to the "myth" that he could read 1,000 pages an hour by explaining he could read only 400—mean that he actually does know enough about all the writers, books, and literary categories on which he's edited essays to make this spectacle magnificent rather than tawdry. That is, he knows as much as we're entitled to expect a scholar to know when his or her name appears on such a collection.

3. Professor Bloom believes his prolific performance has increased his prestige and critical standing—already high thanks to his Yale chair, a MacArthur fellowship, and books such as A Map of Misreading and Kabbalah and Criticism—thus creating enhanced credibility for his own more substantive writing.

Those interested in the first interpretation should look up the biographical pieces in New York magazine, The New York Times, the Paris Review, and elsewhere. With the publication of Bloom's latest book, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life (Yale University Press), it behooves us to weigh the second and third.

At the outset of Anatomy, Bloom tells us he'll be updating his controversial The Anxiety of Influence (Oxford University Press, 1973) by commenting on about 30 writers, all of whom he's written on before. A third of the book is devoted to Shakespeare, whom Bloom concedes has long been his "obsessive concern," sharing a godlike position with Emerson in Bloom's literary universe. But the first warning sign of the slapdash comes early: In just the first 30 pages, the author repetitively calls the book a "final reflection upon the influence process," his "final statement on the subject," his "virtual swan song," and his "last reflection upon influence."

The promise of updating also proves shaky. In "The Point of View for My Work as a Critic," Bloom recalls yet again, as he has elsewhere in his work, his early infatuation with Hart Crane and William Blake, his appreciation of Samuel Johnson, his insistence that literature is life itself, his "possession" of much immortal literature by memory, his antipathy to nonaesthetic approaches to literature. In regard to the last, he makes clear his continued hostility to that "rabblement of lemmings" and "resentniks," as he has memorably labeled his critics, whose ranks he saw filled by "feminists, Marxists, purple-haired semioticians, new historicists, Lacanians, De Manians."

Also familiar rather than fresh is Bloom's characteristic need to clear his op-ed throat: "Twenty-first century America is in a state of decline," he reports. "It is scary to reread the final volume of Gibbon these days because the fate of the Roman Empire seems an outline for the imperial presidency of George W. Bush retraced, and that continues even now. We have approached bankruptcy, fought wars we cannot pay for, and defrauded our urban and rural poor. Our troops include felons, and mercenaries of many nations are among our 'contractors,' fighting on their rules or none at all. Dark influences from the American past congregate among us still. If we are a democracy, what are we to make of the palpable elements of plutocracy, oligarchy, and mounting theocracy that rule our state? How do we address the self-inflicted catastrophes that devastate our natural environment? So large is our malaise that no single writer can encompass it. We have no Emerson or Whitman among us. An institutionalized counterculture condemns individuality as archaic and depreciates intellectual values, even in the universities."

When the Paris Review's interviewer in the early 90s asked Bloom who edited him, Bloom replied, "No one edits. I edit. I refuse to be edited."  That still seems the case, with sad results.

Officially, Anatomy reappraises Bloom's The Anxiety of Influence—excoriated by poet Howard Nemerov as "nonsense"—which declared all poets to be intimidated by earlier poets and great ones to be committed to "misreadings" of predecessors as the price of originality. Bloom now calls his earlier book "a brief, gnomic theory of poetry, free of all history except literary biography." He concedes that "it is a hard read, even for me," because it carried "an undercurrent of foreboding" and constituted "an attempt to forge a weapon against the gathering storm of ideology that soon would sweep away many of my students."

In conceiving Anatomy as a chance to look back on his work, to wed his thinking about influence from 1967 to 1982 with "more public reflections" of the past decade, he wishes "to say in one place most of what I have learned to think about how influence works in imaginative literature." Now, he declares, "I define influence simply as literary love, tempered by defense."

Yet it's not clear that much has changed for Bloom. Literary folk in the trenches know that many poets don't care much about specific predecessors. Bloom counters that he's always talking about "an anxiety achieved in a literary work, whether or not its author ever felt it." So it's not necessarily a psychological state in the later poet. Even if you've never met a writer who feels "threatened by the prospect of imaginative death, of being entirely possessed by a precursor," Bloom is not necessarily wrong in his theory. You don't have to be Karl Popper (who believed a thesis has to be falsifiable to be potentially true) to see the problem with Bloom's claim. When "students ask me why great writers cannot start out fresh, without any past at their back," Bloom confides, "I can only tell them that it just does not work that way." As the poet and critic John Hollander once remarked to The New York Times, "Harold is not particularly a good explainer."

Indeed, he's a consummate assumer. Bloom continues to posit art "as a contest for the foremost place," and agon, or conflict, as "a central feature of literary relationships," even though he knows that it is for some artists, and isn't for others. He's still proud to be an "incessant canonizer." He still talks of the "poet-in-a-poet," by which he means "his daemon, his potential immortality as a poet, and so in effect his divinity."

For the critic fond of literary crushes but eager for clear concepts, convincing evidence of links among writers, and philosophical coherence in shaping a canon of greatness, Bloom disappoints. Even those who admire aspects of his work express regrets. Alan Rawes and Jonathon Shears, coeditors of Reading, Writing and the Influence of Harold Bloom, concede that their essay collection must cover those "aspects of Bloom—the pedantry, conservatism, hysteria, and silliness—that so many readers have found in his work." Bloom's literary passion comes soaked in so much bile toward those who love literature differently that it seems a kind of personality disorder rather than healthy aesthetic judgment. When he practices the fundamental critical task of interpreting one writer's link to another, we get arbitrary foolishness: that Leopardi's "possession" of Dante and Petrarch is "miraculous" rather than wholly natural, or that Milton suffers a "humbling defeat" at the hands of Hamlet—a character rather than an author.

Here is where all those hasty introductions to the Chelsea House editions revive in the mind, reminding one of Bloom's comfort with arbitrary promulgations and convenient ex cathedra salvos. Consider his introduction to the Zora Neale Hurston volume.

"Extra-literary factors have entered into the process of even secular canonization from Hellenistic Alexandria into the High Modernist Era of Eliot and Pound," he began, "so that it need not much dismay us if contemporary work by women and by minority writers becomes esteemed on grounds other than aesthetic." A shabby lead, considering that Bloom actually liked Hurston—or at least Their Eyes Were Watching God. But could anyone not trapped behind elite Europhile glasses believe that "Nietzsche's vitalistic injunction, that we must try to live as though it were morning, is the implicit basis of Hurston's true religion"? The conceit made as much sense as Bloom's fey judgment, in his introduction to the Rudyard Kipling volume, that "Kipling writes in the rhetorical stance of an aesthete, and is very much a Paterian in the metaphysical sense." If Bloom's instant Chelsea House intros had been his comp exams, his first book might have been called The Flight to Another Career.

"It may be," Bloom writes at the outset of his new book, referring to Robert Burton's 17th-century The Anatomy of Melancholy, "that all I share with Burton is an obsessiveness somewhat parallel to his own." Agreed. In regard to Emerson, Bloom appears bent on the Concord sage's promise that "if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him."

Bloom may have a wait. In his new book, he sounds grimly like the lit-crit equivalent of an unsteady Mideast autocrat, used to declaiming on whatever strikes his fancy, oblivious as his ritual pronouncements fall on deaf ears.

Carlin Romano, critic at large for The Chronicle Review, is a professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College.

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