Harold Bloom, a giant of literary criticism, died in New York yesterday at the age of 89. The author of dozens of books and editor of hundreds more, Bloom taught at Yale University for five decades, beguiling his students and angering his critics who accused him of racism and sexism for his eurocentric views.
Bloom got into trouble for his unabashed praise of Western literary giants like Shakespeare, Kafka, and Chaucer. And, he was unapologetic about it.
Bloom had a photographic memory, and claimed he could recite all of Shakespeare, all of John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and copious swaths of British Romantic poetry. He was widely respected in mid-20th-century literary circles, but over the years, he fell out of fashion, in large part for his outspoken disdain for fellow scholars who he deemed “resentiks” — Deconstructionists, feminists and multiculturalists, whose cultural politics, he felt, minimized the genius of the writers he lionized.
“To a rather considerable extent,” Bloom told The Atlantic magazine in 2003, “literary studies have been replaced by that incredible absurdity called cultural studies which, as far as I can tell, are neither cultural nor are they studies. But there has always been an arrogance, I think, of the semi-learned.”
Oh, my. That one stung.
Bloom didn’t care about color or gender. He cared about excellence. In the 1990s, he championed various minority and female writers, calling Ursula K. Le Guin, author of the Earthsea fantasy series, a better writer than J.R.R. Tolkien.
But it was his love of reading and good books that animated his professional and personal life. He argued passionately against the politicization of reading. In The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, where he took to task critics who hold him that “reading without a constructive social purpose was unethical.”
What Johnson and Woolf after him called the Common Reader still exists and possibly goes on welcoming suggestions of what might be read. Such a reader does not read for easy pleasure or to expiate social guilt, but to enlarge a solitary existence. So fantastic has the academy become that I have heard this kind of reader denounced by an eminent critic, who told me that reading without a constructive social purpose was unethical and urged me to reeducate myself through an immersion in the writing of Abdul Jan Mohammed, a leader of the Birmingham (England) school of cultural materialism. As an addict who will read anything, I obeyed, but I am not saved, and return to tell you neither what to read nor how to read it, only what I have read and think worthy of rereading, which may be the only pragmatic test for the canonical.
The liberal author and former editor of the New York Times Book Review, San Tannenhaus, said of Bloom in 2011, “He is, by any reckoning, one of the most stimulating literary presences of the last half-century — and the most protean.” He added that Bloom was “a singular breed of scholar-teacher-critic-prose-poet-pamphleteer.”
But it was his total love of reading itself that he was best known for.
Professor 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.”
During the last 10 years of his life, Bloom appeared to accept the value of literary contributions from other cultures, although he refused to elevate them above his own favorites. And he bemoaned the shrinking audience for the classics in a time where “English Departments” became “Cultural Studies.”
“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.”
Western civilization has lost one of its most prolific, recognizable, and vigorous defenders. And all of us are the poorer for it.