“Shakespeare is God”
October 14, 2019 1:26 PM   Subscribe

Professor [Harold] Bloom (July 11, 1930 - October 14, 2019) was frequently called the most notorious literary critic in America. From a vaunted perch at Yale, he flew in the face of almost every trend in the literary criticism of his day. Chiefly he argued for the literary superiority of the Western giants like Shakespeare, Chaucer and Kafka — all of them white and male, his own critics pointed out — over writers favored by what he called “the School of Resentment,” by which he meant multiculturalists, feminists, Marxists, neoconservatives and others whom he saw as often betraying literature’s essential purpose. --NYT Obituary posted by chavenet (57 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Yeah wasn't an admirer.

posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 1:48 PM on October 14 [6 favorites]


I became a huge Harold Bloom fan during graduate school, and still have some of his books on my shelf now. He was a giant of literary criticism.
posted by Annabelle74 at 1:58 PM on October 14 [8 favorites]

He was a poor man's Northrop Frye.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 2:02 PM on October 14 [17 favorites]

The Western Canon was a big influence on me as an adolescent. But my admiration of him was one of the first casualties of the love of literature and literary study that he helped to inspire. Bloom was long on assertion and very short on evidence and argument. The "anxiety of influence" idea is elegant and portable, and I enjoy teaching that essay from time to time. But in general he was vague, wordy, overconfident, and above all endlessly endlessly repetitive. After about 1990 in particular everything he writes is the same tedious building of lists and genealogies and rankings, like a pretentious mind blind version of the Jack Black character from High Fidelity. Late Bloom and indeed Bloom at most points was incapable of close reading or saying anything insightful about language. He was a lazy scholar with no interest in history or philology and textual studies. The Shakespeare criticism is bad A.C. Bradley-esque character analysis. And his innumerable anthologies and critical introductions and so forth (all, of course, actually assembled by underpaid academics many rungs down the ladder from his Yale perch, who were, and I have this at firsthand from one of them, expressly forbidden to attempt to contact him while putting them together) were an embarrassment. It annoys me to think that general educated readers who saw his writing in places like the NYRB thought that that was what good literary criticism and scholarship looked like. I like the same books that Bloom does (though not only those books), but don't have much time for his readings of them.

On preview: seconding JSCS. Frye was a much better critic of the books that he and Bloom both loved, and he had a breadth of vision that was open to the books and non-literary cultural artifacts that Bloom was too little to appreciate.
posted by sy at 2:06 PM on October 14 [53 favorites]

Maybe this is the year I finally read The Flight to Lucifer.
posted by prize bull octorok at 2:08 PM on October 14 [4 favorites]

Harold Bloom was a strong champion of two of my favourite authors - Mervyn Peake and John Crowley - and for that I'm glad. But I wish he had used his considerable influence to look past his nose and champion the fantastic authors that didn't look so much like him.
posted by Paragon at 2:08 PM on October 14 [20 favorites]

Developed a soft spot for Bloom back in my high school days, somehow, among my readings at that age of bell hooks and Eduardo Galeano and Frantz Fanon; I suppose I just loved Shakespeare that goddamn much. I held a pilfered copy of The Invention of the Human as sacrosanct for many years--stolen from a gift shop at Ontario's Stratford Festival, where two other teenage friends and fans of Billy S. and I went for our post-graduation celebratory road trip. Wish he could have maintained a lust for the Western canon without lashing out at other literature; he really seemed to find pleasure these last couple of decades in being obstinately...obstinate. I'll remain grateful for spurring me to embrace Falstaff nonetheless.

posted by youarenothere at 2:12 PM on October 14 [8 favorites]

Many years ago I too was convinced that the Western Canon was immutable, and the bedrock of culture. I read Bloom, in all of his obtuse prose, and especially enjoyed his insights on Shakespeare in Invention of the Human. I still use it occasionally as a reference when exploring a play.

As I matured so did my worldview, and I left behind many of his quaint conceits on the importance of the icons he promoted. It's too bad he couldn't mature as well, it might have been interesting.

posted by OHenryPacey at 2:13 PM on October 14 [8 favorites]

Like HST, I hope his ashes are shot out of a canon.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:14 PM on October 14 [9 favorites]

Also, this kid's going to be disappointed.
posted by sy at 2:16 PM on October 14 [5 favorites]

I hope his work as whole inspired people to read *more*, though I fear his influence often led to people excluding all but the Bloom-approved canon.

I did appreciate his enthusiasm for Whitman and Dickinson as world-class minds and voices, though he was hardly alone or the first in that. His insistence on Emily's *intelligence* was a credit to him.

The Iowa Review once published a suite of essays by Bible scholars on his Book of J, and it was the most thorough dismembering of an scholar and critic I have ever read. Anybody but Bloom would have retired to go watch the waves pound the sand after that, I think.
posted by Caxton1476 at 2:19 PM on October 14 [6 favorites]

So I guess he thought the essential purpose of literature was to make white people feel good about themselves?

posted by sotonohito at 2:24 PM on October 14 [8 favorites]

I just put The Book of J on my to-read list over the weekend. For everything else about him, he did put forth a theory that part of the Torah was written by a brilliant woman.
posted by Ruki at 2:35 PM on October 14 [9 favorites]

Advocacy for “The Western Canon” is the most tasteful incarnation of white supremacy.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 2:40 PM on October 14 [21 favorites]

The scholarly hypotheses in The Book of J may not endure, but that book radically reframed my understanding of the character of God as portrayed in the Bible. It was hugely influential on my thinking re: matters of religion and faith. I highly recommend reading it.
posted by prize bull octorok at 2:40 PM on October 14 [7 favorites]

in the Vonnegut sense:

posted by mwhybark at 3:30 PM on October 14 [11 favorites]

Oh I appreciated some of his ideas, but mostly I hate read Bloom through my lit major. He empowered many a snotty white male grad student to look down their nose at outsider voices.


posted by frumiousb at 4:24 PM on October 14 [6 favorites]

I should stress that I don't have any personal experience with this, but he had a reputation around Yale of being a bit of a creeper.
posted by praemunire at 4:29 PM on October 14 [3 favorites]

My experience with Harold Bloom was similar to others in this thread. His books helped me get into the study of literature and, once I delved deep into it, his limitations (and his small galaxy of prejudices) became not only obvious but impossible to see past. Ironically, I've spent most of my time since then anxiously attempting to escape his considerable influence on me.

He was a brilliant close reader and a great champion of literature when he wasn't fixated on his own particular reactionary project (which was less and less often as time went on). As far as Harold Bloom the human being? Well, let's just say that I believe Naomi Wolf.
posted by HunterFelt at 4:33 PM on October 14 [5 favorites]

As a lifelong student in the School of Resentment, I think he was misguided to wtf wrong about a lot, but he was right about The Pickwick Papers.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:34 PM on October 14 [1 favorite]

He was 89.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Jeanne Bloom, who said he taught his last class at Yale University on Thursday.

No argument from me as regards his many faults, but that I admire.
posted by AdamCSnider at 4:39 PM on October 14 [13 favorites]

I wouldn't have thought it was possible to over-rate Shakespeare, but he sure seems to have pulled it off.
posted by thelonius at 5:19 PM on October 14 [4 favorites]

Dead white man.
posted by doctornemo at 5:32 PM on October 14 [2 favorites]

I read a bunch of Bloom over the years. It wasn't usually the right time. When his canon book came out I was in an anti-canon mood. I heard about the anxiety of influence long before I read it, and then it kept creeping into my work.
posted by doctornemo at 5:34 PM on October 14 [1 favorite]

I will give this to Bloom: he was crazy, crazy smart. Dude claimed he could read 500pgs an hour with 100% recall, and I pretty much believe him.

But -- for all he wrote about Shakespeare, I don't think I have *ever* seen him cited in a peer-reviewed work on Shakespeare or the Renaissance. Maybe people who study the Romantics or Victorians cite him more, but I've never met a trained Shakespearean who thought he had anything interesting to say. And I never had a professor in grad school mention any sort of appreciation for Bloom's work outside of "Anxiety of Influence." I think in general he was waaaay more popular outside of English and Lit departments than he was in them.

Ultimately, I think the fundamental problem with Bloom as a scholar was his intense ego-centrism. He proclaimed that "Shakespeare is God" so he could be High Priest. He disdained anything non-canonical or political because it threatened the status of the (mostly dead white male) authors he devoted his life to, and thus it threatened him. He was ridiculously smart, but also wrong about almost everything.

And yeah, he was a creeper -- besides Naomi Wolf's account, one of my female professors in grad school told me that one of the open secrets about Yale's graduate program in the 70s and 80s was that if you were a female student, you risked "getting raped by Harold Bloom" -- and yes, she used the word "rape." Maybe she was exaggerating for effect, but I think we'll probably never know who, besides Wolf, he may have harassed (or more).
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:00 PM on October 14 [13 favorites]

I just put The Book of J on my to-read list over the weekend. For everything else about him, he did put forth a theory that part of the Torah was written by a brilliant woman.
posted by Ruki

Read Richard Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible?. He offered the same suggestion (much more tentatively) and is an actual Biblical scholar, unlike Bloom & Rosenberg who had no idea what they were doing in their book. (Read the article that Caxton linked)
posted by Saxon Kane at 6:15 PM on October 14 [6 favorites]

Bloom was one of those guys who was so smart he thought every thought that came into his head was a perfectly formed gem. He would have been helped a lot by an editor who would rein him in, but if an editor could have reined him in he would not have been Harold Bloom.

The Visionary Company is still worth a read, as is the Anxiety of Influence, I think... After that it's diamonds in the rough. If you're willing to wade through the rough. I like his writing a lot better before he became "Harold Bloom."

RIP, nonetheless, for his work in the 60s and 70s repopularizing the Romantics after new criticism.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 6:22 PM on October 14 [4 favorites]

He was 89.... No argument from me as regards his many faults, but that I admire.

As a mid-50s tenured academic who dreams daily of an early escape and spends way too much time plotting it and setting it up when I should be answering email the thought of still working at the sausage factory for 35 more years and dying in my boots (I do in fact teach in cowboy boots) in the middle of the fall semester fills me with deep existential dread, and a loneliness that gnaws. I’m out in 5-10 max.

Besides, young PHDs need us to give up our jobs before we are ready to keel over. And we cost three times what it would cost to hire them.

Oh yeah, Harold Bloom. Never read him. Not big on Shakespeare either. But 89 is long enough even if you’re not an asshole.

posted by spitbull at 6:25 PM on October 14 [9 favorites]

I could say I have a grudging respect for anyone who made a career out of “your favorite author sucks” but it would be a lie.
posted by valkane at 6:26 PM on October 14 [4 favorites]

My encounter with Bloom was that weird pop lit book where he said everything twice. His editor was an idiot.
posted by ovvl at 6:41 PM on October 14 [1 favorite]

I haven't read Bloom, but I am a great admirer of the western wanon. The thing is, it's a lot bigger than he seemed to want to admit, and there are other worthy canons as well.


posted by lhauser at 6:43 PM on October 14 [2 favorites]

The Anxiety of Influence appeals to me as a reader and rings true for me as a writer. Did when I first read it twenty years ago, still does today.

posted by cupcakeninja at 7:01 PM on October 14 [1 favorite]

posted by Cash4Lead at 7:24 PM on October 14

I was in a class in grad school and made a comment about Bloom having rooms full of grad students churning out books for him, and my professor got quite chilly and noted that he was writing to afford care for his mentally ill son. I have no idea what the story is there. Maybe he's the last literary critic anyone will care about.
posted by mecran01 at 7:28 PM on October 14 [2 favorites]

I mean that's really admirable and even inspiring, but doesn't excuse bad/problematic writing that affects others. So your professor was kind of wrong/narrow there.
posted by polymodus at 8:18 PM on October 14 [3 favorites]

Harold Bloom’s salary at Yale was almost certainly north of $300k by the end, if I know the salary structures of the Ivy League celebrity professoriate, which I do. (I ain’t one, I just chaired over some and got to hear about why $250k wasn’t enough to keep them loyal.)

Bloom and his ilk had a whole other level of game, irrespective of the content of their criticism (in this respect, Judith Butler or whatever, no difference): the establishment of otherwise pretty useless literary critics and their purported “expertise” to celebrity status, which translated into the academic star system that has distorted and vitiated so many disciplines, but began with lit crit at a time when people still believed Shakespeare was All That and being an “expert” on his work was a rare and difficult accomplishment, akin to people who do actual empirical research on actual problems in the real world outside of old books of stories that are not as trivial as “How should we interpret this play everyone has read and seen a thousand times?” The real problem with the ovebearing debate about the western canon, for my generation of humanistic scholars at least, is that, with a whole world of barely even described art (etc) out there, how *boring* is it to once again offer up some minor challenge to the conventional meaning of well-trodden if not overexposed art? I mean, ok Shakespeare is cool, if you like that sort of thing, but there’s epic poetic traditions and theatrical traditions all around the globe that were barely present in academic thought as long as that canon thing was pointed at us.
posted by spitbull at 4:38 AM on October 15 [12 favorites]

I did the Western Canon as an undergrad. It was a great place to start. How sad to have stopped there, though.

Also, he was a rapist.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:12 AM on October 15 [6 favorites]

one quote from him that stuck with me: "We read, frequently if unknowingly, in quest of a mind more original than our own."
posted by kliuless at 5:43 AM on October 15 [5 favorites]

I'll settle for a mind that doesn't spend all its time thinking about how much I suck
posted by thelonius at 5:47 AM on October 15 [5 favorites]

I did the western canon thing too, as an Ivy League music Major in the 80s I was literally told by star senior professors that the popular music I loved was worthless shit and that any music not made by a highly literate upper class European white man (or his American heirs) was simply “primitive.”

Dropped out, came back a few years later having gained the courage of my convictions, and have been an antagonist to the classical music hegemony ever since. First went off to do an Ethnomusicology PhD, then realized I was still trapped in a music department where the thinking I had rejected made the rules, split for anthropology to finish the PHD (it was amazing to have professors who didn’t start from aesthetic value as a presumptive absolute) and taught anthropology for a few years. Then made the mistake of going back to music for the balance of my career, in an Ivy League Department famed for its conservatism and canon-devotion. Rose to tenure, chaired the place, to the amusement and shock of my old friends and mentors, made and helped make some big changes that helped, but still face a few older colleagues (and a couple of younger ones) who believe we are a citadel of defense for western culture in its moment of greatest peril. Who still think Europe is the center of everything. Who still see no problem teaching courses where few or no female or non-white composers are on the syllabus. Who still secretly believe, although they’re smart and beleaguered enough not to say it, that music by Beethoven or Bach — the same old same old warhorses - just is better than any other music any other humans ever made.

By now the canon defenders are crouched defensively against the encroachment of what they, like all right wing defenders of privilege, see as the barbarism of multiculturalism and “identity politics,” as if their entire identity as white, privileged, tenured academics wasn’t a politics of self-preservation.

Bloom and his ilk authorized this stance of politicizing “the canon” in backlash against feminist -/ first and foremost — and anti-colonial and anti-racist critiques. Along the way many of them proved the essential counterclaim to their core defense of the canon— that it is somehow a fountain of western values and ethics and morality.

My favorite anecdote concerns David Denby, the middle class schlub’s Harold Bloom. In his “Great Books,” written at the height of the so-called canon wars of the 90s, he sits as a middle-aged man through Columbia College’s “core curriculum,” then deeply centered on western civ superiority, and pronounced it a transformative moral experience that all American college students should have, warming the hearts of conservative donors to Columbia so much that I still see that book on display case shelves on deans’ offices around the place.

His next book was “American Sucker,” an account of his downward midlife spiral into adultery, pornography addiction, gambling addiction, etc.

I used to keep American Sucker on the display shelf in my office when I was chair. If anyone asked I explained it demonstrated the serious longer term moral risk of exposing white men to a curriculum telling them they can do no wrong, invented all the good ideas, wrote the best books and music, etc.
posted by spitbull at 5:54 AM on October 15 [29 favorites]

I should stress that I don't have any personal experience with this, but he had a reputation around Yale of being a bit of a creeper.

He sexually harassed Naomi Wolf, and when she talked about it years later, his response was to hiss out a poor attempt at a bon mot about her being the daughter of a scholar of Bram Stoker. He also seems to have been just another creepy, aggressively awful white dude whose behavior was allowed in large part because of the power he wielded. To wit:
Never speak ill of the dead, like Harold Bloom, who told my American lit seminar that we should feel free to report his sexism and homophobia to the university president who, Bloom explained, would rather hide under his desk than fire him
He was apparently infamous among women at Yale for being a sexual predator, and there's a lot of whispering about whether or not his enablers still have the power after his death to destroy the lives of women who want to speak up.
posted by zombieflanders at 5:55 AM on October 15 [12 favorites]

I was swept up by The Western Canon when it came out, which was just as I was finishing my degree. It felt like there were so many new voices and perspectives that all deserved careful consideration, and my professors were mostly trying to integrate them, yet maybe not every bit of the old criticism should be binned.

Then I read his Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and I got sort of...swamped, I guess, by his enthusiasm. Yeah, I love Shakespeare, and it was fun to read someone else who loved him, too. But with time, that "enthusiasm" came into focus as maybe "prolixity that an editor should have pared back," and now I haven't opened one of his books in probably ten years.

. for a mind fully engaged in its passion, but also a sigh of relief that a creeper is out of circulation in .edu.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:59 AM on October 15 [2 favorites]

posted by sugar and confetti at 6:03 AM on October 15 [1 favorite]

On a country trip, Bloom once described Ammons has some sort of successor to Whitman.

What baffles me is Harold Bloom fishing.
posted by clavdivs at 6:33 AM on October 15

one quote from him that stuck with me: "We read, frequently if unknowingly, in quest of a mind more original than our own."

What's so meta funny about this idea is that he mentions it every single time he is interviewed.
posted by great_radio at 6:48 AM on October 15 [1 favorite]

Also, ask yourself why an Orthodox Jewish son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants (really refugees from European antisemitism) in the Bronx was named “Harold” in the first place, and observe that HB, like my dad (“Michael”) and many other smart Jewish boys of the era, had to crack a Jewish quota to get into the Ivy League, a place of abiding anti-Semitism at mid-century. And they were children of traumatized parents for whom American whiteness was a shield.

Then you understand the entire ferocious defense of White privilege (“the western canon”) was about precariously achieved whiteness, the fear of losing which motivated a real “anxiety of influence.”

The great irony in music is how centered the whole American musicological enterprise is on German (non-Jewish) musical superiority given that refugee German Jews practically created American musicology.
posted by spitbull at 6:52 AM on October 15 [13 favorites]

Terry Eagleton on Bloom: "Harold Bloom was once an interesting critic."
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:37 AM on October 15 [3 favorites]

Oh, yeah, those midcentury Jewish scholars and writers were all playing the "more royalist than the king" game as a way to get their place in the establishment.

So, you know, some sympathy for that, but they were still stepping on people. And kept on doing so long after it was necessary. Throwing people less adjacent to whiteness than you under the bus is never an okay strategy.

There's a kind of dream of polymathery in that generation that shines on its own but turns out to be a real mistake for serious thinking and in our day has degenerated into Gladwell/Friedman-esque hyperglibness:

"He adored talking about the rich...The heiresses of Henry James he knew cold...But his real wealth was literary. He had read many thousands of books...Insomnia made him more learned. In the small hours he read thick books--Marx and Sombart, Toynbee, Rostovtzeff, Freud. When he spoke of wealth he was in a position to compare Roman luxus with American Protestant riches. He generally got around to the Jews--Joyce's silk-hatted Jews outside the Bourse. And he wound up with the gold-plated skull or death mask of Agamemnon, dug up by Schliemann. Humboldt could really talk."

(That's Bellow, on Schwartz, more or less, but...)

people who do actual empirical research on actual problems in the real world outside of old books of stories that are not as trivial as “How should we interpret this play everyone has read and seen a thousand times?”

Still...not a trivial question, actually.
posted by praemunire at 12:53 PM on October 15 [1 favorite]

Also, ask yourself why an Orthodox Jewish son of Yiddish-speaking immigrants (really refugees from European antisemitism) in the Bronx was named “Harold” in the first place

This is entirely a tangent, but it's interesting that this happened so much that a name like "Harold Bloom" can now be considered absolutely typical and identifying of an American Jewish man of his generation. I think one can see similar trends with certain names given to, say, Chinese-American immigrant kids of my generation.
posted by atoxyl at 12:58 PM on October 15 [4 favorites]

Nothing much to add but another comment noting that Harold Bloom, above all, was a serial sexual predator. No dot from me because he should have died in prison.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:18 PM on October 15 [3 favorites]

praemunire, my apologies on the implications of “trivial,” I meant rather that it becomes trivial when the text never changes in response to critique but remains a marble monument.
posted by spitbull at 4:59 PM on October 15

There's a class of given names that are so oakenly Anglo-Saxon that they're immediately recognisable as Old Jewish Guy Names. (Sheldon, Seymour, Howard, Harold, and such.)
posted by acb at 3:05 AM on October 16 [1 favorite]

Rapist. Burn in hell.
posted by tzikeh at 7:12 PM on October 16

Harold Bloom's Immortality (The Paris Review)
posted by chavenet at 2:45 PM on October 18 [2 favorites]

CBC Radio just replayed an interview with Bloom from 2005 in which he said that some Gypsies had told him that he'd either die or teach his last class (between laundry and dishes I didn't quite catch which one) on October 11, 2019.
posted by clawsoon at 8:43 AM on October 20

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