Harold Bloom: Every Inch a Genius

Harold Bloom, the Yale University eminence who died in 2019 at age 89, was the most famous, most prolific, and – to use the apt word – most influential literary critic in America from the time he published The Anxiety of Influence in 1973. The title of that book has entered our critical vocabulary, as has Bloom’s thesis that a “strong” poet must overcome the influence of a powerful precursor. To become himself, Wordsworth had to contend with Milton, for example, while John Ashbery had to endure a wrestling match with Wallace Stevens.

In the books he wrote in the aftermath of The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom employed an esoteric critical vocabulary – askesis, clinamen, agon – that didn’t catch on, but what succeeded spectacularly in such books as A Map of Misreading (1975) was his ingenious effort to integrate Freud usefully into the interpretation of texts. Bloom also distinguished himself by the force of his assertions and the excellence of his judgment. With great fervor, he saluted the legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson and championed such contemporary poets as Ashbery, A. R. Ammons, and James Merrill way ahead of nearly everyone else.

When, during the culture wars of the 1980s and since, the literary canon came under attack, Bloom was among the most voluble defenders of great books and the related ideas of genius and originality, which academics were doing their best to deconstruct, a shifty word that in this context means “to destroy.” The Western Canon (1994) was a best-seller, with chapters on Chaucer, Cervantes, Milton, Dr. Johnson, Goethe, Jane Austen, Whitman, Dickinson, Tolstoy, Ibsen, and other truly great authors.  Bloom’s assertions were sometimes controversial and almost always compellingly worded. I just pulled my copy from the shelf, pleased to find it inscribed to me “with esteem and affection.” At random I plucked these three remarkable quotes:

— “All literature is plagiaristic” (inasmuch as all writing feeds on the “communal”)

— Henry James, reviewing Drum Taps, dismissed Whitman as “only, as it were, the Arnold Schwarzenegger of his day.”

— “Strangeness. . .is one of the prime requirements for entrance into the canon.

The use of “strangeness” or “the uncanny” as a criterion for evaluating poetry was just one of Bloom’s original insights.

Bloom’s energy never flagged, despite two decades of medical woes that would have arrested a lesser person.  Harold wrote right up to the end, by longhand when possible. It could be said that writing was keeping him alive. He wrote books, massive tomes in some cases, on Shakespeare, on the American religion, on Genesis (parts of which, he argued, were written by a woman), and on some of his favorite characters, Hamlet, Lear, Cleopatra, Falstaff, Iago.

As a young Yale professor in the 1960s, Bloom devoted his efforts to the then unfashionable English Romantic poets, such as Shelley and Blake. It was as though he and selected confreres had set out to overthrow the reign of T. S. Eliot, who was more responsible than anyone else for forming the modern rejection of the Romantics in favor of the “metaphysical” poets of the seventeenth century. Bloom’s The Visionary Company (1961) was a major moment in the Romantic revival.

In September 1967, as I was about to enter my sophomore year at Columbia, I borrowed my parents’ car and, knowing that Yale began its semester a few weeks before we did, drove to New Haven with a friend hoping to sit in on a class. The administrator we approached was kind enough to direct us to a seminar in modern poetry taught by Harold Bloom. As it happened it was the first day of the semester, and the professor told the group that there were only four modern poets worthy of our attention: William Butler Yeats, D.H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, and Hart Crane. This was bold. Everyone else was taking notes, and Bloom glowered and asked me why I wasn’t doing so. Instead of answering, I asked what happened to Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore? “They’re not central,” he said, which was indisputably a maverick position.

Reviewing his Figures of Capable Imagination for London’s Times Literary Supplement in 1977, I did my best to summarize Bloom’s critical achievements to date. I regarded as cause for celebration “the resurrection of the fallen study of rhetoric” and “the supernally clever identification of tropes with defense mechanisms (the hyperbole of repression, the metaphor of sublimation).” My primary reservation was that Bloom was a “metaphysician struggling to stay comfortable in the too snug garb of the literary critic.” I stand by that judgment, which Bloom turned into a virtue.

In the 1980s, Bloom embarked on a spectacular effort: editing hundreds of volumes of critical essays, each outfitted with an introduction. “Harold can write an introduction faster than our staffers can turn out jacket copy,” Patricia Baldwin, his chief of staff, told me when I visited New Haven in July 1986. At the time I was writing regularly for Newsweek. At Time or Newsweek in the good old, pre-Net days, the hardest thing about writing a six-column piece on a professor of literature was to persuade your senior editor that you could appeal to a general readership that was generally indifferent to academic scholarship. Here I had a brainstorm. I went in and told my editor that Bloom was “the Henry Kissinger of literary criticism” and got the green light.

I reported that Bloom looked like Zero Mostel and sounded like a combination of Oscar Wilde and an Old Testament prophet. For one who rejoiced in the ecstatic vision of a favorite poet, he exuded a certain charming air of gloom. He told me that he knew by heart every line of poetry he ever read that he liked. “My dear,” he told me, “what matters in literature in the end is surely the idiosyncratic, the individual, the flavor or the color of a particular human suffering.” Insomnia allowed him to read and reread to his heart’s content.

When the poet John Hollander dropped by, and the three of us went out to lunch, I wondered who would prove the bigger talker, for both John and Harold were amazing monologists (and, incidentally, lifelong Yankee fans). No contest; Harold could outtalk anyone. I liked his avuncular salutations: there was “Uncle Archie” (Ammons), “Uncle Ashbery,” and “the noble Merrill.” Newsweek ran my piece under the heading “Let a Hundred Blooms Flower” (international edition) and “Yale’s Insomniac Genius.”

Describing his Chelsea House project, a thousand volumes of critical essays, Bloom kept referring to “mad Harold.” At first I thought he was speaking of himself in the third person, in the manner of the avuncular nicknames he assigned to people—but no, the publisher of Chelsea House, Harold Steinberg, was the chap he had in mind. Still, it reinforced the feeling one had that Bloom, in his own estimation, was a figure like unto one of Shakespeare’s heroes. When I told this to Ryan Wilson, he responded, “I like very much, by the way, the notion of ‘Mad Harold’ as a Shakespearean figure. I get the sense that Mad Harold would be cavorting somewhere in the Boar’s Head with Falstaff and Hal, maybe joining in that wonderful prank on Poins in Henry IV, 1, which places Hal squarely at the center, in my opinion, of Shakespeare’s work as a Hermes / psychopomp figure, torn between opposing realms and tasked with reconciling those opposing realms. (The comedies all feature a Hermes / psychopomp; the tragedies are all the result of characters lacking the psychic flexibility of the Hermes / psychopomp figure for one reason or another.) Even the “mystery plays” like Merchant of Venice (which HB, of course, classed as a comedy) owe a great debt to the psychopomp as a figure: ‘Merchant’ and ‘mercy’ (as in ‘the quality of mercy is not strained’) are the two oppositional terms in the play, but both have etymological ties (L. merx) with Mercury. On the other hand, and without contradiction, readers like myself might also consider HB to have been something of a Childe Harold, too.”

Glen Hartley, my literary agent, began to represent Harold after I introduced the two of them in, I think, 1988. Ten years later, I felt that Harold would be the best person to pick and choose poems from the first ten years of The Best American Poetry. Harold edited The Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988-97 with his usual flair—and his usual knack for arousing controversy. He included selections from nine of the books but nothing from the 1996 volume, which Adrienne Rich had edited. In his introductory essay Harold launched an attack on multiculturalism and identity poetry— in which the author’s sex, age, ethnic identity, class, and race trump other considerations—and made it plain that Adrienne’s sensibility and taste were to blame. The Boston Review devoted much of an issue to a discussion of Harold’s pronouncements. Most of the writers denounced and dissented in vehement terms. I, who do not set out to court controversy but have learned the publishing value of provocation, was relieved when my publisher informed me that the denunciations had helped sell books.

When we worked on The Best of the Best American Poetry, 1988-1997, I had occasion to call Harold about an aspect of the enterprise. The phone rang. “Hello,” I said. Hearing my voice, Harold greeted me (“my dear David”), and addressed my question, which he had correctly anticipated. After enlarging his answer, he said goodbye and hung up. I realized that I had said exactly one word during this call.

My last message to Harold was prompted by a reading of his book on King Lear. It was on July 21, 2018. “I am reading your book on Lear,” I wrote, “and must reaffirm that you are every inch a genius.”
*A previous version of this essay was published in The American Scholar (October 17, 2019)

David Lehman

David Lehman

David Lehman presides over the "Next Line, Please" poetry challenges that appear on The American Scholar's digital edition. Lehman's new books are Playlist, a poem in multiple parts written on the daily installment plan from Nov 20, 2017 to Jan 15, 2018, and One Hundred Autobiographies: A Memoir, which Cornell University Press will publish in October 2019. That's a lot of dates for one sentence to bear, but it's worth noting that Playlist (Pittsburgh) is an homage to the late A. R. Ammons, my neighbor and friend in Ithaca, New York. Besides Archie, the subjects of Playlist include love, friendship, and music, in particular the jazz, classical, and popular music to which I was listening as I wrote.
David Lehman

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Author: David Lehman

David Lehman presides over the "Next Line, Please" poetry challenges that appear on The American Scholar's digital edition. Lehman's new books are Playlist, a poem in multiple parts written on the daily installment plan from Nov 20, 2017 to Jan 15, 2018, and One Hundred Autobiographies: A Memoir, which Cornell University Press will publish in October 2019. That's a lot of dates for one sentence to bear, but it's worth noting that Playlist (Pittsburgh) is an homage to the late A. R. Ammons, my neighbor and friend in Ithaca, New York. Besides Archie, the subjects of Playlist include love, friendship, and music, in particular the jazz, classical, and popular music to which I was listening as I wrote.