Harold Bloom Up Close

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Harold Bloom was a superb literary critic, a singular classroom teacher, and a great force of personality. I’m lucky to have known him.

As a critic he possessed qualities rarely seen in conjunction. He had a superb memory and could quote page upon page of poetry fluently and accurately. He also seemed to recall every consequential moment he’d experienced in life, from his humble childhood in the Bronx to his fraught life in academe. (His story of his father, a member of the Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, giving him a small pair of shears when he was a child, directing him toward his likely career, stands out in my mind.)  Bloom’s superb memory is on display in his massive study Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human, which may be his best book. There he’s able to travel from one play to another, offering comparisons, making connections, as though all the dramas were alive simultaneously in his mind, composing one great work.

Bloom augmented his deep memory with strong powers of intuition. He was both cerebral and emotionally attuned—a rare combination. In his magnum opus on Shakespeare, he enters the heart of Falstaff to show how badly wounded the fat knight is by Prince Hal, who was once, Bloom thinks, something like his student. Bloom is clearly thinking about himself and some of his own students, who turned away from and against him. The connection to Falstaff is rich and fully felt. Bloom’s intuitive powers did not flag in company: one was always eager to hear what uncanny perception he might offer about oneself, and then, after the fact, sometimes wished to unhear it.

Memory, intuition: Bloom’s writing and teaching had a third memorable quality. The sage could be funny. Like his beloved Falstaff, he was witty in himself and the cause of wit in others. He observed that Freudian literary criticism was much like the Holy Roman Empire: not Holy, not Roman, not an Empire—not Freudian, not literary, not criticism. Of the collection Deconstruction and Criticism that he contributed to along with Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, J. Hillis Miller and Jacques Derrida, he observed—Yes, they were Deconstruction and I, Bloom, was Criticism.

Bloom’s teaching was symphonic: he was composer, conductor and orchestra. His reflections did not seem to come from anything like the thinking ego, but to emerge from a richly creative, pre-conscious zone.  A forty minute slice of a Bloom seminar on Whitman’s Song of Myself might include: information (completely accurate) on Walt’s often chaotic family life and justified wonder on how he could have emerged from it to be the poet he was;  useful bibliographical knowledge about the publication of the 1855 edition of the poem and an aside on why in later editions, Walt added the words “and sing myself” to the opening stanza. Then a meditation (brilliant) on Walt’s interior persona, the Me Myself, followed by an update on how long it would be before Harold went out to the corridor fountain to splash water on his face. Then a brief coughing fit.  Next a reflections on the dearth of top rate Whitman criticism (except, by implication, that composed by you-know- who) followed by a protracted  hymn of hyper-articulate amazement about Walt’s metaphor of the grass,  and a forecast update on the facial water-splashing. Finally some thoughts on what Walt owed (and didn’t) to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “The Poet”: and, as he ambled off to the renewing fountain, a bulletin on the state of “the Bloomian feet,” which sometimes gave him trouble.

He was wonderful to listen to.

He did not do well with challenges or even neutral questions from the class. Analytic argument was not Bloom’s strength, nor cogent rebuttal. He was far more rhapsode than philosopher.

His dissertation direction was, at least in my case, radically laissez faire. For a word of advice I needed to waylay him in Book Haven, where he came at predictable hours every week.  I asked him questions about Freud, Keats, and Wordsworth. He answered casually, and occasionally queried me about the comely and brilliant young women in his seminar.  (I was diplomatically evasive.) Generously, J. Hillis Miller stepped in and gave me what guidance I needed. Bloom saw my manuscript for the first time when I submitted it for departmental approval and graduation.

I bear no ill-will for Bloom’s relative neglect, for he gave me a quotient of the gift he conferred on all his students. He invited us to become ourselves, as different from him as our natures and aspirations allowed.  He was an example of independence, self-reliance, and a commitment to literature that bordered on the heroic.

I don’t believe we’ll see his like again.