Remembering Harold Bloom

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When I heard the news, my hand fumbled for the phone. Harold’s wife, Jeanne, told me he’d died that morning, just a few hours earlier. At work to the last, he had taught his Yale students the Thursday before, went to the hospital on Friday, and succumbed the following Monday. His body was spent, his thoughts still razor-sharp.

My mind reeled. I remembered how I used to board the Amtrak from New York to New Haven for lunch at their house, often to hear Harold’s excited projections of new work: writers in the diaspora, writers at life’s end. Always I left with one of his new books that lightened my train ride home, notably a sexy paperback called Cleopatra: I Am Fire and Air.  Once Jeanne took me up the stairs to a room crowded with his book manuscripts. I held one, entirely handwritten in a weighty ledger book, the kind used for keeping accounts. Not a word crossed out. Not a letter out of place.

I was holding fire. I thought of museum cases containing whole books, manuscripts of nineteenth century novels written in pen by the likes of Dickens and George Eliot. But those were novels, and Harold’s were filled with literary-historical facts and quotations, all the more amazing for their unbroken first-draft presentation. Throughout Harold’s career, he’d sent handwritten work to his publishers. “Will they accept them in that form?” I asked. “They’re used to me,” he replied.

Harold Bloom had been my friend since 1989, when I received bound proofs of The Book of J. David Rosenberg, who translated it for Harold’s interpretation, asked for a blurb, and I wrote one with deferential zest, feeling humble before it. My heart beat faster when I read phrases like “King David, open to more life, more grief, more guilt and suffering, more dancing in exuberance before the Ark of Yahweh.” Then I met Harold. I saw an amiable man with a delicate, Byronic profile and melancholy eyes over a substantial, Falstaffian body encased in a stylish leathery jacket. I heard his attractively high-pitched voice  talking, in carefully enunciated tones, about writers from Whitman to Anne Carson, and about professors he referred to as “uncle” and “aunt.” When asked to see one of my poems, he read it in minutes. I was suspicious of his enthusiasm, not yet knowing that he read at lightning speed. But yes, his response told me he’d taken in every word.

At that time, he taught at New York University as well as at Yale. His second home was in Washington Square Village, just a few blocks from where I lived with my late husband, Jerome Schulman. The four of us became fast friends. We went to see Shakespeare: The Tempest on Broadway, and Richard III, with Ian McKellan, at BAM. To my surprise, Harold was usually delighted rather than critical. We had dinners at neighborhood restaurants or take-out meals at home. Usually, that is: once or twice Jeanne led me on walks through Noho and Chinatown to shop for dinner, and, when I balked at women’s home-making roles, she replied, “No, we’re hunters and gatherers.”

Harold’s books filled our shelves. In them I found insights I’ve memorized. Like this:

Our lives are perpetually renewed by that
ordinary process of hallowing the commonplace
that Wordsworth had first described in poetry.

And this:

We are our imaginations and we die with them.

And this:

The Blessing gives more life, awards a time
without boundaries, and makes a name into
a pragmatic immortality.

I can’t say that they influenced my own work, at least not consciously. Once I showed Harold a poem I wrote called “Names” with an epigraph that he quoted from Nietzche: “that which we find names for is that which  we cannot hold in our hearts.” His look told me I’d proved a point he’d made. “It’s a lovely poem, but you have Nietzche all wrong. The epigraph means the opposite of what you wrote.” When I recalled Harold’s theories of misreading, I dropped the epigraph.

I was never his student, but I did attend his lectures in New York. At the Fales Library, shortly after the publication of Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, he woke a crowd by speaking of Shylock as a comic villain, who should be directed on stage to act “like a hallucinatory bogeyman.”  In a class he invited me to attend, I heard him talk on Wallace Stevens while looking closely at his students with occasional asides of how handsome they were. Once when he taught John Ashbery’s poetry, John, the poet himself, strode into the room. Students looked up from their books amazed, nudging one another. Was it pre-arranged? If so, it was successful.

Although Harold’s fame is widespread — his best-selling books, his adherence to the Romantic imagination, his original, often controversial, critical views — very little has been written about his wife, Jeanne Gould Bloom. Her mother was a sculptor, Dina Melicov, carver of weighty dynamic figures in bronze and wood. Much of her work was done for the Federal Art Project, WPA, a late nineteen-thirties New Deal plan to fund the visual arts. Jeanne went to the Little Red Schoolhouse in Manhattan, the first “progressive” school founded on John Dewey’s advanced principles, encouraging non-rigid, creative thinking rather than rote, and discouraging blind submission to the rulebook.

Jeanne attended Swarthmore and earned a Ph.D. at Yale, with a dissertation dealing with American colonial administration in the 17th century. She went on to win an M.A. in psychology and to work with students in the Branford, Connecticut, public schools. In New York, I’d seen her excited after attending a Metropolitan Opera matinee, which she did weekly. In Harold’s last months, when she became a hundred caregivers in one, driving, preparing meals, being mom to their two sons, she was still reading widely, and her insights into poetry were exquisitely sensitive.

Being a liberal Jew can be complex for any intellectual, and Harold was no exception. His allegiance to Judaism is legend. Raised in an Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jewish home of the East Bronx, he remained devoted to poets who wrote in Yiddish — his anthology, American Religious Poems contains work translated from the Yiddish of Moyshe Leyb Halpern and H. Leivick, alongside that of Whitman, Dickinson, and the Cherokees. His chapter on “The Hebrew Bible” in Ruin the Sacred Truths is deeply meaningful, and elsewhere he’s eloquent on the mysterious doings of Yahweh.

At the same time, he said repeatedly that he was not “a normative Jew,” which I interpret to mean acceptance of the freedom Judaism allows to follow as one can. For him it meant fealty to Gnosticism, the Kabbalah, the J text as he interpreted it. In that freedom, he resembled my husband, Jerry, a scientist who identified with Judaism but with neither standard belief nor observance. Once the four of us attended a synagogue where Harold was to talk on The Book of J. In the service that preceded it, the rabbi had the congregation stand for prayer. I heeded the command — but not my three companions.

Nevertheless, Harold was a man of great faith. In words. In aesthetic standards. In the power of books to make us think clearly, to know ourselves and others. “Poetry is awe,” he writes. “Read deeply, not to believe, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.” I’ll add that for him, poetry was love. And it was inseparable from his affection for those close to him. “Zumba!” he’d often exclaim, and though I never knew exactly what it meant, I heard his voice ring with zeal. As I was leaving New Haven one day, he took my hands in his enormous hands, looked into my eyes, and said, “Gracie, don’t ever stop coming to see me.” I didn’t, until he became very ill and I was told to put off my visit. But I’ll never stop seeing him, there, with Jeanne, surrounded by books, visiting students, friends. Their house is my temple.