Harold Bloom and Paul Holdengräber
PEN World Voices Festival, May 3, 2011
On Oct. 14, the scholar Harold Bloom died at age 89. He may well have been the greatest American literary critic of the past half-century. He was also the best teacher I ever knew: visionary, generous of spirit and willing to place his students’ strivings on the same level as his own insights. He saw us with the encompassing vision that had rendered him heroic. He made us feel canonized.
Bloom was a controversial figure of Johnsonian dimensions, and in the wake of his death his critics have been galvanized. The New York Times published an article trumpeting that Bloom had failed to win the culture wars. The Post published one that criticized him for being part of a white, straight, patriarchal system that did not defer to identity politics. That invective featured claims that Bloom’s canon excluded marginalized voices, mostly based on an appendix he wrote many years ago and subsequently regretted. Bloom admired the work of Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe and other writers of color; and to say that someone who lionized Hart Crane, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Bishop and Tony Kushner was ignoring LGBT voices seems at best perilously naïve.
The naysayers take issue with Bloom’s focus on a canon of great books that have achieved immortality not for the ways they limn the diversity of human experience, but for their savage power and astonishing majesty, their insight and lyricism, their utterances of joy and despair. They argue that this definition of literature is prejudiced and outmoded. They fail to recognize that the question of greatness in literature is always in flux. Societal consensus has changed since 1959, when Bloom began to publish. In 1959, it was different from 1930. And in 1900, different from 1870. In 2050, today’s received wisdom will look quaint. And so on and on and on.
In the classroom, Bloom performed passionate close readings, and in doing so converted his students to each poem. I remember arriving for one of his seminars thinking I didn’t like Wallace Stevens; by the end of the hour, “The Poems of Our Climate” was one of my favorite poems, and 30 years later, I took the epigraph for my book Far From the Tree from it. I once confessed my struggles with structuralist criticism and Bloom rejoined, “But my dear fellow, what is the purpose of criticism if not to expose that which is moving or beautiful in a text to people who might otherwise not grasp it?”
Whenever he explained what made a particular poem noble, there was a continuity with everything else he had elucidated, so that studying with him was not a succession of momentary revelations but a gradual process of understanding a unifying view of literature and, indeed, of life.
The real problem — and it applies to Bloom’s critics as much as to the man himself — is the belief that there is a single way to define greatness in literature. Privileged colonialists wrote great books; oppressed black women wrote great books; queer Asians have delivered astonishing art; Latin American novelists have fittingly won Nobel Prizes; and one way of conceptualizing genius need not marginalize the others. For much of the history that Bloom addressed, straight, white men held the advantage (as they still do), and a position of advantage often allows people the resources to develop literary skills in ways unavailable to the disenfranchised. But that is an indication of an iniquitous world, not an excuse for it.
Many Victorians thought that Felicia Hemans was a poet as accomplished as Percy Bysshe Shelley or John Keats, and lauded her sentimental verse. The complaint that Bloom’s focus on classical splendor shortchanged literature — “that we should study literature not necessarily because it is beautiful but because of what it might tell us about gender, race, sexuality, history, class and so on,” as Palmer Rampell and Jordan Brower put it — is itself ingenuous. The accumulated wisdom of humankind is not concentrated in any single canon; it is in the sum of everything we see or hear or think or create.
To say triumphantly that we are experiencing the “fall of the humanities” is at least as narrow-minded as the canon that assertion seeks to disavow. We occupy a historical moment in which power has been divested of civility, when the production, freedom and distribution of written information is under siege, falsified and manipulated. Let us hope that the humanities have not fallen, because they emblematize the very dignity that has been stripped from our politics. The humanities have not created income inequality, global warming or the vicious manipulations of “fake news,” but they stand to help us understand how to fight back.
The canon changes with every generation, so Bloom’s canon is of necessity outdated. But the formation of new canons, the election of merit, must go on. We require ideals, which must be, as Bloom observed, formed in resistance to prior ideals. The humanities Harold Bloom championed, even as they are transformed outside his particular tastes, are our recourse against injustice, not a manifestation of it.