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The Japanese have a term for it, which translates in English to “living national treasure.” The phrase clearly applies to Yale professor and literary critic extraordinaire Harold Bloom, now 80, who is known for his outsize intellect and fearlessness in voicing his opinions. This has made him both loved and hated, not always in equal measure. As a university teacher since the Fifties, Bloom spent many years in the academy during the period when the notions about the most important books in world literature were widely revised, often to the detriment, he believes, of both professors and students. In a metier in which practitioners are not usually particularly prolific, he has written 39 books. His latest, which came out this month from Yale University Press, “The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life.”
In it, he reexamines his signature thesis that writers suffer from an “agon of influence,” in which they seek to outdo those who have proceeded them. “The stakes in these struggles, for strong poets, are always literary,” he writes. “Threatened by the prospect of imaginative death, of being entirely possessed by a precursor, they suffer a distinctly literary form of crisis. A strong poet seeks not simply to vanquish the rival but to assert the integrity of his or her own writing self.”
This story first appeared in the April 26, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Interspersed with meticulous reassessments of the important figures in literature are anecdotes of the living writers he has encountered. In the mid-Sixties, for instance, W.H. Auden, who was scheduled to give a reading at Yale, came to stay with Bloom and his wife of more than 50 years, Jeanne. The poet walked in wearing a frayed overcoat with no buttons, which Jeanne insisted on mending, and carrying an attaché case with a big bottle of gin, a small one of vermouth, a plastic cup and a pile of poems. After being given some ice, he asked Bloom to remind him what his fee was. When told it was $1,000, he said it wasn’t enough and he couldn’t possibly read. So the critic phoned the college master and said that Auden insisted on double his allotted honorarium. Reluctantly, the master agreed. When Auden was informed of the change in payment, he smiled and then everything went beautifully.
Bloom famously places William Shakespeare at the center of the canon of English literature. New York’s Morgan Library currently has on display a Jacobean portrait that the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust believes to be the only painting made of Shakespeare in his lifetime, which had hung unrecognized in an Irish country house for centuries. But Bloom doesn’t really buy this attribution. “I think it’s very dubious,” he says. “He’s a dashing caballero, but I have grave doubts that that could be Shakespeare.…They have no real evidence.”
Bloom also doesn’t like most filmed versions of Shakespeare, except, he says, Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood,” the great Japanese director’s 1957 version of “Macbeth” and “Ran,” his 1985 version of “King Lear.” He once debated this notion on a panel with critic Frank Kermode; Kermode apparently said, “But they’re not in English.” Bloom’s response: “That’s the point.” He says, “Kenneth Branagh in particular is a low point, glitzy, like a musical by Cole Porter — a bad musical by Cole Porter.”
The critic considers Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson to be enormously important, and he says, “I teach both of them all the time. I find Dickinson blindingly, bewilderingly difficult. I always end up with a headache after teaching her for two hours.…After Shakespeare, she has the most original mind of the poets writing in the English language.” Whitman, he notes, “reinvented poetry, not so much the outer form, which doesn’t count for much, but the way he puts himself into the poem. The tactile intensity of it is astonishing. In his poem, ‘Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,’ he all but literally reaches out to you and hugs you.”
Bloom has an easy familiarity with the greats of literature and often speaks of them as if they were still living, which to him they are. As a young boy, he was a lightning fast reader. “I’m a sort of freak,” he says. “I’ve slowed down now, I fear. But I guess it gave me an unfair advantage in the profession I adopted.”
When he was young, Bloom also memorized poetry for fun, and, after years of teaching Shakespeare’s plays, still knows them, most of “Moby Dick” and many of the other poems he teaches by heart. He believes that his extraordinary memory may be the result of Talmudic-scholar ancestors. He writes in longhand in green ledger books, using Pentel pens; he says he doesn’t know the difference between an iPad and an iPod — [“I’m hopeless”] — and Jeanne handles his e-mail for him.
But Bloom’s passion for the giants of English and American literature doesn’t mean that he isn’t interested in living writers. His devotion to poet John Ashbery’s work is well-documented; he writes extensively about him in his new book. Among younger poets, Bloom singles out Henri Cole, whom he calls “a wonderful poet, difficult, elegant, very restrained and very unhappy.” He mentions the conflict in Cole between his Roman Catholic faith and his homosexuality, adding, “You would think by now that he wouldn’t torture himself about that, but poets are very strange.”
Among current novelists, he notes Cormac McCarthy wrote one great book, “Blood Meridian,” but goes on to say, “nothing before or since then is even roughly comparable to it.” He praises his friend Philip Roth, who “wrote two astonishing books, ‘American Pastoral’ and ‘Sabbath’s Theater,’ and some of the others, like the Zuckerman saga, are good, too, but his recent work, his four short novels, make me very sad, are a tremendous falling-away on his part. Don DeLillo, who’s one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever known, wrote one really powerful book in ‘Underworld,’ but doesn’t seem capable of matching it. And then there is the best living American novelist, if he is a novelist, after all, Thomas Pynchon, the author of one great short novel, ‘The Crying of Lot 49,’ the marvellous ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’ which is more remarkable as a series of interspersed stories like Byron the Lightbulb than it as a whole, and ‘Mason & Dixon,’ which I was very moved by. But his work subsequent to that has not been very good. And nobody has come along to replace those four [men].”
Bloom continues, “In drama, we have Tony Kushner. Tony has yet to show that he can match ‘Perestroika,’ though I have hopes that he will. A very sweet man he is, and a very talented one. The other dramatists in this country, Edward Albee and David Mamet — very different fellows — neither of them is currently producing anything of great interest.”
Asked about novelist David Foster Wallace, who took his own life in 2008, but who has a new book out, “The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel,” put together from manuscript chapters and files found in his computer, Bloom says, “You know, I don’t want to be offensive. But ‘Infinite Jest’ [regarded by many as Wallace’s masterpiece] is just awful. It seems ridiculous to have to say it. He can’t think, he can’t write. There’s no discernible talent.”
It’s all a clear indication, Bloom notes, of the decline of literary standards. He was upset in 2003 when the National Book Award gave a special award to Stephen King. “But Stephen King is Cervantes compared with David Foster Wallace. We have no standards left. [Wallace] seems to have been a very sincere and troubled person, but that doesn’t mean I have to endure reading him. I even resented the use of the term from Shakespeare, when Hamlet calls the king’s jester Yorick, ‘a fellow of infinite jest.’
“It’s sort of a dark time. Imaginative energy I think is very difficult to summon up when there are so many distractions. There’s a kind of Grisham’s law [in literature]; the bad drives out the good.”
Nevertheless, Bloom has another new book, “The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible,” due out in September to coincide with the 400th anniversary of that edition. He also has begun work on his next, “Evening of the Imagined Land: Achievements in American Literature.”
Bloom has had a series of health crises in recent years, which means that, “although I constantly get invitations to talk at the North Pole,” his ability to travel is limited at the moment. He and Jeanne do, however, go by limo approximately every third weekend to New York, where they have a loft in Greenwich Village. He says his current priorities are to “spend time with my wife, to teach and to write.” He teaches undergraduates exclusively; they have been selected from a large group of applicants to his two courses, limited to 12 each, one on Shakespeare and one on poetry. He chooses them by having them write three or four pages in an hour about why they want to take the class — “not about me.”
He has not taught graduate students for years. When he’s asked why, Bloom dilates on the academic battles he has had: “I had to fight my way through in the Yale English department. I started teaching here full-time in 1955. But with the exception of two remarkable men, my thesis advisor, Frederick Pottle, and the dean of Yale College, William Clyde DeVane, I couldn’t get along with people in the department. They all believed that T.S. Eliot was Christ’s vicar on earth. Every time you wrote something or said something you were supposed to genuflect to the sacred Eliot. Now the sacred Eliot, in his own hallucinatory way, is not the world’s worst poet. But he’s an awful literary critic and one of the most vicious anti-Semites of all time. So I had quarreled incessantly with the Yale English department, and I finally couldn’t bear it any more.
“I’m tired of being accused of being an elitist, which simply means that one wants people to read what’s worth reading and write in a proper response to it,” he adds. “I thought that the function of a critic was to read accurately and plainly to propound what one had apprehended. I wasn’t aware that there was going to be this cultural inundation.” He was accused of being racist or sexist because he didn’t believe that a poem had merit “simply because it was written by an African-American, a Hispanic or an Eskimo transvestite.”
In 1977, Bloom went to the then-acting president of Yale, Hanna Gray, who later became the president of the University of Chicago, and told her that if he wasn’t named a professor of “things in general,” he would leave the university. She went to the Yale Corporation, and it was done. In 1983, he was named a Sterling Professor of the Humanities, and in 1985, he won a MacArthur Fellowship. After a time, Bloom noticed that, since he had “taken a ferocious stand against political correctness in the academy,” his recommendations for graduate students ended up being “the kiss of death,” and he stopped teaching them.
It is difficult to understand why someone like Bloom, who is so devoted to literature, so funny and just plain interesting, would be greatly disliked. But his opinions tend to evoke strong passions. He also has very vivid views on politics. For one thing, he is quite disappointed with President Barack Obama. “We had high hopes for Obama,” he says. “I’m afraid he turns out to be a Chicago pol. He doesn’t have much fight in him.”
“It all started with that absolute dreadful creature Ronald Reagan,” he continues. “It was Reagan who came along and persuaded the whole nation that it was all right to be selfish, that it was an American virtue to be selfish. And all of these Tea Party-ites wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for Reagan as their trailblazer. Incredible, the cigar-store Indian George W. Bush…the worst president in American history. The more-than-outrageous, the insufferable Donald Trump in today’s newspaper describes Obama as the worst president in American history. I’ll tell you what’s scary. Just one step beyond, and it will be early Nazi Germany. If the Tea Party, which already has a huge majority in the House, should also capture the Senate, you might start seeing sanctioned violence.” He also decries that group’s “racism, endless racism,” noting members of it have depicted the President of the United States as a chimpanzee.
Bloom says, “There’s a wonderful poem by William Butler Yeats, “A statesman is an easy man, he tells his lies by rote./ A journalist invents his lies, and rams them down your throat./ So stay at home and drink your beer and let the neighbors vote.”
It’s all a far cry from where it began for Bloom, the son of a garment worker in the Bronx who got a scholarship to Cornell and received his Ph.D. from Yale. One of Bloom’s early favorites was the poet Hart Crane, of whom he says, “In terms of sheer gift, sheer endowment, I’m not sure that any poet in Europe or America is his equal.”
“I still remember how it happened,” he says of discovering the writer. “I’d seen a few poems in anthologies, but on my 10th birthday, I was taken to the Melrose branch of the Bronx Public Library by my three splendid older sisters. I fell in love with the collected poems of Hart Crane, and I kept taking it out; you could take it out for two weeks, then you had to take it back and wait for a day to check it out again. For my 12th birthday, at my request, my oldest sister gave me a copy of Hart Crane, which is the first book I ever owned and which is still upstairs.”