I received news this week that Harold Bloom has died. Bloom (1930-2019) was an avid reader, a rapid writer, and a penetrating critic whose essays and books on literature are breathtaking in scope and exemplary in their attention to the text. His The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973; 1997) and A Map of Misreading (1975) represent a considerable contribution to literary theory. While his “influence” theory is relatively complex, it is one that can be grasped and tested by smart readers outside the academy. His forty other monographs and hundreds of anthologies, public lectures, and essays represent a huge body of work. His absence will be noticed.
Notice I did not say that he would be missed. To say that Bloom was a polarizing figure is to underestimate the distance between extreme opposites. It is difficult to think of a group of people that Harold Bloom has not offended. At a local level, he was reputed to be a player on campus and divisive in the faculty. He felt no qualms in insulting others, whether they were his nearest colleagues or literary figures like National Medal of Arts winner Maya Angelou (“Miss Maya Angelou cannot write her way out of a paper bag“), recently deceased postmodern genius and Pulitzer finalist, David Foster Wallace (“He can’t think, he can’t write. There’s no discernible talent“), and Nobel laureate Doris Lessing, whom he claimed was a “fourth-rate science fiction” writer who received the honour out of “pure political correctness.” He has even landed on an LDS trigger list for inflammatory insults.
Beyond personal insult, Bloom has staked a number of controversial claims. He has “taken a ferocious stand against political correctness in the academy,” with a certain kind of glee in going against this grain. His Western Canon (1994) is not just about capturing our most literary, compelling, and influential figures. Bloom writes to resist what he calls the “School of Resentment,” which include African American studies, New Historicist criticism (of which C.S. Lewis was instrumental in beginning), feminist criticism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism–movements often rooted in or in conversation with Marxist literary criticism. There’s even an entire Wikipedia page about this literature of Resentment that Bloom sees as degrading the literary tradition in the West. Indeed, he sees them as a threat to beauty and poetry and good reading.
As you will see below and in my “Essential List” of the Western Canon, Bloom is not just trying to recommend dead white men for reading; he simply thinks that you should Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and Jorge Luis Borges because they are worth reading, not because they diversify our reading experience.
But Bloom draws ire from–or offers some of his own to–other quarters as well. He resists T.S. Eliot and his gang and argues for a renewal of Romanticism (at least in good reading of Shelley and Blake). His Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present (1989) is quite a lovely book as Bloom seeks to recover some of his Jewish tradition. Speaking as someone trained in biblical literary criticism, however, combined with his bits in The Book of J, there is so much nonsense as to make it difficult to recommend even for entertainment value. Frankly, we could have done without his The American Religion (1992)–what could have been a great book written by a historian or trained scholar in religion but which divides on strange proleptic theses like the creation of a new gnosticism. And it is difficult to see why he has chosen the texts that he anthologizes in his Modern Critical Views Series–more than 200 volumes on leading figures and literary movements, with an invisible rationale for selection besides the fact that the article was available.
So, a puzzling and polarizing figure. I think it is worth paying attention new criticism (pinning ourselves to the page), and various feminist, gender, and race critical schools worthy of our attention–I think it is always valuable to ask how girls, women, minorities, and indigenous peoples read our texts and are read by them. But I don’t think that means negating the greatest authors and works of the deep and near past. That is why I have collected “canon lists” by C.S. Lewis (see here and here) and Harold Bloom (see here), as well as a failed attempt at a canon of fantasy literature. So I leave you with my essay from 2016 on Bloom’s The Western Canon. With all its (and his) flaws and extremities, I still think this is a valuable book for people who love reading.
Harold Bloom and The Western Canon
Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages was a sensation when it appeared in 1994. Harold Bloom, a curmudgeonly anti-academic ivy league scholar, fills this challenging read with fresh insights on every page. He has perhaps gone mad with his own reading, and I have trouble understanding what he means by “we” when he claims to speak for readers. I’m not sure an audience exists for his breadth of reading anymore. He is one of the last great literary priests left in the empty cathedrals we call the Western library.
Moreover, Bloom is anti-ideological, and understands pretty well the self-contradiction that this entails. The book is a sermon against what he calls “the school of resentment”—readers of feminist, Marxist, and deconstructionist leanings that would remove the Western canon from its central place.
There are problems with a “Western canon.” Though we think of the canon as simply our chief books, the word “canon” means rule or measurement. The books of the Euro-American canon are the books by which our culture measures itself.
One of the problems with this canon is that it is biased toward realism.* Mimesis is the literary critic’s drug of choice, thus modern fantasy and medieval allegory is largely left behind. Bloom himself references Ursula K. Le Guin and C.S. Lewis, and includes J.R.R. Tolkien in a larger list of canonical books. Clearly, though, even Bloom, who edited two books on C.S. Lewis, prefers the high literary mix of the uncanny and the natural in realistic writing to broad streams of fairy tale or the high ranges of fantasy and science fiction.
Another problem is that there may be no such thing as a Western civilization, and thus we are in no need of a canon. Still, there is a “we” in that sentence. And we can speak broadly of a culture that exists, with all its inherent contradictions and diversities. So a canon (and a counter-canon) makes sense.
It is telling that our culture, such as it is, is no longer reading these books. Some individuals are, but we no longer have a class of public intellectuals—pastors, priests, politicians, professors, publishers, and pundits—who lead us in the great roots of Western civilization. It is increasingly possible that some of our most important political figures no longer know how to read. Moreover, I’m always shocked when a CNN or Fox commentator has read the book of the controversialist he or she is interviewing. As a culture, we no longer want to be led intellectually, but to receive neural stimulation from flat shiny screens (like this one).
That is good in many ways I suppose. The canon is filled with white men and women—and just a few women, really—who were typically well off. But we are still left with parts of our culture—our history, our laws, our academic institutions, our media culture, our language development, our architecture and art—that reflect the canon. In short, there are just some books that we should have read already.
And yet we haven’t—or at least I haven’t–read all our most influential books. I have at times pretended to read this writer or that book. How absurd! To pretend that I have read the same books as you! My awkward social sin, though, shows us the value of the library that has been left to us. I have determined to spend a good deal of the 2010s and 2020s catching up on all the reading I’ve missed. My wan education, even growing up in a very poor but literary home, has been woefully inadequate to my profession (my faith profession, my vocation as writer, and my roles as professor and policy writer).
If culture can no longer do it for us—can no longer provide us with the education we need—we have to do it for ourselves. Thus the value of a book like Bloom’s. As often as he reminds us how inadequate we truly are as readers, we can still use his book as a resource for self-teaching.
And if your project isn’t the discovery of a Western canon, the books Bloom focusses on are excellent in their own right.
What is this canon?
That’s part of the fun: despite the standards that are part of our shared cultural library, there is no one canon. So we make our own lists.
Bloom lists as the “highest fictions” these well known works: the Divine Comedy, Hamlet, King Lear, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, Faust (Part Two), Peer Gynt, War and Peace, and In Search of Lost Time. Ibsen’s Peer Gynt was a surprise to me, though none of the others are. You will note that the novelists are missing, such as Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Charles Dickens. These he will spend a great deal of time on, as not quite the “highest fictions,” but still canonical. I know all of these writers in one way or another, even if I have never read them all.
I have endeavoured to include the entire list that you will not need to read his Western Canon in its entirety before you begin reading great books. Any canonical reader will have to have a knowledge of Blake, Coleridge, Dostoevsky, T.S. Eliot, Emerson, William Empson, Freud, Hemingway, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, Christopher Marlowe, Fernando Pessoa, Alexander Pope, Shelley, Wallace Stevens, Charles Williams, and Yeats. And, of course, you will need to know the classics, the Bible, the Greek philosophers, contemporary literary critics, the existentialist writers, and the most popular poets of history.
So, here we are overwhelmed by our own lack of education again!
There are surprising additions and omissions in Bloom’s taxonomy of Western standards. Tolstoy sits at the centre of the canon, almost as high as Shakespeare. Yet it is not War and Peace that is highlighted, but an obscure posthumous novel I had never heard of. I don’t think Persuasion is Jane Austen’s best or even her most important novel, but it might be the most paradigmatic. Bloom is highly Anglo-American, so Voltaire is mostly ignored, and there is a surprising weight in his treatment of the Americans (Dickinson and Whitman).
The Nordic and Celtic traditions are almost entirely gone–they are speculative in nature, after all–and Beowulf gets not a single mention in the entire book. Arthur almost never happened. It is like Augustine wrote some notes in his journal, the world slept for a millennium, and Dante suddenly decided he had something on his mind. Coleridge is discussed in his relationship to Wordsworth, but neither his Rime of the Ancient Mariner or his Biographia Literaria are mentioned. And Bloom has a peculiar fascination with the Torah writer, “J”—the reconstructed and perhaps fictional persona whom he is certain is a female writing in ancient Hebrew.
Finally, Canada does not exist, in literary terms, which will surprise all the Canadian writers.
These peculiarities as a whole only serve to highlight the inversive nature of Bloom’s work. At the same time he is setting up for us the canon that literary critics of history have given us, he is reshaping that canon, recentring it, redefining its Greek and Hebrew lineage, and doing his best to steal it back from contemporary ideological critics** who would tear it open, piece by piece.
How can you have an iconoclast bent on restoring the art? Somehow it works in Harold Bloom’s exciting memoir of a culture’s library. Or is it a eulogy? He is an anti-establishmentarian who dies to protect the establishment. Despite—and because of—its idiosyncrasies, it works for those of us trying to move our (realistic) reading into deeper and deeper realms.
** I am one of the ideologues, by the way.