Books

Harold Bloom: The Essential American Literary Critic

(Pixabay)
The late Bloom’s New Age leftist patriotism made him un-cancellable within his own camp.

Harold Bloom was a strange, singular figure: an old-school, elbow-patches academic in literary criticism who managed to generate heated controversy whenever he spoke. Like other great American art critics — Roger Ebert, for instance — he was as famous for his harsh, polemical critiques as for how beautifully he described the art he loved.

Bloom was the center of gravity around which American arts and letters rotated, and his death late last year was a major blow.

Fortunately, Bloom was unusually prolific. He published at a blistering pace after getting tenure, an accolade that typically has the opposite effect on professors. The American Canon — published the day after Bloom’s death — is therefore a treasure trove, as the book collates a sizable number of Bloom’s American literary critiques that would’ve otherwise been printed only once across a vast array of separate volumes (some of which were published five decades ago), leaving them effectively lost to time for modern readers.

The collection begins with Ralph Waldo Emerson and proceeds along a sequence of increasingly modern authors. This construction creates a narrative thread, wherein Bloom argues that authors took cues from their immediate predecessors: Whitman wrote Song of Myself with Emerson in mind, Hawthorne composed The Scarlet Letter responding to both Emerson and Whitman, and so on.

Emerson is therefore presented as American literature’s genesis — the founder of a national cultural movement to whom every succeeding American author owes something. When Bloom writes of Emerson and his ideas, he is simultaneously at his best, his weirdest, and his most patriotic. This eclectic mix is what makes the book a delight, and a timely release at a moment when American patriotism’s fundamental value is contested.

Bloom’s weirdness is on full display when claiming that Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” essay marked the founding of an “American religion” of radical independence. He doesn’t use “religion” metaphorically — Bloom is preoccupied with the idea of the heroic individual asserting his will on the world. This is part of Bloom’s lifelong obsession with Gnosticism, a religion of “secret” knowledge that only the spiritual elite were enlightened enough to possess.

Bloom sees imprints of this gnostic spirituality in America’s literature. However strange it sounds, this is the basis of Bloom’s patriotism, which is of a peculiar left-wing variety that’s almost unheard of now. These atypical patriotic attachments make Bloom a liberal in a pure sense. He finds a tradition of radical individualism in American culture, with a through-line in every great American author’s work. This elides the history of early American Christianity. Bloom hardly addresses the contradiction. But it is true that many of America’s great authors were either skeptical of religion or outright disestablishmentarian.

So, why bother with Bloom? For one, his odd New Age leftist patriotism made him un-cancellable. He was that rare intellectual who defended America from the left. He wrote in 1994 that critical theorists and the identitarian Left were destroying the West’s artistic legacy. He even lumped “neoconservatives” into his list of offenders and named the collective hodgepodge the “School of Resentment,” which he believed flourished in nearly every college English department.

Bloom was impressive for never being cowed by his critics. He simply didn’t care. His artistic obsessions gave him the unblinking courage to assert that authors will always cease to create literature when they waste time scrambling to meet the ever-shifting goalposts of political correctness. As he notes in The American Canon, “social information . . . seems to me a peripheral gain of reading, and political awareness an even more tenuous dividend.”

This moment seems tailor-made for The American Canon’s release. The book-banning craze, often associated with 20th-century Evangelicalism, has now come full circle in socially liberal educational silos. But this impulse still reappears in conservative spaces — often with the same American books that were declared too obscene nearly a century ago. The “live-and-let-live” approach to art is disintegrating, as both the cultural Right and Left have decided to make the personal political, collectively speeding up the closing of the American mind (as a different Bloom put it).

Amid this partisan acceleration, Bloom pauses the process to re-instill unashamed love for American art into the culture. He calls us to think of Emily Dickinson as Shakespeare’s equal. The American Canon is an affectionate telling of our literary past, unapologetic in its patriotism, even through Bloom’s New Age-ism. Defying the intersectional critique of the Western canon as a museum of “dead white males,” the book contains a diverse array of authors. While Bloom is enamored of Herman Melville, he also finds Melville’s female contemporaries unmatched. He speaks with equal affection for James Baldwin and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In this way, Bloom is the ideal intellectual in the era of cancellation: He points out quality where he sees it, without regard for group identity.

The American Canon is a great collection, in part because it’s the only recent work of literary criticism that showcases the foregone virtue of American optimism. What other academic would say, as Bloom does when describing how it feels to read Whitman, “Perfection is now and in America”?

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