Bloom, Harold (Vol. 103)
Harold Bloom 1930–
American critic, editor, and novelist.
The following entry presents criticism of Bloom's work through 1995. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volume 24.
As important to literary criticism as he is controversial, Harold Bloom has been a major contributor to academic scholarship for over thirty-five years. His work has been influenced by a wide variety of sources, ranging from Freud and Nietzsche to Gnosticism and Judaism. Most of Bloom's books are concerned with the development of his theory of poetics, which centers on the notion that poets engage in a constant struggle with their literary forebears. This "anxiety of influence," as Bloom has termed it, has been alternately referred to as "genius" and "idiosyncratic" by his scholarly peers. Denis Donoghue, who holds the Henry James Chair of English and American Letters at New York University, frequently reviews Bloom's books and has ambivalent feelings regarding his work, saying in one review that he finds Bloom "quite wondrous, even when I don't believe him."
Harold Bloom was born in New York City in 1930 to William and Paula Lev Bloom. Even at an early age, Bloom was a voracious reader; it has been said that he read English before he spoke it. He lived in New York City until he entered Cornell University, where he earned his B.A. in 1951. In 1955, he earned his Ph.D. from Yale University and has been a member of the faculty since that time. In 1958, Bloom married Jeanne Gould, with whom he has two sons, Daniel and David. His first book, Shelley's Mythmaking (1959), began as his Ph.D. dissertation and was awarded Yale's John Addison Porter Prize in 1956, the first of many awards. Bloom has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship (1962–1963), a Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters (1981), and the 1985 MacArthur Foundation Award. While Bloom has written on a variety of literary topics, it was with the publication of The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973) that he first brought widespread attention to his work. Bloom was a distinguished literary critic before the publication of this book, but as Helen Requeiro Elam wrote in Dictionary of Literary Biography, "it has been impossible to discuss theories of in-fluence without reference to Bloom" since its appearance on the critical scene. Most of Bloom's writings following The Anxiety of Influence have either extended or revised his ideas. His most recent work, The Western Canon (1994), is a departure from his theory of poetics, but has produced just as much critical debate as any of his prior writings. Bloom is currently the Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University.
At the center of Bloom's "anxiety of influence," the focus of his theory of poetics, is the notion that modern writers (poets, in particular) wrestle with the writers of the past in an effort to create something new and original. Since the Enlightenment, Bloom contends, writers have suffered from a feeling of "belatedness." As Denis Donoghue writes: "Born too late, they find everything already said and done; they cannot be first, priority has by definition, and the indifference of fate, escaped them." The weak writer fails to find his own voice while the strong writer challenges his precursor, willfully "misreading" him so as to clear a space for himself. In books such as A Map of Misreading (1975), Kabbalah and Criticism (1975), Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens (1976), and Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (1982), Bloom further refines his theoretical approach, utilizing psychoanalysis (Freud), philosophy (Nietzsche and Vico), and Jewish theology (Gnosis and Kabbalah) to create an intricate theory of poetics that continues to spur critical debate.
Not unlike Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, Harold Bloom is a literary critic who, as a writer, has received a great deal of critical attention of his own. His work is reviewed widely, attacked critically, and often praised. Many critics have lauded his daring, "antithetical" approach, while others have called him "willfully offensive to the profession." Bloom's reply to these praises and criticisms is, as Alvin Rosenfeld states, "perhaps the most outrageous thing of all: he writes another book." Rosenfeld goes on to refer to Bloom's work as a "theory in progress," noting that as new volumes appear, new influences are brought to bear on his ideas, such as with A Map of Misreading, in which Bloom turns to Lurianic Kabbalism (a form of Jewish mysticism) as "the ultimate model for Western revisionism from the Renaissance to the present." In addition to the books devoted to his theoretical model, Bloom has written on a variety of other topics, including works devoted to Wallace Stevens and William Butler Yeats.
Shelley's Mythmaking (criticism) 1959
The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (criticism) 1961
Yeats (criticism) 1970
The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (criticism) 1973
A Map of Misreading (criticism) 1975
Kabbalah and Criticism (criticism) 1975
Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens (criticism) 1976
Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (criticism) 1976
The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy (novel) 1979
Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (criticism) 1982
Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present (criticism) 1989
The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (criticism) 1994
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SOURCE: "Harold Bloom and High Modernism," in Boundary 2, Vol. V, No. 3, Spring, 1977, pp. 935-42.
[In the following essay, Eiland discusses Bloom's theory of repression and revisionism as creative forces for poets.]
In The Anxiety of Influence Harold Bloom claims for his theory a "deliberate literalism", yet in that book and its successors his interpretations of poems have been hardly "literal." In Poetry and Repression, in fact, the motivating critical question is: "What is being repressed here?"—and it stimulates a search for meanings that are latent, more or less concealed from the poet himself. "Literal" or manifest meaning is usually a self-deception, a defense against an anterior poetic stance or "fathering force." Poets don't necessarily "mean" what they think they do or what they overtly say; their writing deviously "voices" a dark psychic drama emanating from an ambiguous preconscious realm of contending forces, voices a text of images that resemble those of Freud's psychology, and that, like all archetypal tropes, keep merging into one another without ceasing, however, to embody distinct general principles of opposition or exchange. This submerged but indeterminately graspable drama is thus essentially dualistic or dialectical (the distinction is never completely clear in Bloom), expressing an eternal and eternally multiform "agon" between the body in nature and abstract...
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SOURCE: "'Armed for War': Notes on The Antithetical Criticism of Harold Bloom," in The Southern Review, Vol. 13, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 554-66.
[In the following essay, Rosenfeld explores the various influences involved in the development of Bloom's antithetical criticism of poetry.]
A good critic … is armed for war. And criticism is a war, against a work of art—either the critic defeats the work or the work defeats the critic.
It is a duty of critics, as Harold Bloom has recently defined it, to make a good poet's work harder for him to perform, for it is only in the overcoming of genuine difficulties that strong poetry emerges. A corollary of this view—never stated as such but clearly implicit in Bloom's writings—is that a critic should do his work in such a way as to make a reader's work also more difficult for him to perform, and for much the same reasons, namely, to achieve interpretations strenuous enough to be adequate to the age. "Strength" is a central term in Bloom's critical vocabulary, just as it is the goal of all of his intellectual labors. The designation "reader" must, in this case, apply to the professional reader—fellow critics, among whom Bloom values, and increasingly seems to write almost exclusively...
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SOURCE: "Stevens at the Crossing," in The New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1977, pp. 39-42.
[In the following review of Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate, Donoghue provides a brief synopsis of Bloom's theory of poetry and how it applies to Wallace Stevens's poetry.]
Harold Bloom's new book is not only an interpretation of Wallace Stevens's major poems but a sustained application of the theory of literary history which he first outlined in The Anxiety of Influence (1973). It may be useful to recite the theory before considering its bearing upon Stevens.
Bloom's first books were powerful but relatively straightforward interpretations of the major Romantic poets. Shelley's Mythmaking (1959), The Visionary Company (1961), and Blake's Apocalypse (1963) were written on the understanding that the central act of Romanticism is the transformation of natural life into human life. The necessary mode of this transformation is "myth-making, the confrontation of life by life, a meeting between subjects, not subjects and objects." The last phrases indicate that Martin Buber's vocabulary of I-Thou and I-It relations helped Bloom to describe the mythopoeic mode not only in Shelley but in the Romantic poets generally.
I am not sure that he continues to find Buber's terms inspiring. In the preface to the 1969 edition of Shelley's...
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SOURCE: "The Criticism of Harold Bloom: Judgement and History," in Centrum, Vol. 6, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 32-42
[In the following essay, Arac examines Bloom's earlier works and traces the development of his theoretical stance in order to locate Bloom's "concerns and gestures in the continuing contests of literary criticism."]
Of our critics who have defined their identities in the postwar years, Harold Bloom is one of the most useful. I have learned much from Bloom about reading the poems of the last two hundred years, but such individual readings only extend New Criticism, which Bloom has helped in other ways to bring us beyond. Northrop Frye's archetypal criticism made the totality of literature, rather than the individual poem, the unit of effective wholeness, but Bloom challenges both Frye and New Criticism in opening for exploration a middle range, a human scale: individual poets rather than single poems or all poetry. For understanding the dynamics of literary careers, his work and Edward Said's have been the most useful to me, and for thinking about literary history as made by writers' responses to earlier writers, Bloom and Reuben Brower have offered me the most concrete instances. Bloom's work, however, still lacks any single achievement comparable to The Mirror and the Lamp, Anatomy of Criticism, John Keats by W.J. Bate, and Wordsworth's Poetry...
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SOURCE: "More Wrestling With Forebears," in The New York Times Book Review, January 31, 1982, pp. 8, 14.
[In the following review, Alter discusses Agon, "the latest installment in Harold Bloom's elaborate theory of poetic creation."]
"As soon as a man begins to see everything," G.C. Lichtenberg observed in an aphorism Harold Bloom sets at the head of an essay on Emerson, "he generally expresses himself obscurely—begins to speak with the tongues of angels." The statement surely applies as aptly to Mr. Bloom as to Emerson, and, indeed, Mr. Bloom is so shrewdly self-conscious a writer that it seems altogether likely he intended to hint at the personal application.
Agon is the latest installment in Harold Bloom's elaborate theory of poetic creation as a desperate wrestling with forebears, inaugurated in 1973 by The Anxiety of Influence. The new volume, it would seem, is a collection of literary and cultural essays written for different occasions, but just as the half-dozen books Mr. Bloom has published over the past nine years are really chapters in one long book (the end of which is not yet in sight), these sundry pieces make one tightly clenched argument, for the author is committed to pursuing the manifestations of a single master idea in whatever he touches. Agon, as far as I can determine, does not depart significantly from the doctrine of the earlier...
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SOURCE: A review of The Breaking of the Vessels, in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. XLI, No. 1, Fall, 1982, pp. 99-101.
[In the following review, O'Hara contends that The Breaking of the Vessels is "both more extreme" and "more predictable" than Bloom's other works, and that the author seems to have moved from "precocious and prolific youth to decadent and despairing ancientness without ever having attained critical maturity."]
Harold Bloom has been a controversial figure in American literary criticism for some time. His first book, Shelley's Mythmaking (1959), set itself squarely against the ruling critical orthodoxy of the time which denigrated the great Romantic poet as (in Arnold's notorious phrase) "an ineffectual angel" beating his golden wings vainly in a void of idealistic abstraction. Bloom argued instead that Shelley was much more of a self-consciousvisionary craftsman in the style of Northrop Frye's Blake than he was ever given credit for by Arnold's New Critical heirs and fellow-travelers. Ever since, no matter what the dominant opinion in critical circles has been, Bloom has repeatedly adopted an antithetical stance. Consider the first and still most original of his theoretical utterances, The Anxiety of Influence (1973). Just when such colleagues of his at Yale as Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller were adapting Derridean...
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SOURCE: "The Over-Reader: Harold Bloom's Neo-Darwinian Revisionism," in Poetics, Vol. 12, No. 2/3, March, 1983.
[In the following essay, Horstmann takes issue with various elements of Bloom's work.]
Harold Bloom embarked on his scholarly career in 1959 when he published his dissertation on Shelley's Mythmaking and reached notoriety fourteen years later with The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. This book formulated the Magna Charta of Bloom's poststructuralist doctrine of 'antithetical revisionism', and its author has since expounded and consolidated his highly controversial poetics with unremitting zeal and missionary ardour in such studies as: A Map of Misreading (1975), Kabbalah and Criticism (1975), Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens (1976), Figures of Capable Imagination (1976), Wallace Stevens, The Poems of Our Climate (1977), Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism (1982).
Bloom's more recent work does not only propagate the heuristic principle of antithesis; more importantly it embodies and exemplifies it by reacting antithetically to the norms and expectations of the academic community it addresses. In vain do we look for annotations, index, or bibliography in his books, as Bloom defiantly parades his disregard for the ideals of philological accuracy and verifiability by constantly referring to...
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SOURCE: "Bloom, Freud, and 'America'," in The Kenyon Review, Vol. VI, No. 3, Summer, 1984.
[In the following essay, Wyatt uses Bloom's own theoretical approach to examine the significance of Freud and American literature in Bloom's work.]
Harold Bloom's theory of poetic influence is the most controversial and influential of our time. It is an overtly psychological theory: in Agon, published in 1982, Bloom asserts that we live in the Age of Freud. Bloom argues that the relations between poets are the true subject of literary history, and that these relations are characterized by all the envy, guilt, ambivalence and love that create the Oedipal family. Strong poets suffer in particular an acute anxiety of belatedness. Their writing consists of a series of defenses against the sense that they have been born too late to do any truly original work. In twelve books published over nearly three decades, Bloom has almost single-handedly transposed Freud's theories of intrapsychic and generational conflict into the realm of poetic careers. By doing so he has also assured that any critic of poetry in English lives now in the Age of Bloom.
Bloom is a student of rhetorical figures—or tropes—and of the way that poets organize their poems and careers around them. To "trope" means to turn, as Bloom often reminds us, and when he does so he means to suggest that a poet takes up a trope as a...
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SOURCE: "Promethean Narcissism," in Partisan Review, Vol. LI, No. 1, 1984, pp. 155-58.
[In the following essay, Molesworth discusses the roles of Freudianism and theology in Bloom's criticism.]
In the last three decades, literary critics have struggled to retain their field as the center of cultural understanding. Criticism has been a hybrid, unstable amalgam since the rise of a mass readership. Not surprisingly, the recent struggle has seen criticism try to strengthen and clarify itself by mergers with other disciplines and subjects. From popular culture to structural linguistics, the nets of literary analysis have been flung far and variously. What has increased the extraordinary complexity of this phenomenon is that everywhere literary criticism searched, it found another discipline equally mired in self-doubt and in the "problematic of language." All the disciplines—philosophy, psychoanalysis, Marxism, social science—felt the crisis of interpretive confidence caused by several factors, chiefly the question of how to ground authority in interpreting texts. In this context, Harold Bloom's work takes on a poignant typicality. Two main but contradictory thrusts unite the books he has published in the last decade: first, he centers literary analysis on the literary canon, rejecting humanistic disciplines such as history as little more than the work of knaves and fools. Second, he borrows much of his...
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SOURCE: "The Sad Captain of Criticism," in New York Review of Books, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, March 2, 1989, pp. 22-4.
[In the following review of Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present, Donoghue explores Bloom's discussion of the influence of religious forms in Romantic literature.]
One of the many histrionic vivacities in Harold Bloom's book is its title. Ruin the sacred truths: apparently an admonition, the verb an imperative. But why would Harold Bloom, hitherto not known as a vandal, urge his readers to do such a dreadful thing? The point of the title, but not the justification of the ruin it proposes, emerges on page 125, where Bloom alludes to Andrew Marvell's poem on Paradise Lost, in which Marvell, referring to Milton, feared
That he would ruin (for I saw him strong)
The sacred Truths to Fable and Old Song.
I assume, then, that Ruin the Sacred Truths, the text of Bloom's Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard for 1987–1988, is his riposte to T.S. Eliot's The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, the Norton Lectures for 1932–1933, in which Eliot, in turn, proposed to discredit an account of poetry and belief which he found in Matthew Arnold and I.A. Richards.
Bloom's project is, in fact, the same as...
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SOURCE: "The Revisionary Company: Harold Bloom's 'Last Romanticism'," in New Literary History, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 361-824.
[In the following essay, Altevers argues that Bloom's "psychopoetic model" does not constitute "a fundamentally historical mode of interpretation."]
My sense of Harold Bloom's critical importance would not alone seem enough to justify this essay since others have explicated the essentials of his revisionary poetics at substantial length—Frank Lentricchia's After the New Criticism (1980), Elizabeth Bruss's Beautiful Theories (1982), and Jean-Pierre Mileur's Literary Revisionism and the Burden of Modernity (1985) are three examples that come immediately to mind. Despite their strength in other ways, however, these efforts seem to me finally to lack any real understanding of Bloom's project, any sense of its underlying significance. The same, I believe, can be said of certain influential forms of feminist criticism (most famously that of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar) which would posit against Bloom's so-called gender-restrictive Oedipal theory of literary relations a counter-patriarchal, noncombative, matriarchal tradition of women writers precursors. Focusing on the female literary tradition of the nineteenth century in their monumental The Mad Woman in the Attic (1979), Gilbert and Gubar aim to articulate a historical feminist poetics...
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SOURCE: "The Book of Genius," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4788, January 6, 1995, pp. 3-4.
[In the following review, Donoghue questions Bloom's choices and methods in the formation of a literary "canon".]
In 1970, W. Jackson Bate published The Burden of the Past and the English Poet, in which he argued that the crucial predicament of English poets since the eighteenth century has been their conviction of belatedness: they feel that they have come into poetry too late and are forced to look with envy and dismay upon, "the Giant Race, before the Flood". Keats told his friend Richard Woodhouse that "there as nothing original to be written in poetry; that its riches were already exhausted—and all its beauties forestalled". Not that every poet was daunted by giants. Blake, in a more spirited mood than Keats, wrote: "Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead." But the dead masters persisted, darkening the living.
In The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Harold Bloom took up Bate's theme and turned it into a general theory of poetic influence. The sense of belatedness, he maintained, disables the weak poet but provokes the strong poet to challenge his precursors, thereby increasing his strength. Anxiety, he argued, is not to be avoided; the canon is its fulfilment:
A canon, despite its idealizers from Ezra the Scribe through...
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SOURCE: "Bloom and The Canon," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 333-38.
[In the following review, Dooley notes that The Western Canon marks a "significant change of direction" for Bloom.]
Consider the two following kinds of critical writing:
1) I must admit that each time I reread [Bleak House], I tend to cry whenever Esther Summerson cries….
2) [T]here are no texts, but only relationships between texts.
The first quotation may seem naive or at least old-fashioned, not only pre-Derrida but pre-New Criticism. The second kind of writing is immediately recognizable as a specimen of academic deconstruction or literary "theory"; the source is the first page of Harold Bloom's A Map of Misreading (1975). Surprisingly, the first quotation is later, not earlier, than the second; it comes from Harold Bloom's new book, The Western Canon. Part of the interest of The Western Canon lies in measuring the distance Bloom has traveled from books like A Map of Misreading and The Anxiety of Influence (1973).
One cannot understand Bloom's criticism, especially The Anxiety of Influence, without imagining the situation of a very bright, very well-read young graduate student and teacher at Yale in the 1950s. No other university was then so closely identified...
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Alter, Robert. "Beauty and the Best." The New Republic 211, No. 15 (10 October 1994): 36-42.
Review discusses Bloom's criteria for choosing authors for the literary canon.
Berman, Jaye. "Harold Bloom and Judaism." Midstream: A Monthly Jewish Review XXXIII, No. 8 (October 1987): 42-44.
Examines Bloom's use of Judaism in his theoretical structure.
Brown, Erella. "The Ozick-Bloom Controversy: Anxiety of Influence, Usurpation as Idolatry, and the Identity of Jewish American Literature." Studies in American Jewish Literature 11, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 62-82.
Discusses the differing theoretical views of Cynthia Ozick and Harold Bloom regarding Jewish-American literature.
Caruth, Cathy. "Speculative Returns: Bloom's Recent Work." MLN 98, No. 5 (December 1983): 1286-96.
Essay discusses Agon and The Breaking of the Vessels and their contribution toward the development of Bloom's theories.
Donoghue, Denis. "Creation from Catastrophe." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4139 (30 July 1982): 811-12.
Review provides a brief summary of Bloom's theory and its...
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