Harold Bloom Essay - Critical Essays

Bloom, Harold (Vol. 103)

Introduction

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."

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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...

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Criticism

Howard Eiland (essay date Spring 1977)

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...

(The entire section is 3299 words.)

Alvin Rosenfeld (essay date Summer 1977)

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.

                                —Jacob Glatstein

It is a duty of critics, as Harold Bloom has recently defined it, to make a...

(The entire section is 5236 words.)

Denis Donoghue (review date 15 September 1977)

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...

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Jonathan Arac (essay date Spring 1978)

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."]

I

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....

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Robert Alter (review date 31 January 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 2038 words.)

Dan O'Hara (review date Fall 1982)

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...

(The entire section is 2032 words.)

Ulrich Horstmann (essay date March 1983)

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:...

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David Wyatt (essay date Summer 1984)

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...

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Charles Molesworth (essay date 1984)

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...

(The entire section is 1630 words.)

Denis Donoghue (review date 2 May 1989)

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...

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Nannette Altevers (essay date Spring 1992)

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)...

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Denis Donoghue (review date 6 January 1995)

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...

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David Dooley (essay date Summer 1995)

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...

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