Harold Bloom

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

One of the most influential literary critics of the late twentieth century, Harold Bloom has contributed to a renewed appreciation for the Romantic poets and to a clearer understanding of the relationship between writers and their predecessors. The son of William and Paula Lev Bloom, he was born in New York City on July 11, 1930. At Cornell University, where he received his B.A. in 1951, he studied under M. H. Abrams, a scholar of Romanticism, though Bloom has said that his own interest in this period antedated his college years. From Cornell, Bloom went to Yale University, receiving his Ph.D. in 1955. His dissertation on Percy Bysshe Shelley won for Bloom the John Addison Porter Prize in 1956 and became his first book, Shelley’s Mythmaking.

Hired by Yale, he rose quickly through the academic ranks, becoming De Vane Professor of the Humanities in 1974 and then Sterling Professor. His work has been widely recognized: He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship (1962-1963), the Melville Cane Award (1971) for Yeats, the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the National Institute and American Academy of Arts and Letters (1981), a MacArthur Foundation Award (1985), and a Boston Book Review Rea Nonfiction Prize (1995) for The Western Canon. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human was named a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. A prolific author and of scholarly books and articles, Bloom has written hundreds of introductions to various works and continues to arouse both admiration and criticism. His edited texts are too numerous to list here.

Even in his earliest work, Bloom broke with the conventions of the day. By the mid-1950’s, the New Critics (such as Cleanth Brooks and Lionel Trilling) had elevated the Metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century to the first rank of literature and relegated the Romantics to a lower position because the latter’s works seemed to lack irony. Drawing on Shelley’s literary theories, Bloom sought to rehabilitate the nineteenth century writers by stressing their imaginative qualities. No longer could critics dismiss William Wordsworth and his followers as simple nature poets; Bloom, relying heavily on the writings of Martin Buber, argued that for the Romantics nature was antithetical, not sympathetic. Shelley’s Mythmaking maintains that there is an I-Thou relationship between the imagination and its original vision, an I-It relationship between the imagination and the poetry it creates. Because the product can never match the initial inspiration, the poet is doomed to failure—and renewed effort.

Beginning in 1970 with Yeats, and more explicitly in The Anxiety of Influence, Bloom broke even more sharply with the prevailing critical orthodoxy. Writers such as Abrams and Newman Ivey White had defended the Romantics in the 1940’s and 1950’s; thus, Bloom’s position, while dissenting from the majority, was not unique. Virtually everyone in 1970, though, maintained that the poet draws strength from the literary tradition. Following the observation of T. S. Eliot in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1920), received opinion agreed that “we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of [a poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets . . . assert their immortality most vigorously,” that “the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” Abandoning Buber and rejecting Eliot, Bloom argued that each new writer, if he is “strong” (which for Bloom equals good and original) rather than “weak” (that is, derivative), seeks to assert his identity by misreading his predecessors and thus creating a space for himself in the world of literature.

The notion that the past weighs heavily on the present also appears in Walter Jackson Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (1970), but Bloom elaborated on the concept and developed...

(The entire section is 1,526 words.)