Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1258
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 a vocabulary of strategies to describe what he calls “misprision,” or misreading. According to Bloom, there are six methods that writers use to overcome their predecessors, and to each he has given a Greek name, which makes his theory seem more esoteric than it might otherwise appear. These terms are “clinamen,” swerving to avoid the predecessor; “tessera,” claiming to complete what the predecessor left unfinished; “kenosis,” insisting on discontinuity with the predecessor to stress one’s own originality; “daemonization,” finding something in the predecessor’s work that the earlier writer supposedly did not know was there (as when William Blake said that John Milton was of Satan’s party in Paradise Lost but did not know it); “askesis,” rejecting the predecessor; and “apophrodes,” the return of the dead—making the modern writer the precursor rather than the follower. Elsewhere, Bloom has spoken of these devices as “crossings” and described three strategies for moving from limitation to representation, from confrontation with the predecessor to discovery and originality.
Rejecting the old humanist view that literature has meaning outside its relation to other works of literature (for example, Bloom denies that a poem is a direct response to life and insists that it always responds instead to the poems that have preceded it), he is equally unhappy with deconstructionist theories that regard literature as rhetoric, originating in and stumbling against linguistic constructs. For the deconstructionist, in the beginning is the metaphor (or trope). Bloom’s analysis stresses the psychoanalytic rather than the linguistic, so that for him in the beginning is the maker of the metaphor, who seeks to create a place for himself in the world of letters by escaping from the tradition which traps him. Writing, Bloom believes, is an Oedipal struggle, an agon, against the past that can be embodied in an entire tradition or a particular predecessor. Each author re-creates a literary past through his own misprision and then rebels against it if he is to emerge as a strong writer.
The Western Canon may be viewed as a culmination of Bloom’s theory. In this text, Bloom, in addition to giving appendixes that give culture-by-culture lists of the greatest works of Giambattista Vico’s theocratic, aristocratic, democratic, and chaotic ages, states that one writer is the center of the Western literary canon: William Shakespeare. In Bloom’s view, all other writers, both before or after, must be seen as writing in competition with him. Bloom goes on to compare the works of other writers in a number of languages with Shakespeare, and he shows how these authors must try to overcome, ignore, or synthesize Shakespeare’s work with their own. The Western Canon, then, is a synthesis of Bloom’s work as detailed above—it seeks to combine Bloom’s theories of influence with his ideas of aesthetics.
Bloom’s language, which is both violent and esoteric, has drawn criticism. So, too, has his elitist division of writers into the many who are weak—and for Bloom this category includes such revered names as T. S. Eliot—and the few who are strong. Deconstructionists object to his insistence on the primacy of the writer rather than the text. His view that writers can never free themselves from struggle strikes others as overly pessimistic, and his equating the critic with the poet because both are engaged in acts of interpretation seems hubristic to many. However bizarre or incomprehensible his theories may seem, though, his close readings of writers such as Shelley, William Butler Yeats, and Wallace Stevens (of whom he was an early champion) invariably illuminate their works, and he has helped shape the nature of the contemporary critical debate. One may dissent from Bloom’s approach or conclusions, but he cannot be ignored.