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.