Back Harold Bloom’s The American Canon: “He is speaking directly to you about his passions”

In a career encompassing more than fifty years and forty books, Harold Bloom, who died on October 14 at the age of 89, inspired a reverence for literature in generations of students and general readers alike. Whether he was writing about British Romantic poets, Shakespeare, Kafka, or any of the other authors he championed, his enthusiasm was contagious, and always fundamentally engaged with literature’s ability to shape our sense of who we are.

Harold Bloom:
The American Canon: Literary
Genius from Emerson to Pynchon
Library of America has just published one of Bloom’s last books, The American Canon: Literary Genius from Emerson to Pynchon, a collection of his writings focusing on the American writers to whom he was most devoted. Assembled and edited by David Mikics in collaboration with Bloom, the book weaves five decades of writing—much of it hard to find and long unavailable—into a powerful portrait of American literary inspiration that reveals the surprising ways forty-seven seminal American writers have influenced one another across centuries. Present are all the figures who have long preoccupied Bloom—Emerson and Whitman, Hawthorne and Melville, and Dickinson, Faulkner, Crane, Frost, Stevens, and Bishop—along with Hemingway, James, O’Connor, Ellison, Hurston, Le Guin, Ashbery, and many others from the American pantheon of writers.

David Mikics is the Moores Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Houston. He is the editor of The Annotated Emerson and the author, most recently, of Bellow’s People (2016) and Slow Reading in a Hurried Age (2013). His reviews and articles have appeared in Tablet, The New Republic, and The New York Times. In email conversation with Library of America Editorial Director John Kulka, Mikics reflects on Bloom’s long career, and reveals some of the editorial thinking behind The American Canon.

Harold Bloom in his New York City apartment, c. 1994. (Ted Thai/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

John Kulka: I have been reading, in these days after Bloom’s death, as I guess you have too, the many assessments of his career. Among the better, more thoughtful pieces, in my opinion, were the James Wood essay in The New Yorker and Stanley Fish’s wonderfully unexpected piece in The Atlantic. The short pieces by Marco Roth and William Flesch in n + 1 I thought were insightful too. Ditto your piece in Tablet.

Maybe we can start there, with something you say in Tablet: “Bloom championed writers of all backgrounds and identities, but he refused to judge books on any other basis than their imaginative strength. That is a test that each reader makes for herself, and Harold was there to testify to his own devotion, nothing else.” I think we both can agree that Harold was a strong reader, especially of poetry, and possessed the ability to see and hear connections between writers that escape many of us. But was he offering his readers a “map of misreading”—or was it ultimately something much more personal than that?

David Mikics: I liked those tributes to Harold by Fish, Flesch, and Roth very much. They point out that reading was an enormously personal matter for Harold, that the only books he cared about were the ones that seized him and wouldn’t let go. Bloom believed the writers he pored over were doing the same thing he was doing, reading one another with sublime enjoyment and anxiety. As Roth put it, for Harold poems were like people, “full of contradictions and private dramas and unconscious desires and hauntings.”

Bloom’s own private dramas were large. His friendly candor and openness belied the fact that the writers he preferred were often imaginative, bloody-minded extremists. Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts were his favorite works of twentieth-century American fiction. These two books are brutally Oedipal, lurid at times, and relentless. Like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, another of Bloom’s touchstones, they are absolutely unadulterated by comfort of any kind. But Harold himself was gentle, self-mocking, and heartfelt, not at all tough or cynical.

I was never all that captivated by Harold’s effort in the ’70s to offer maps and schemas for reading, complete with a doctor’s bag of technical terms like clinamen and tessera. He was competing with Northrop Frye, and also Paul de Man, both great schematizers. Bloom’s genius lay elsewhere, in a more tangled, messily personal relation to books (as Roth says, “He leaked humanity”). In Harold’s best work, including the work I selected for The American Canon, you feel that he is speaking directly to you about his passions, and the great ideas are spilling out everywhere. There will be several major posthumous books by Bloom with the same intimate feeling, one of them coming out next year from Yale.

Kulka: Speaking of the Oedipal, I don’t believe that Harold ever really moved away from a Freudian understanding of people and literature—though he worked from a different lexicon in his later years. Harold was famously at work for years on a book on Freud that he abandoned. Did he ever speak to you about why he was never able to finish his book on Freud?

Mikics: I remember him saying several times that he had written many pages of the Freud book, but that these pages would never be published. He never stopped thinking about Freud, though, and in one of the books to be published next year, he breaks new ground and gives a stunning interpretation of Freud on the bodily ego.

I’ve often thought that in Bloom’s work Freud competes with Emerson as a wisdom writer, and it’s always fascinating to see which one will come out on top. Emerson celebrates imaginative possibility, whereas Freud’s tragic sensibility stresses our human limitations. Freud believes in the reality principle; Emerson, like the Romantic poets, urges us to defy mundane reality and reach for a higher creative power.

Kulka: David, in your introduction to The American Canon, you rightfully remind readers that Bloom as a younger man—one of the few Jews teaching in an Ivy League English department in those days—upended the Eliotic canon and changed the study of literature. Tell our readers a little bit about that.

Mikics: Eliot, by far the most influential figure for literature professors in the 1950s, was the gatekeeper of the poetic canon. The arch anti-Romantic Eliot despised Blake and Shelley, whom he considered sloppy writers and thinkers, along with Emerson and D. H. Lawrence. For Eliot, Romanticism meant trusting instinct rather than intellect. Bloom loved the Romantics, and he demonstrated that they were full of insight and precise thought. He won that battle: today the canonical American writers are the ones that Bloom championed, from Emerson to Elizabeth Bishop.

Some writers in Harold Bloom’s “American canon,” left to right: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Baldwin, and Elizabeth Bishop.

Kulka: The critic David Yaffe sees Bloom’s many essays on American writers, written over the space of five decades, as part of a coherent “American project.” Do you agree with that? Can you tell us something about what you were trying to accomplish in making your selections for The American Canon?

Mikics: Bloom wanted to show that Emersonian Romanticism makes up the mainstream of the American canon. A trust in imaginative self-renewal, inherited from Emerson, inspires writers as different as Whitman and Zora Neale Hurston. But Bloom knew there is a darker side to American self-reliance, best described by D. H. Lawrence when he said, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” A demonic recklessness runs like a live wire through American culture, and is reflected in Melville, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, and others. Harold brought into dialogue these two sides, light and dark, of American individualism.

When I chose the essays and excerpts for The American Canon I wanted to illustrate Harold’s sheer range, how good he was on Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers and Edward Albee, for example, not just his favorite writers like Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop. Many of these pieces are hard to find, and they deserve to be brought together into one book.

Kulka: I have my favorite chapters in The American Canon—Bloom is so good on Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, and the sublime poets who mattered most to him. The essay on Poe—“Emerson was the mind of America, for better and worse, but Poe was our hysteria, our nightmare,” I’m paraphrasing—is outrageous but great fun. But one of my personal favorites is the chapter on West. Bloom prefers A Cool Million to The Day of the Locust, which I’ve never understood, but his enthusiasm for A Cool Million is genuine and gave me a new appreciation of that novel. He loved to quote the novel’s wicked conclusion: “‘Hail, Lemuel Pitkin!’ ‘All hail, the American boy!’” I wonder if you have some similar favorite moment in the book that you can share with readers.

Mikics: One of my favorite passages is on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, when Harold compares Baldwin to Jeremiah. I realized when I read this that the way Baldwin intertwines curse and blessing can’t be understood without turning back to his Biblical precursor. Bloom says that he hears in both prophets, Baldwin and Jeremiah, “the terrible pathos of origins.” That pathos uncovers a dark side of the American dream, and stands against Emerson’s trust that we can make ourselves anew. Yet Baldwin too has his hopes for America, and it’s this ambivalence that helps make him our greatest essayist after Emerson. Bloom shows how, for Baldwin, the racial trauma at the core of American life intersects with Biblical anxiety of influence. Here as elsewhere, Harold was multifaceted about the meaning of America, its promise as well as its burden.

Kulka: That seems like the right place to conclude, David. Thanks so much for your time.

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