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The Full Harold Bloom

The Yale professor and literary critic extraordinaire is known for his fearlessness in voicing his opinions.

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A view of Harold Bloom's book collection.

Photo By Thomas Iannaccone

Harold Bloom

Photo By Thomas Iannaccone

Among current novelists, he notes Cormac McCarthy wrote one great book, “Blood Meridian,” but goes on to say, “nothing before or since then is even roughly comparable to it.” He praises his friend Philip Roth, who “wrote two astonishing books, ‘American Pastoral’ and ‘Sabbath’s Theater,’ and some of the others, like the Zuckerman saga, are good, too, but his recent work, his four short novels, make me very sad, are a tremendous falling-away on his part. Don DeLillo, who’s one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever known, wrote one really powerful book in ‘Underworld,’ but doesn’t seem capable of matching it. And then there is the best living American novelist, if he is a novelist, after all, Thomas Pynchon, the author of one great short novel, ‘The Crying of Lot 49,’ the marvellous ‘Gravity’s Rainbow,’ which is more remarkable as a series of interspersed stories like Byron the Lightbulb than it as a whole, and ‘Mason & Dixon,’ which I was very moved by. But his work subsequent to that has not been very good. And nobody has come along to replace those four [men].”

Bloom continues, “In drama, we have Tony Kushner. Tony has yet to show that he can match ‘Perestroika,’ though I have hopes that he will. A very sweet man he is, and a very talented one. The other dramatists in this country, Edward Albee and David Mamet — very different fellows — neither of them is currently producing anything of great interest.”

Asked about novelist David Foster Wallace, who took his own life in 2008, but who has a new book out, “The Pale King: An Unfinished Novel,” put together from manuscript chapters and files found in his computer, Bloom says, “You know, I don’t want to be offensive. But ‘Infinite Jest’ [regarded by many as Wallace’s masterpiece] is just awful. It seems ridiculous to have to say it. He can’t think, he can’t write. There’s no discernible talent.”

It’s all a clear indication, Bloom notes, of the decline of literary standards. He was upset in 2003 when the National Book Award gave a special award to Stephen King. “But Stephen King is Cervantes compared with David Foster Wallace. We have no standards left. [Wallace] seems to have been a very sincere and troubled person, but that doesn’t mean I have to endure reading him. I even resented the use of the term from Shakespeare, when Hamlet calls the king’s jester Yorick, ‘a fellow of infinite jest.’

“It’s sort of a dark time. Imaginative energy I think is very difficult to summon up when there are so many distractions. There’s a kind of Grisham’s law [in literature]; the bad drives out the good.”

Nevertheless, Bloom has another new book, “The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible,” due out in September to coincide with the 400th anniversary of that edition. He also has begun work on his next, “Evening of the Imagined Land: Achievements in American Literature.”

Bloom has had a series of health crises in recent years, which means that, “although I constantly get invitations to talk at the North Pole,” his ability to travel is limited at the moment. He and Jeanne do, however, go by limo approximately every third weekend to New York, where they have a loft in Greenwich Village. He says his current priorities are to “spend time with my wife, to teach and to write.” He teaches undergraduates exclusively; they have been selected from a large group of applicants to his two courses, limited to 12 each, one on Shakespeare and one on poetry. He chooses them by having them write three or four pages in an hour about why they want to take the class — “not about me.”

He has not taught graduate students for years. When he’s asked why, Bloom dilates on the academic battles he has had: “I had to fight my way through in the Yale English department. I started teaching here full-time in 1955. But with the exception of two remarkable men, my thesis advisor, Frederick Pottle, and the dean of Yale College, William Clyde DeVane, I couldn’t get along with people in the department. They all believed that T.S. Eliot was Christ’s vicar on earth. Every time you wrote something or said something you were supposed to genuflect to the sacred Eliot. Now the sacred Eliot, in his own hallucinatory way, is not the world’s worst poet. But he’s an awful literary critic and one of the most vicious anti-Semites of all time. So I had quarreled incessantly with the Yale English department, and I finally couldn’t bear it any more.

“I’m tired of being accused of being an elitist, which simply means that one wants people to read what’s worth reading and write in a proper response to it,” he adds. “I thought that the function of a critic was to read accurately and plainly to propound what one had apprehended. I wasn’t aware that there was going to be this cultural inundation.” He was accused of being racist or sexist because he didn’t believe that a poem had merit “simply because it was written by an African-American, a Hispanic or an Eskimo transvestite.”

In 1977, Bloom went to the then-acting president of Yale, Hanna Gray, who later became the president of the University of Chicago, and told her that if he wasn’t named a professor of “things in general,” he would leave the university. She went to the Yale Corporation, and it was done. In 1983, he was named a Sterling Professor of the Humanities, and in 1985, he won a MacArthur Fellowship. After a time, Bloom noticed that, since he had “taken a ferocious stand against political correctness in the academy,” his recommendations for graduate students ended up being “the kiss of death,” and he stopped teaching them.

It is difficult to understand why someone like Bloom, who is so devoted to literature, so funny and just plain interesting, would be greatly disliked. But his opinions tend to evoke strong passions. He also has very vivid views on politics. For one thing, he is quite disappointed with President Barack Obama. “We had high hopes for Obama,” he says. “I’m afraid he turns out to be a Chicago pol. He doesn’t have much fight in him.”

“It all started with that absolute dreadful creature Ronald Reagan,” he continues. “It was Reagan who came along and persuaded the whole nation that it was all right to be selfish, that it was an American virtue to be selfish. And all of these Tea Party-ites wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for Reagan as their trailblazer. Incredible, the cigar-store Indian George W. Bush…the worst president in American history. The more-than-outrageous, the insufferable Donald Trump in today’s newspaper describes Obama as the worst president in American history. I’ll tell you what’s scary. Just one step beyond, and it will be early Nazi Germany. If the Tea Party, which already has a huge majority in the House, should also capture the Senate, you might start seeing sanctioned violence.” He also decries that group’s “racism, endless racism,” noting members of it have depicted the President of the United States as a chimpanzee.

Bloom says, “There’s a wonderful poem by William Butler Yeats, “A statesman is an easy man, he tells his lies by rote./ A journalist invents his lies, and rams them down your throat./ So stay at home and drink your beer and let the neighbors vote.”

It’s all a far cry from where it began for Bloom, the son of a garment worker in the Bronx who got a scholarship to Cornell and received his Ph.D. from Yale. One of Bloom’s early favorites was the poet Hart Crane, of whom he says, “In terms of sheer gift, sheer endowment, I’m not sure that any poet in Europe or America is his equal.”

“I still remember how it happened,” he says of discovering the writer. “I’d seen a few poems in anthologies, but on my 10th birthday, I was taken to the Melrose branch of the Bronx Public Library by my three splendid older sisters. I fell in love with the collected poems of Hart Crane, and I kept taking it out; you could take it out for two weeks, then you had to take it back and wait for a day to check it out again. For my 12th birthday, at my request, my oldest sister gave me a copy of Hart Crane, which is the first book I ever owned and which is still upstairs.”

 

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