Harold Bloom (born July 11, 1930) is an American writer and literary critic, currently Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University. He is known for his defense of 19th-century Romantic poets, his construction of unique but controversial theories of poetic influence, and for advocating an aesthetic approach to literature against feminist, Marxist, New Historicist, poststructuralist (deconstructive and semiotic) literary criticism. Bloom is a 1985 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.
Bloom credits Northrop Frye as his nearest precursor. He told Imre Salusinszky in 1986: "In terms of my own theorizations... the precursor proper has to be Northrop Frye. I purchased and read Fearful Symmetry a week or two after it had come out and reached the bookstore in Ithaca, New York. It ravished my heart away. I have tried to find an alternative father in Mr. Kenneth Burke, who is a charming fellow and a very powerful critic, but I don't come from Burke, I come out of Frye." However, he also admits an indebtedness, especially in his later period, to earlier critics such as William Hazlitt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walter Pater, A.C. Bradley, and Samuel Johnson, whom he acknowledges as "unmatched by any critic in any nation before or after him".
Bloom began his career by defending the reputations of the High Romantic poets of the early nineteenth century against neo-Christian critics influenced by such writers as T. S. Eliot, who became a recurring intellectual foil. He had a contentious approach: his first book, Shelley's Myth-making, charged many contemporary critics with sheer carelessness in their reading of Shelley. After a personal crisis in the late sixties, Bloom became deeply interested in Emerson, Sigmund Freud, and the ancient mystic traditions of Gnosticism, Kabbalah, and Hermeticism. He would later come to describe himself to interviewer D. Leybman in the Paris Review as a "Jewish gnostic," explaining "I am using Gnostic in a very broad way. I am nothing if not Jewish... I really am a product of Yiddish culture. But I can't understand a Yahweh, or a God, who could be all-powerful and all knowing and would allow the Nazi death camps and schizophrenia." Influenced by his reading, he began a series of books that focused on the way in which poets struggled to create their own individual poetic visions without being overcome by the influence of the previous poets who inspired them to write. The first of these books, Yeats, a magisterial examination of the poet, challenged the conventional critical view of his poetic career. In the introduction to this volume, Bloom set out the basic principles of his new approach to criticism: "Poetic influence, as I conceive it, is a variety of melancholy or the [Freudian] anxiety-principle." A new poet becomes inspired to write because he has read and admired the poetry of previous poets; but this admiration turns into resentment when the new poet discovers that these poets whom he idolized have already said everything he wishes to say. The poet becomes disappointed because he "cannot be Adam early in the morning. There have been too many Adams, and they have named everything."
In order to evade this psychological obstacle, the new poet must convince himself that previous poets have gone wrong somewhere and failed in their vision, thus leaving open the possibility that he may have something to add to the tradition after all. The new poet's love for his heroes turns into antagonism towards them: "Initial love for the precursor's poetry is transformed rapidly enough into revisionary strife, without which individuation is not possible." The book that followed Yeats, The Anxiety of Influence, which Bloom had started writing in 1967, drew upon the example of Walter Jackson Bate's The Burden of the Past and The English Poet and recast Bate's historicized account of the despair felt by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poets about their ability to match the achievements of their predecessors in systematic psychoanalytic form. Bloom attempted to trace the psychological process by which a poet broke free from his precursors to achieve his own poetic vision. He drew a sharp distinction between "strong poets" who perform "strong misreadings" of their precursors, and "weak poets" who simply repeat the ideas of their precursors as though following a kind of doctrine. He described this process in terms of a sequence of "revisionary ratios," through which each strong poet passes in the course of his career. A Map of Misreading picked up where The Anxiety of Influence left off, making several adjustments to Bloom's system of revisionary ratios. Kabbalah and Criticism attempted to invoke the esoteric interpretive system of the Lurianic Kabbalah, as explicated by scholar Gershom Scholem, as an alternate system of mapping the path of poetic influence. Figures of Capable Imagination collected odd pieces Bloom had written in the process of composing his 'influence' books. He capped off this period of intense creativity with another monograph, a full-length study of Wallace Stevens, with whom he identified more than any other poet at this stage of his career, as he told an interviewer in the early 1980s.
Bloom's fascination with the fantasy novel A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay led him to take a brief break from criticism in order to compose a sequel to Lindsay's novel. This novel, The Flight to Lucifer, remains Bloom's only work of fiction. Though reviews were very positive, he soon disowned this book. As he himself admitted, the author's self-conscious theoretical interest in the nature of fantasy literature weighed it down too heavily. He has said that he would remove every copy of the book from every library if he could.
Bloom continued to write about influence theory throughout the seventies and eighties, and he has written little since that does not invoke his ideas about influence. Acknowledging that his early output often tends toward the abstruse, he has turned to more accessible criticism aimed at a general readership in his later work, beginning with The Book of J (for which he wrote the introduction and commentary) in 1990. In The Book of J, he and David Rosenberg (who translated the Biblical texts) portrayed one of the posited ancient documents that formed the basis of the first five books of the bible (see documentary hypothesis) as the work of a great literary artist who had no intention of composing a dogmatically religious work. They further envisaged this anonymous writer as a woman attached to the court of the successors of the Israelite kings David and Solomon—a piece of speculation which drew much attention. Later, Bloom said that the speculations didn't go far enough, and perhaps he should have identified J with the biblical Bathsheba.
In The American Religion, Bloom surveyed the major varieties of Protestant and post-Protestant religious faiths that originated in the United States and argued that, in terms of their psychological hold on their adherents, most shared more in common with gnosticism than with historical Christianity. The exception was the Jehovah's Witnesses, which Bloom regards as non-Gnostic. He has elsewhere predicted that the Mormon and Pentecostal strains of American Christianity will overtake mainstream Protestant divisions in popularity in the next few decades. In Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine (2004), he revisits some of the territory he covered in The Book of J in discussing the significance of Yahweh and Jesus of Nazareth as literary characters, while casting a critical eye on historical approaches and asserting the fundamental incompatibility of Christianity and Judaism.
From 1988 to 2004, Bloom served as Berg Professor of English at New York University while maintaining his Sterling Professorship at Yale and continuing to teach there.
In 1994, Bloom published The Western Canon, a survey of major literary works of post-Roman Europe, focusing on twenty-six works he considered sublime and representative (of their nations and of the Western canon). Besides analyses of the canon's various representative works, the major concern of the volume is reclaiming literature from those he refers to as the "School of resentment", the mostly academic critics who espouse a social purpose in reading. Bloom believes that the goals of reading must be solitary aesthetic pleasure and self-insight rather than the "forces of resentments'" goal of improvement of one's society, which he casts as an absurd aim, writing: "The idea that you benefit the insulted and injured by reading someone of their own origins rather than reading Shakespeare is one of the oddest illusions ever promoted by or in our schools." His position is that politics have no place in literary criticism: a feminist or Marxist reading of Hamlet would tell us something about feminism and Marxism but probably nothing about Hamlet itself.
In addition to the amount of influence one writer has had on later writers, Bloom introduces the concept of "canonical strangeness" as a benchmark of a literary work's merit. The Western Canon also included a list—which aroused more widespread interest than anything else in the volume—of all the Western works from antiquity to the present that Bloom considered either permanent members of the canon of literary classics, or (among more recent works) candidates for that status. Bloom has said that the list was made off the top of his head at his editor's request, and that he does not stand by it. The notoriety surrounding The Western Canon turned Bloom into something of a celebrity.
Work on Shakespeare
Bloom has a deep appreciation for Shakespeare and considers him to be the supreme center of the Western Canon. The first edition of The Anxiety of Influence almost completely avoided Shakespeare, whom Bloom considered, at the time, barely touched by the psychological drama of anxiety. The second edition, published in 1997, adds a long preface that mostly expounds on Shakespeare's agon with his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, who set the stage for him by breaking free of ecclesiastical and moralizing overtones, as well as his other influences, Ovid and Chaucer.
In his 1998 survey, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom provides an analysis of each of Shakespeare's thirty-eight plays, "twenty-four of which are masterpieces." Written as a companion to the general reader and theatergoer, Bloom declares that bardolatry "ought to be even more a secular religion than it already is." He also contends in the work (as in the title) that Shakespeare "invented" humanity, in that he prescribed the now-common practice "overhearing" ourselves, which drives our changes. The two paragons of his theory are Sir John Falstaff of Henry IV and Hamlet, whom Bloom sees as representing, in the first case, our satisfaction with ourselves and in the second, our dissatisfaction therewith. Throughout Shakespeare, characters from disparate plays are imagined alongside and interacting with each other; this has been decried by numerous contemporary academics and critics as hearkening back to the out of fashion character criticism of A.C. Bradley and others, who happen to gather explicit praise in the book. As in The Western Canon, Bloom cheerfully attacks what he calls the "School of Resentment" for its failure to live up to the challenge of Shakespeare's universality and instead balkanizing the study of literature through various multicultural and historicist departments. Asserting Shakespeare's singular popularity throughout the world, Bloom proclaims him as the only multicultural author, and rather than the "social energies" historicists ascribe Shakespeare's authorship to, Bloom pronounces his modern academic foes—and indeed, all of society—to be "a parody of Shakespearian energies."
Bloom's theory of poetic influence regards the development of Western literature as a process of borrowing and misreading. Writers find their creative inspiration in previous writers and begin by imitating those writers; in order to develop a poetic voice of their own, however, they must make their own work different from that of their precursors. As a result, Bloom argues, authors of real power must inevitably 'misread' their precursors' works in order to make room for fresh imaginings.
Observers often identified Bloom with deconstruction in the past, but he himself never admitted to sharing more than a few ideas with the deconstructionists. He told Robert Moynihan in 1983, "What I think I have in common with the school of deconstruction is the mode of negative thinking or negative awareness, in the technical, philosophical sense of the negative, but which comes to me through negative theology.... There is no escape, there is simply the given, and there is nothing that we can do."
Bloom's association with the Western canon has provoked a substantial interest in his opinion concerning the relative importance of contemporary writers. In the late 1980s, Bloom told an interviewer: "Probably the most powerful living Western writer is Samuel Beckett. He's certainly the most authentic." Beckett died in 1989, and Bloom has not indicated who he believes occupies that position now.
Concerning British writers: "Geoffrey Hill is the strongest British poet now active", and "no other contemporary British novelist seems to me to be of Iris Murdoch's eminence". Since Murdoch's death, Bloom has expressed admiration for novelists such as Peter Ackroyd, Will Self and A. S. Byatt. In his 2003 book, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, he named Portuguese writer José Saramago as "the most gifted novelist alive in the world today", and as "one of the last titans of an expiring literary genre". Of American novelists, he declared in 2003 that "there are four living American novelists I know of who are still at work and who deserve our praise". He claimed that "they write the Style of our Age, each has composed canonical works," and he identified them as Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo. He named their strongest works as, respectively, Gravity's Rainbow and Mason & Dixon, American Pastoral and Sabbath's Theater, Blood Meridian and Underworld. He has also praised fantasy writer John Crowley as these writers' equal—and especially his novel Little, Big.
In Kabbalah and Criticism (1975), Bloom identified Robert Penn Warren, James Merrill, John Ashbery, and Elizabeth Bishop as the most important living American poets. By the 1990s, he regularly named A.R. Ammons along with Ashbery and Merrill, and he has lately come to identify Henri Cole as the crucial American poet of the generation following those three. He has expressed great admiration for the Canadian poet Anne Carson, particularly her verse novel Autobiography of Red. Bloom also lists Jay Wright as one of only a handful of major living poets.
Bloom's introduction to Modern Critical Interpretations: Thomas Pynchon (1987) features his canon of the "twentieth-century American Sublime", the greatest works of American art produced in the 20th century. Bloom's critical work has often become associated with that of his protégée at Yale in the 1970s, Camille Paglia. The playwright Tony Kushner sees Bloom as an important influence on his work, and indeed his play Angels in America is the last work listed in the appendices of The Western Canon.
In the early 21st century, Bloom has often found himself at the center of literary controversy, leveling attacks at popular writers such as Adrienne Rich, Maya Angelou, Stephen King, and J. K. Rowling. In the pages of the Paris Review, he criticized the populist-leaning poetry slam, saying, "It is the death of art." When Doris Lessing was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, he bemoaned the "pure political correctness" of this award to an author of "fourth-rate science fiction"
In a February 2004 article in New York Magazine, "The Silent Treatment," Naomi Wolf accused Bloom, her former professor, of having "sexually encroached" on her when she was a Yale undergraduate, by touching her thigh. Although she acknowledged that what she alleged Bloom to have done was not harassment, either legally or emotionally, she claimed to have harbored this secret for 21 years. Bloom denied the accusations.
- Shelley's Mythmaking. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959.
- The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1961. Rev. and enlarged ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1971.
- Blake's Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument. Anchor Books: New York: Doubleday and Co., 1963.
- Yeats. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. ISBN 0-19-501603-3
- The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973; 2d ed., 1997. ISBN 0-19-511221-0
- A Map of Misreading. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
- Kabbalah and Criticism. New York : Seabury Press, 1975. ISBN 0-8264-0242-9
- The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.
- Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.
- Figures of Capable Imagination. New York: Seabury Press, 1976.
- Wallace Stevens: The Poems of our Climate. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1977.
- Deconstruction and Criticism. New York: Seabury Press, 1980.
- The Flight to Lucifer: Gnostic Fantasy. New York: Vintage Books, 1980. ISBN 0-394-74323-7
- Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism. New York : Oxford University Press, 1982.
- The Breaking of the Vessels. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.
- Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.
- The Book of J: Translated from the Hebrew by David Rosenberg; Interpreted by Harold Bloom. New York: Grove Press, 1990 ISBN 0-8021-4191-9
- The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation; Touchstone Books; ISBN 0-671-86737-7 (1992; August 1993)
- The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1994.
- Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
- Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: 1998. ISBN 1-57322-751-X
- How to Read and Why. New York: 2000. ISBN 0-684-85906-8
- Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages. New York: 2001.
- El futur de la imaginació (The Future of the Imagination). Barcelona: Anagrama / Empúries, 2002. ISBN 84-7596-927-5
- Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds. New York: 2003. ISBN 0-446-52717-3
- Hamlet: Poem Unlimited. New York: 2003.
- The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost. New York: 2004. ISBN 0-06-054041-9
- Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? New York: 2004. ISBN 1-57322-284-4
- Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine 2005. ISBN 1-57322-322-0
- American Religious Poems: An Anthology By Harold Bloom 2006. ISBN 1-931082-74-X
- Living Labyrinth: Literature and Influence 2010.
- On Extended Wings; Wallace Stevens' Longer Poems. By Helen Hennessy Vendler, (review), New York Times, October 5, 1969.
- Poets' meeting in the heyday of their youth; A Single Summer With Lord Byron, New York Times, February 15, 1970.
- An angel's spirit in a decaying (and active) body, New York Times, November 22, 1970.
- The Use of Poetry, New York Times, November 12, 1975.
- Northrop Frye exalting the designs of romance; The Secular Scripture, New York Times, April 18, 1976.
- On Solitude in America, New York Times, August 4, 1977.
- The Critic/Poet, New York Times, February 5, 1978.
- A Fusion of Traditions; Rosenberg, New York Times, July 22, 1979.
- Straight Forth Out of Self, New York Times, June 22, 1980.
- The Heavy Burden of the Past; Poets, New York Times, January 4, 1981.
- The Pictures of the Poet; The Painting and Drawings of William Blake, By Martin Butlin. Vol. I, Text. Vol. II, Plates, (Review) New York Times, January 3, 1982.
- A Novelist's Bible; The Story of the Stories, The Chosen People and Its God. By Dan Jacobson, (Review) New York Times, October 17, 1982.
- Isaac Bashevis Singer's Jeremiad; The Penitent, By Isaac Bashevis Singer, (Review) New York Times, September 25, 1983.
- Domestic Derangements; A Late Divorce, By A. B. Yehoshua Translated by Hillel Halkin, (Review) New York Times, February 19, 1984.
- War Within the Walls; In the Freud Archives, By Janet Malcolm, (Review) New York Times, May 27, 1984.
- His Long Ordeal by Laughter; Zuckerman Bound, A Trilogy and Epilogue. By Philip Roth, (Review) New York Times, May 19, 1985.
- A Comedy of Worldly Salvation; The Good Apprentice, By Iris Murdoch, (Review) New York Times, January 12, 1986.
- Freud, the Greatest Modern Writer (Review) New York Times, March 23, 1986.
- Passionate Beholder of America in Trouble; Look Homeward, A Life of Thomas Wolfe. By David Herbert Donald, (Review) New York Times, February 8, 1987.
- The Book of the Father; The Messiah of Stockholm, By Cynthia Ozick, (Review) New York Times, March 22, 1987.
- Still Haunted by Covenant; The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse, Edited by Irving Howe, Ruth R. Wisse and Khone Shmeruk; American Yiddish Poetry, A Bilingual Anthology. Edited by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav; Selected Poems of Yankev Glatshteyn, Edited and translated by Richard J. Fein, (Reviews) New York Times, January 31, 1988.
- New Heyday of Gnostic Heresies, New York Times, April 26, 1992.
- A Jew Among the Cossacks; The first English translation of Isaac Babel's journal about his service with the Russian cavalry. 1920 Diary, By Isaac Babel, (Review) New York Times, June 4, 1995.
- Kaddish; By Leon Wieseltier, (Review) New York Times, October 4, 1998.
- View; On First Looking Into Gates's Crichton, New York Times, June 4, 2000.
- What Ho, Malvolio!'; The election, as Shakespeare might have seen it, New York Times, December 6, 2000.
- Macbush, (play) Vanity Fair, April, 2004.
- "The Lost Jewish Culture" The New York Review of Books 54/11 (28 June 2007) : 44-47 [reviews The Dreams of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, translated, edited, and with an introduction by Peter Cole]
- "The Glories of Yiddish" The New York Review of Books 55/17 (6 November 2008) [reviews History of the Yiddish Language, by Max Weinreich, edited by Paul Glasser, translated from the Yiddish by Shlomo Noble with the assistance of Joshua A. Fishman]
- "Yahweh Meets R. Crumb", The New York Review of Books, 56/19 (3 December 2009) [reviews The Book of Genesis, illustrated by R. Crumb]