The Wonder-Wounded Harold Bloom

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Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter, 1926

At eighty-five, Harold Bloom is among the foremost literary critics at work today; he is also, surely, one of the strangest. He has seemed at times an impassioned guardian of the acknowledged masterpieces of The Western Canon (the title of his book of 1994), reaffirming the preeminence of Dante or Shakespeare (whom he credits, in his hyperbolic way, with “the invention of the human”) against what he dismissively calls the School of Resentment, critics who, in his view, adopt a coercive political agenda (“Stalinism without Stalin”) for judging literary works, combing through books for evidence of racism, gender bias, and other social evils. “Literature is not an instrument of social change or an instrument of social reform,” he has said. “It is more a mode of human sensations and impressions, which do not reduce very well to societal rules or forms.”

Bloom traces his own unembarrassed zest for reading works of creative genius to the life-changing experience, as an awkward Yiddish-speaking boy growing up in the East Bronx, of reading for the first time the poetry of William Blake and Hart Crane. This ecstatic experience, he writes in his latest book, The Daemon Knows, which is devoted to a dozen major figures in American literature from Emerson to Faulkner, “transformed a changeling child into an exegetical enthusiast adept at appreciation.”

In addition to his works on canonical writers, however, Bloom has published idiosyncratic books on what he calls, with kindred enthusiasm, “the American religion,” a loose set of religious practices based on reports of direct experience of the divine, and bearing little relation, in Bloom’s view, to received European traditions. “Brooding upon the highly original stances of Emerson, Whitman, Melville, and Dickinson had been my starting point,” he writes in The Daemon Knows, “but my wonder-wandering among rather less articulate American Religionists changed my way of thinking about the United States.” In The American Religion (1992), he singled out for praise the imaginative genius of Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter Day Saints.

A related book, Omens of Millennium (1996), is a sympathetic response to such widespread American obsessions as guardian angels, prophetic dreams, and near-death experiences. Bloom’s aim is not to discount reports of such things but rather to hold them to a higher, Arnoldian imaginative standard, “to measure our current encounters with these phenomena against the best that has been known and written about them in the past.” Aligning his passion for religious experience with his enthusiasm for poetry, Bloom suggests that “we had better credit any angelic sightings now and hereafter only when they are reported by prophets, seers, and revelators, or by great poets.”

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Bloom first came to prominence in 1973, with the publication of what probably remains—among some forty books and hundreds of prefaces he has contributed to the Chelsea House…



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