The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life
by Harold Bloom
Yale University Press, 357 pp., $32.50
In a recent lecture, Harold Bloom declared to a group of freshmen that he and Lear were the same age. Lear is indeed eighty years “and upward,” and when one pictures Bloom lecturing on King Lear to undergraduates it is hard not to think of the last lines of that play, pronounced by Edgar:
The weight of this sad time we must obey,
Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.
The oldest hath borne most; we that are young
Shall never see so much, nor live so long.
Most who are young today will never read or write as much as Bloom has over the years. As for Edgar’s injunction to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say,” Bloom has heeded it for some time now. When the academic study of literature succumbed to what Bloom calls the “storm of ideology” in the 1980s and 1990s, he unleashed his wrath upon the School of Resentment, defending the independence of imaginative literature and decrying its reduction to the status of social documentation. The Western Canon (1994) in particular was an aggressive counterassault on some of the ideological froth that was passing for literary criticism in American universities, as well as a defensive reaction against the notion that the “literary” could arise anywhere outside of Bloom’s narrowly circumscribed circle of inclusions.
Bloom calls The Anatomy of Influence “my final reflection upon the influence process,” and it is a follow-up to his 1973 classic The Anxiety of Influence, which argued that writers had to be understood in connection with the preceding writers whose influence they had absorbed and had in various ways to reject. Gentler in tone than The Western Canon, the new book exerts a degree of restraint on the bombast and braggadocio that Bloom has inflicted on readers in the past. In my view, he would have done better to call it “Literary Love”—the title of the first chapter—for the book reaffirms his enduring passion for some of his favorite poets: Shakespeare, Shelley, Yeats, Whitman, Stevens, and Crane foremost among them. Lucretius, Longinus, Samuel Johnson, Robert Burton, and Walter Pater are among the many critics and thinkers who receive reverential homage. The book also contains moving tributes to friends and mentors, both dead and alive. In the same sentence he speaks of “my late friend Anthony Burgess and a living friend, Angus Fletcher, who is my critical guide and conscience.” One cannot ask for more worthy friends than that; or the late William Elton, author of King Lear and the Gods, which Bloom singles out on at least three occasions.
Bloom’s epigraph quotes Tolstoy on the need for critics who would “guide readers in that endless labyrinth of linkages that makes up the stuff of art, and bring them to the laws that serve as the foundation for those linkages.” Bloom fulfills the first mandate, guiding us through a labyrinth of literary …