Harold Bloom’s most recent books are The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life and The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible. He teaches at Yale and is at work on a play, To You Whoever You are: A Pageant Celebrating Walt Whitman.
 (February 2012)

The Grand Comedian Visits the Bible

José Saramago (1922–2010), a superb comic novelist, at his best was the peer of Italo Calvino and Gabriel García Márquez. Cain, his last fiction, is a minor work, mostly valuable for its links to such permanent achievements as The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (1986), The History of …

My Favorite Book in the Bible

From Historiae celebriores Veteris Testamenti Iconibus representatae by Caspar Luiken, 1712

It may seem frivolous to speak of a favorite book in the Bible but mine is Jonah, by far. A sly masterpiece of four brief chapters, Jonah reverberates in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick,, where it is the text for Father Mapple’s grand sermon. Tucked away in the Book of the Twelve, with such fierce prophets as Amos and Micah, Jonah is out of place. It should be with the Writings—Song of Songs, Job, Koheleth—because it too is a literary sublimity, almost the archetypal parable masking as short story.

Revisiting Isaac Bashevis Singer

Der Kuntsenmakher fun Lublin perhaps should have been entitled The Trickster of Lublin when it was first published in English a half-century ago. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s second novel established his American audience, which grew until his death at eighty-seven in 1991. Rereading it now in Yiddish and in English (the …

Bashevis Revisited

Jews in Lublin, 1934

Der Kuntsenmakher fun Lublin perhaps should have been entitled The Trickster of Lublin when first it was published in English a half-century ago. Isaac Bashevis Singer’s second novel established his American audience, which grew until his death at eighty-seven in 1991. Rereading it now in Yiddish and in English (the novel has just been reissued in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of its publication) has been a mixed experience. The book set the formula for all his narratives long or short. They are prurient sagas of the flesh and of repentance, marked by the ambivalences of a vegetarian satyr.

Yahweh Meets R. Crumb

The opening panel of R.Crumb’s The Book of Genesis
Illustrating the Hebrew Bible has been a grand quest for painters, with Michelangelo and Tintoretto perhaps dividing the palm. A cartoon or comic book reduction of Genesis ideally should be the work of an unlikely fusion of Rembrandt and William Blake. That is not a fair criterion to invoke when …

Pilgrim to Eros

The ultimate contrast in English poetry is between Byron and Shakespeare. Of Byron the passional man, we know nearly everything, while of Shakespeare’s inwardness we know nothing. Shelley, a superb literary critic, considered Byron’s Don Juan to be the great poem of the age, surpassing even Goethe and Wordsworth. Once …

The Glories of Yiddish

Max Weinreich (1894–1969) was born in the Courland region of Latvia, then Russian, into a family of German-speaking Jews, and learned Yiddish only in his teens. His doctorate in linguistics at Marburg University (he wrote on the history of Yiddish dialects) was awarded in 1923, the year he published, in …

Who Will Praise the Lord?

Biblical style in English carries on it the palpable impress of the Protestant martyr William Tyndale (1494–1536). Strangled and then burned, with the approval of Henry VIII, for publishing an English version of the New Testament despite the opposition of the Church, Tyndale did not have time to complete his …

The Lost Jewish Culture

I count at least seven great Jewish Diasporas: Babylon-Persia; Hellenistic Alexandria; Muslim and Christian Spain, including Provence-Catalonia; Renaissance Italy; Eastern Europe– Russia; Austria-Hungary together with Germany; the United States. Peter Cole’s The Dream of the Poem devotes itself to the crown of Jewry’s literary achievement in Muslim and Christian Spain: …

Operation Roth

When requested to choose an exemplary passage from his work for a New York Public Library Commonplace Book, Philip Roth came up with this, from Zuckerman Unbound (1981): Zuckerman was tall, but not as tall as Wilt Chamberlain. He was thin, but not as thin as Mahatma Gandhi. In his …

Literature as the Bible

What happens when we attempt to read the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament in some of the same ways that we read Homer or Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Proust? Is such an attempt legitimate? Should we say that the distinction between sacred and secular literature is wholly social and political, …

On the Heights

“Even taken in its derivative meaning of outline, what is form but the limit of that difference by which we discriminate one object from another?—a limit determined partly by the intrinsic relations or composition of the object, & partly by the extrinsic action of other bodies upon it. This is …

The Flight of the Hawk

Robert Penn Warren, born April 24, 1905, in Guthrie, Kentucky, is at the age of eighty our most eminent man of letters. His position is the more remarkable for the extraordinary persistence with which he has made himself into a superb poet. A reader thinks of the handful of poets …

Mr. America

Emerson is a critic and essayist who based his work on observation of himself and of American experience. He is not a transcendental philosopher. This obvious truth always needs restating, perhaps more now than ever, when literary criticism is over-influenced by contemporary French heirs of the German tradition of idealist …

Inescapable Poe

Valéry, in a letter to Gide, asserted that: “Poe is the only impeccable writer. He was never mistaken.” If this judgment startles an American reader, it is less remarkable than Baudelaire’s habit of making his morning prayers to God and to Edgar Poe. If we add the devotion of Mallarmé …

The Central Man

Walt Whitman elegized Lincoln as “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands.” “The actual Lincoln was cold and deliberate, reflective and brilliant,” according to Gore Vidal’s brief meditation on the martyr president in The Second American Revolution and Other Essays: 1976–1982. That somber “Note” by Vidal gave …

The Real Me

As poet and as person, Walt Whitman remains large and evasive. We cannot know, even now, much that he desired us not to know, despite the best efforts of many devoted and scholarly biographers. The relation between the life and the poetry is far more uncertain than most of his …

Apocalypse Then

The Jews returned from Babylon in the year 539 before the Common Era, or rather they began to do so then, since many remained in Babylon, and those who came back to Jerusalem and Judea did not arrive all at once. But they flourished, their numbers grew, and they were …

Sumerian Feminism

Most of this book consists of a version of, and commentaries on, the ancient Sumerian poem that describes the descent into hell of the fertility goddess, Inanna. On the day I read this new version, my local newspaper (The New Haven Register, July 27) carried an Associated Press dispatch out …

Norman in Egypt

“Crude thoughts and fierce forces are my state.” With this artful sentence, Norman Mailer begins his Book of the Dead. Our most conspicuous literary energy has generated its weirdest text, a book that defies usual aesthetic standards, even as it is beyond any conventional idea of good and evil. Like …

Memory and Its Discontents

Leo Strauss, political philosopher and Hebraic sage, in 1962 wrote a long preface for the English translation of his Spinoza’s Critique of Religion.[^1] Brooding on his book’s genesis, some thirty-five years after its composition, Strauss was moved to write his own intellectual elegy for German Jewry. In some sense, the …

From Moses to Gilboa

This admirable anthology has no rivals in English or in Hebrew. The editor and translator, though born in New York City, spoke Hebrew as a child, fought for Israel as a young man, and has written distinguished poetry in Hebrew (which he modestly omits from this collection). His labors have …

Driving Out Demons

Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny” (1919) can be said to have defined, for our century, what criticism once called the Sublime. An apprehension of a beyond or of the daemonic—a sense of transcendence—appears in literature or life, according to Freud, when we feel that something uncanny (unheimlich) is being represented, …