Benfey_2-100815.jpg
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.”

1.

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 digests of literary criticism—his best-known work, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Reportedly written in a few days during the summer of 1967, after Bloom’s recovery from a severe midlife crisis, this difficult book takes up the seemingly old-fashioned question of literary influence, the domain, until Bloom, of source hunters and antiquarians, as satirized by Robert Frost:

To entertain the critic pack
The poet has to leave a track
Of torn up scraps of prior poets.

Bloom dismisses the superficial fixation on “the transmission of ideas and images from earlier to later poets,” seeking to explore instead the deeper competition (or “agon”), reminiscent of the struggle between sons and fathers as analyzed by Freud, between living writers and the intimidating literary achievements of the past.

“One aim of this theory is corrective,” Bloom wrote, “to de-idealize our accepted accounts of how one poet helps to form another.” He rejected a reassuringly fraternal view of influence such as Herman Melville’s: “For genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.” Bloom conceded that transactions among poets might indeed encompass altruism. “But where generosity is involved,” he added caustically, “the poets influenced are minor or weaker; the more generosity, and the more mutual it is, the poorer the poets involved.”

It was easy for readers to align the dark truths on offer in The Anxiety of Influence—that “the meaning of a poem can only be another poem”; that poets systematically denigrate their precursors (“Poetry is misunderstanding, misinterpretation, misalliance”); and that poetry inevitably declines, as “belated” poets feed on the glories of previous achievements—with other apparently nihilistic books emanating, during the 1970s, from Yale, where Bloom has taught since 1955. In Allegories of Reading, Paul de Man argued that literature consisted of metaphors and other figures of speech with no clear connection to any reality outside the text. Jacques Derrida, in Of Grammatology, attacked the notion that there could be anything identifiable as a human “voice” in literary texts. It was difficult for readers to see that beneath Bloom’s seemingly nihilistic notions of literary influence, contrary to such “deconstruction,” he had a deep appreciation for literary originality against all odds, a respectful gratitude that would become more emphatic in his later work.

Advertisement

2.

One might think that the American mythology of the self-made man, exemplified in the maxims of Benjamin Franklin and in Emerson’s great essay “Self-Reliance,” might exempt American writers from the more dire consequences of the anxiety of influence. Doesn’t our literature, like our nation, constitute a fresh start, that “American newness” that Irving Howe discerned in the age of Emerson and Thoreau, or the “American Adam” that Bloom’s Yale colleague R.W.B. Lewis identified as the most telling imaginative construct in our literature? What do mavericks and renegades like Whitman and Melville, Dickinson and Twain, owe to past writers anyway?

Not surprisingly, Bloom believes that American writers are merely more skillful in hiding their literary debts, bringing a fiercer resistance to the influence exerted by their intimidating precursors. For Bloom, such precursors must be primarily literary. He has no interest in the Puritans, none in the Great Awakening or the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. He barely mentions Franklin, accorded a memorable chapter in D.H. Lawrence’s exhilarating Studies of Classic American Literature, or any other eighteenth-century American writer, such as William Bartram, whose nature writings so influenced Coleridge and Wordsworth.

Instead, Bloom selects twelve writers, all of them canonical and, with the possible exception of Hart Crane, readily recognizable by most readers, all of them white and only one a woman, and juxtaposes them in six pairs. The first pairing is based on stature: Whitman and Melville are “our two most ambitious and sublime authors.” Others follow either recognized lines of influence—Emerson and Dickinson, Hawthorne and Henry James—or less obvious ones: Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot are said to be “odd progeny” of Whitman, whose work is “embedded so deep they cannot know it.” Still other pairings—Mark Twain with Robert Frost, Faulkner with Crane—seem merely puzzling, and more dutiful than impassioned. “When I began composing The Daemon Knows,” Bloom confesses, “I did not plan to include Twain and Frost.”

Bloom is aware of conspicuous omissions: Poe; the novels of Dreiser and Wharton, Cather and Hurston, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. These writers, he implies, have less of that “sublimity” that he seeks, less of the “daemon” of true originality, “the god within who generates poetic power.” (Poe, inventor of science fiction and the detective story, screams for inclusion here.) But Bloom’s touchstone for literary greatness has always been lyric poetry; the novels he singles out for the highest praise are those that most closely approach the verbal and emotional intensity of the lyric: Moby-Dick, which he calls “a Poem Unlimited,” and As I Lay Dying, which “takes its place as a prose poem with the most vital American poetry of its time.”

Bloom ignores the oddball, genre-bending books that are some of the high points of American literature—Life on the Mississippi, The Autobiography of Henry Adams, The Country of the Pointed Firs, The Souls of Black Folk—and considers Walden an inferior shadow of Emerson. Even so, one might wish for more audacious choices, a wild card like Lincoln (the third of our great nineteenth-century poets, surely, in a prose sonnet like the Gettysburg Address or the overwhelmingly understated Second Inaugural) or the unfairly maligned Longfellow, ripe for Bloom’s passionate rescue.

But really there is no clear principle of selection, nor any overarching argument to this loosely assembled book. Bloom has said that his “lifelong critical hero Samuel Johnson” is his model here, and there may be parallels in the many prefaces the two critics have written, their assiduous attention to Shakespeare, their habitual ranking of poets, their supposed address to the “common reader.” But it is the garrulous and sociable Johnson of Boswell’s famous life that seems the better analogy for Bloom’s scattershot performance in The Daemon Knows.

His opinions, delivered with a bluff impatience, are sometimes inspired, sometimes maddening, and often repetitious. “I weary of scholars neighing against Ahab, who is magnificent in his heroism,” Bloom writes in his pithiest mode. “Would they have him hunt for more blubber?” He speculates freely on the love lives of his dozen writers, asserting—on what possible evidence?—that Hawthorne “had perhaps the happiest marriage of any major American writer, if not indeed of the great writers of all ages and nations,” despite such dark marital fables as “Wakefield” and “Young Goodman Brown.”

Sometimes Bloom takes his prompting from the table talk of friends. “I recall conversations with Gershom Scholem in Jerusalem and New Haven, during which he discoursed upon his conviction that Whitman was ‘an intuitive Kabbalist.’” Much of the somewhat chaotic section on Hart Crane, inspired by the dubious claim that the long poem The Bridge incorporates an internal pun on “bride,” is based on similar exchanges. “My mentor and friend Kenneth Burke remarked to me that Crane mentioned the bridge/bride kenning to him in conversations.”

Advertisement

At its most tedious, the book descends into bland listicles of asserted, though undemonstrated, influence:

Though Whitman is not mentioned in [Crane’s] Atlantis, he pervades the poem. Shelley’s Adonais is an elegy for John Keats, yet it becomes a premonitory threnody for Shelley himself. Atlantis is a lament for Walt Whitman and for his vision of the United States as being in itself the greatest poem. Unlike T.S. Eliot, against whom Crane’s struggle was for his own style, the agon with the prophetic Walt is darker, more profound, and far more anxious. How much had Song of Myself left for The Bridge to originate?

One can tease out of this tangle a useful distinction between merely stylistic influence (Eliot on Crane) and something deeper, more “agonistic” (Whitman’s influence), but it is rough going, and one wonders what work Shelley and Keats are doing in the mix. The entire question of influence for Bloom must be full of supposition, partly depending as it does on his self-projection into one murky unconscious after another.

3.

Bloom finds Emerson’s influence—what he calls “Emerson’s American Religion of self-reliance”—everywhere in American literature, as much in the willful heroines of Hawthorne and James as in Whitman’s optimistic embrace of a special American destiny. He is particularly drawn to Hawthorne’s “sensual and tragic” Hester Prynne, “worshipping only the god within herself” as she falls for men, “her Satanic husband, Chillingworth, and her inadequate lover, Dimmesdale,” clearly unworthy of her. James’s Isabel Archer is another, paler, Hester, who “repeats her forerunner’s refusal to abandon an Emersonian self-reliance” in her dreadful marital choice of Gilbert Osmond. For Bloom, these vividly imagined women exceed the novels that seek to contain them. “Hopelessly old-fashioned critic that I am, I do not regard achieved literary characters as so many marks upon the page or as metaphors for racial, gender, and class differences.”

Emily Dickinson is another of Emerson’s acolytes, in Bloom’s view; subjecting all inherited claims, religious and intellectual, to her own withering skepticism, “she surpasses even the strongest of her American contemporaries in self-reliance.” “Except for Shakespeare,” Bloom has written, “Dickinson manifests more cognitive originality than any other Western poet since Dante,” though his brief remarks about individual poems give no clear idea of such originality, and register her puzzling ellipses and her flair for comedy instead. Lacking the patience to unpack the formal and verbal intricacies of Dickinson’s poetry or anyone else’s, preferring to register his emotional response instead, Bloom has never excelled at close reading; in this book of nearly five hundred pages, he claims that he “cannot give too much space to close readings of individual poems.”

In Bloom’s view, “with her high art working concealment of her drive against anteriority,” Dickinson fiercely resists her precursor Emerson, whom Bloom wishfully claims, more than once, that she met in Amherst when he lectured there. Her biographers have been more circumspect. Polly Longsworth says flatly, “There is no record of whether Emily Dickinson heard or spoke with him.” Bloom refers, mistakenly, to “her brother’s mistress and second wife, Millicent Todd Bingham”; Bingham was the daughter of her brother’s mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, who never married Austin Dickinson. It is also unfortunate that the illustration accompanying the section on “Miss Dickinson,” as Bloom patronizingly calls her, is the doctored daguerreotype of the 1920s, with girlish curls and lace collar added.

There are moments when one wishes that Bloom were even more Bloomian. Can he be right that Mark Twain, accorded a notably brief treatment in The Daemon Knows, had no significant precursors, no anxiety of influence, beyond a vague debt to Cervantes and Swift? “Of no genre,” Huckleberry Finn has, in his view, been “creatively misread” by Hemingway and Fitzgerald as “nostalgia for a lost American dream,” but Bloom doesn’t quite know how to read the book otherwise, settling for his usual suspect: “It is as though his creator, Twain, wants him to emulate Benjamin Franklin and Henry Thoreau but cannot keep Huck away from Emersonianism” and the “need to keep moving.” Might it be the case, though, that Bloom fails to recognize Twain’s precursor in Fenimore Cooper, and that Twain’s notorious and rather schoolmarmish demolition, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences,” is precisely the kind of smokescreen obscuring his anxious debts that Bloom has found in T.S. Eliot’s early dismissal of Shelley and Whitman?

It is fun to listen to Bloom, in some of the freshest pages in The Daemon Knows, chew over his long feud with Eliot, whose own theory of literary influence, as outlined in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,”

<

blockquote> is so much like Bloom’s. “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone,” Eliot wrote.

His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.

Bloom’s détente with Eliot is based in part on his late recognition of a shared vocation: “In old age I enter upon a kind of peace in my own lifelong struggle against Eliot’s criticism and regret some harshness indulged through the decades…. He was my antithetical precursor.”

Bloom now recognizes a powerful poet of old age in Four Quartets. “At eighty-four I cease from mental fight,” he concedes. “He was and is a great American poet.” He quotes a long, grim passage from “Little Gidding” about “the gifts reserved for age” (“First, the cold friction of expiring sense/Without enchantment…/Second, the conscious impotence of rage/At human folly, and the laceration/Of laughter at what ceases to amuse”) and finds its “strength and eloquence unsurpassable.” Echoing Dr. Johnson on Gray’s “Elegy,” he writes, “Had Eliot written often thus, it would be vain either to praise or blame him.” And yet, he cannot resist a final, contradictory salvo of abuse:

His dogmatism, dislike of women, debasement of ordinary human existence make me furious. His virulent anti-Semitism, in the age of Hitler’s death camps, never abated and dangerously fused with his devotional stance of neo-Christianity. I dismiss the exegetes who defend him and Ezra Pound; at best they are misguided, at worst they participate in murderous attitudes toward Jews and Judaism.

Bloom acknowledges that he has strayed into the region of politically inspired criticism that he generally detests: “We do not read only as aesthetes—though we should—but also as responsible men and women. By that standard,” he concludes, “Eliot, despite his daemonic gift, is unacceptable once and for all time.”

4.

I have found myself wondering what Bloom’s title refers to. When he writes, in a recurring and mysterious refrain, “The daemon knows how it is done,” he seems to mean that great writers give themselves over to something stronger than themselves, and beyond their habitual understanding. Bloom firmly believes—against the tendencies of our current distrust of elitism of any kind—that there really is such a thing as great literature, books that in their supreme originality and strangeness truly do seem somehow superhuman or “daemonic.” He is particularly good at summoning us into their presence. And for all his bluff and grandiosity, Bloom brings a certain modesty to the critical task. He is in awe of these twelve writers.

What Bloom does not mean, despite his occasionally dogmatic tone, is that he himself knows how it is done. Some of the most moving moments in The Daemon Knows are when he confesses he hasn’t a clue. “These lines hammer me,” he writes of Whitman’s Song of Myself, “like those utterances of Macbeth’s that break into him from some higher realm of eloquence.” After quoting the extraordinary lines that follow the child’s question “What is the grass?” Bloom wonders, “How to convert my ravishment by this into knowledge?” What can one say, he asks, about that “most Homeric of American similes: ‘the beautiful uncut hair of graves’”? He concludes, disarmingly, “I read Walt and become, in Hamlet’s words, a wonder-wounded hearer.”

Bloom fell in love with the overwhelming music of Hart Crane’s poetry before he could understand a word of it. It is the very knowingness of many academic critics, their claim to see through everything to the political and social machinery that supposedly runs all literature, that drives him crazy. “The intolerance, the self- congratulation, smugness, sanctimoniousness, the retreat from imaginative values, the flight from the aesthetic,” he says. “It’s not worth being truly outraged about. Eventually these people will provide their own antidote, because they will perish of boredom. I will win in the end.”