I did not know Harold Bloom, who died this week at the age of 89. I have one of his books, The Western Canon, in front of me, and I have enjoyed reading bits and pieces of it, but can't claim to have read it through. Certainly he appears to have been the most brilliant and prolific literary critic of the Silent generation (b. 1925-42), and his books had an unusually wide readership. What struck me reading the fine obituary that appeared in the New York Times was how exemplary his life was--how much of twentieth-century egalitarianism and intellectual approach he seemed to embody. I could not help thinking, too, that his early life and career had some things in common with my own father's, particularly in the way they saw their relationship to the culture and institutions of the country their parents had immigrated to from Eastern Europe earlier in the century.
Bloom, the Times, records, was born on July 11, 1930, into an orthodox Jewish household in the Bronx, the youngest of five children. My own father had been born seventeen years earlier nearly to the day in Brooklyn, the ninth of ten children in a similar, though somewhat better off, orthodox family. Bloom went to the Bronx High School of Science, then as now a competitive public high school at the summit of the New York educational system, while my father graduated from New Utrecht in Brooklyn near the top of his class. Bloom won a scholarship to Cornell, while my father whose family had lost its money in the housing bust just before the Depression, went to the University of Wisconsin, which was very close to free even for out of staters in those distant days.
They were, however, different young men. My father, though a very good student, was the kind of all-around man who could, and did, win a Rhodes Scholarship, while Bloom was obviously far more singleminded in his focus on intellectual pursuits. He had discovered literature as I discovered history--at a very young age--and he seems to have been more compulsive about assimilating as much of it as he could than I ever was. He also had a prodigious memory, and claimed, pace the Times, to know the entire works of Shakespeare, as well as those of several other poets, by heart.
From Cornell Bloom went to graduate school at Yale, then the citadel of the New Criticism, which taught that the meaning of a work had to be found within itself, based on a close analysis of its language, without reference to the life of the author or developments in the outside world. He rejected that view, arguing (apparently for the rest of his life) that all great works were part of a dialogue, and a struggle, with the great writers of the past--an approach which made a broad acquaintance with western literature essential. Bloom's apostasy--his rejection of his department's prevailing approach, the preferred method of some of its leading lights--did not prevent the Yale English department from hiring him as soon as he had earned his doctorate at the age of 24, and tenuring him some years later. He remained at Yale all his life, although he severed his connection with the department in the 1970s and became a university professor. What fascinates me about all this is how Bloom evidently saw himself in relation to western society and culture--and the contrast between his views and those of the would-be scholars who see themselves as outsiders today.
Bloom, to repeat, had been raised as an orthodox Jew, a member of a minority that had been scorned and oppressed for centuries and which still faced some discrimination in academia at the time he came into it. He identified as a Jew, but he had abandoned his religion. Yet unlike race- and gender-focused critics today, he easily fell in love with the western literary tradition, found everything he needed to pose the questions that fascinated him within it, and simply tried to beat the goyim at their own game--as indeed, in many ways, he did. In return, the academy did not punish him either for his originality or for the breadth of his interests--as it surely would if he were starting out today. In the same way, my father abandoned his religion and assimilated, even to the point of marrying a gentile, and went in to public service, working in diplomatic posts in 1948-54, 1961-9, and 1976-80, an extraordinary period in American politics and history in which he was honored and fulfilled to take part. Both Harold Bloom and Philip Kaiser made their careers within important parts of western civilization, whose arc, we can now see, was reaching a climax when they were young men. Its appeal won them both over and they never looked back. Now academia in particular is obsessed with the supposed flaws of western civilization, and is filled with scholars who believe that their role is to show how it has oppressed their gender or race.
I have now read three obituaries of Bloom, in the Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian. All three summarized his career more than adequately, but none mentioned one of its highlights: that he was the dissertation adviser and mentor of my exact contemporary Camille Paglia, whom I regard as the greatest literary and artistic critic of the Boom generation. In A Life in History, I thanked my own dissertation adviser Ernest May--who was just two years older than Bloom--for his reaction, in 1973 I believe, when I told him that I wanted to write my dissertation about the relations between Germany, France and Britain, on the one hand, and the new states of Eastern Europe on the other, during the 1930s. That was enough for at least three dissertations, but instead of telling me that I simply had to cut it down--as many professors surely would have--May told me that it was a wonderful idea and that I should go ahead. Three years later, it was done. Paglia must have had a similar experience when she told Bloom that she wanted to write an analysis of androgyny in literature and art from the ancients to modern times. He too evidently encouraged her, and the result became Sexual Personae, another work that found new things to say about the western tradition without trying to repudiate it. But Paglia, like myself, found that modern academia had no room for scholars of such breadth, and she has spent her career teaching the history of literature and art and the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, while postmodernists rule the nation's literary departments. She had no opportunity to inspire, encourage and train her counterparts in the Xer and Millennial generations. Bloom was fortunate to be born when he was--and he made the most of it. Some day, whether in 50, 100, or 1000 years, others like him will get their chance.