For forty years Harold Bloom has been an original mind and provocative presence on the international literary scene. Born in New York City in 1930 and educated at Cornell and Yale Universities, Bloom has taught at Yale since 1955 and since 1988 at New York University as well. Over these decades he has been a prolific writer, producing more than twenty major books of literary and religious criticism, in addition to hundreds of articles, reviews, and editorial introductions. In recent years Bloom has also been the subject of numerous published interviews.
From the opening chapter of his first book, Shelley's Mythmaking (1959), Bloom showed his signature freedom from cultural orthodoxy. Dissatisfied with the styles of academic thinking prevalent then, Bloom began developing his own vision of the nature and value of literature, one that soon revealed itself to be both intellectually unique and socially daring. Over the course of Bloom's career, that vision has evolved through three phases, each separate but related and together forming a closely unified whole.
Bloom first distinguished himself with a series of innovative studies of the major English Romantic poets. His initial book on Shelley was followed in rapid succession by The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry (1961) and Blake's Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument (1963). All three provoked strong reactions, polarizing the scholarly community, and quickly making Bloom the field's most visible critic. Though this earliest work concentrates on interpreting individual writers through detailed readings of their poems, it also advances Bloom's general ambition of installing Romanticism at the center of post-Renaissance English literature. The boldness of Bloom's project became clearer a few years later with the appearance of Yeats (1970) and The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition (1971), which argue the persistence of the Romantic imagination in major Victorian and modernist poets.
Bloom's principal target in this first phase of his career was the conservative formalism of T. S. Eliot, who had dismissed the Romantics as undisciplined poets of nature. Eliot's position became an article of faith in the New Criticism that dominated the American academy in the 1950s and early 1960s. Bloom rejected this view, displacing the essence of Romantic art from reconciliation with nature to a visionary imagination profoundly antithetical to nature. In Bloom's reading, the Romantic poem does not represent the artist's harmonious union with the world but instead enacts his heroic refusal of time and matter.
By the early 1970s, when Bloom's revolutionary version of Romanticism was itself becoming orthodox, he had already entered the second major phase of his thought, which is centered in the remarkable tetralogy of The Anxiety of Influence (1973), A Map of Misreading (1975), Kabbalah and Criticism, and Poetry and Repression (1976). These books extrapolate Bloom's paradigm of the Romantic imagination into a general theory of poetry and criticism. Drawing on sources as diverse as classical rhetoric and modern therapy, Bloom proposes that post-Renaissance poetry is an "achieved anxiety," the product of a new writer's violently repressing the influence of precursors. The critic's task in this model is to trace this repression as it operates through various techniques of "misreading."
Bloom's turn to literary theory occurred about the same time that several of his prominent colleagues at Yale, including Paul de Man, Geoffrey Hartman, and J. Hillis Miller, were adopting Deconstruction. Because of this coincidence in time and place, Bloom was often associated with them in the late 1970s and early 80s as one the Yale Critics who were then remaking the humanities in Deconstruction's image. But as Bloom's own theory developed, it proved as opposed to the tenets of Deconstruction as his earlier criticism had been to the doctrines of New Criticism. While Paul de Man and other Deconstructionists emphasized the instability of linguistic meaning and the contradictions of conceptual thought, Bloom continued to champion the imagination's autonomy from language, both literary and philosophic. To Bloom's thinking, literature is not the mind's play among unstable signs but the spirit's struggle for originality. And this battle is waged not against Deconstruction's atemporal linguistic structures but against the limits of the human condition as they are enforced by the full weight of past cultural achievements. For Bloom, then, poetry at its best becomes the scene and trope for humankind's deepest longings for transfiguration and immortality.
This religious element is active in Bloom's thought from the very beginning, though it long remained subordinate to the aesthetic. With Agon: Toward a Theory of Revisionism (1982), however, Bloom's intellectual engagement with Gnosticism and his personal conversion to its principles raised religious experience to the forefront of his project. And it is this new emphasis on the spiritual that characterizes the third phase of Bloom's career. Gnostic belief and visionary poetry now become interchangeable modes of knowledge, sharply differentiated from other kinds of experience by their antagonism to nature and their transcendence of history. Bloom's critical elevation of Gnosticism had been anticipated a few years earlier by his only novel, The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy (1979), and it prominently informs such later books as The American Religion (1992), where the American religious and literary traditions emerge as more Gnostic than Protestant, and Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection (1996).
This fusion of Gnosis and poetry also animates Bloom's highly publicized role in recent debates about the literary canon. In The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994) he openly berates feminists, Marxists, and multi-culturalists for ranking books according to their social agendas. Bloom's stance has distressed liberals and delighted conservatives. But the reactions of left and right are equally inconsequential to him, since greatness in literature arises exclusively from spiritual sublimity and aesthetic intensity, qualities Bloom considers fundamentally unrelated to politics or morality.
This has, in fact, been Bloom's premise from the start of his career. Indeed, as early as A Map of Misreading (1975), he was already lamenting the humanities' retreat from literature to politics. But the roots of Bloom's position, both the visionary aesthetics and the ardent Gnosticism, lie deeper in his past than any of his writings. Recalling childhood memories of reading poetry, Bloom explains in an autobiographical moment of singular candor and insight: "To fall in love with great poetry when you are young is to be awakened to the self's potential, in a way that has little to do, initially, with overt knowing. The self's potential as power involves the self's immortality, not as duration but as the awakening to a knowledge of something in the self that cannot die, because it was never born."
By William McPheron
©1998, Stanford University
Harold Bloom pages edited by: William McPheron, William Saroyan Curator of American and British Literature, Stanford University, firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's note: Special thanks go to Jim Kent, assistant to the curator, for helping to assemble material for this site.