It doesn't feel like a terrorist's lair.
Harold Bloom greets me jovially. Just inside the front door of his house in New Haven, Conn., is a homey, 30-foot living room, where books cover almost every surface and a bit of the floor. Within minutes, eyes bright, he instructs me that he is a guerrilla. At 72, undaunted by severe illness, he is fighting on in the aftermath of -- in his view -- a lost war between classic academic principles and what he takes to be an anti-intellectual, anti-cultural, self-servingly political conquest of higher education.
He is a large man -- some might say huge -- and moves like one, very deliberately, with little wasted motion, except to use his hands emphatically. His hair is whitening gray, bald at the top but generously wispy, flaring on the sides and neck. His skin is a bit gray, subduing a flush pinkness. His lips, especially the lower one, are full, lushly sensual. His dark eyes are bright and appear contemplative -- except when they seem to explode in flashes.
I am led resolutely through the living room, where a research assistant labors at a coffee table, sorting photocopies of poems and notes for a new anthology, The Best Poems in the English Language, which Bloom has chosen and is editing. Through an open archway is a dining room of about half the size, also oblong, and at right angles. Beyond that, in the kitchen, a cleaning woman is ironing.
Bloom brings me to the dining room table, oak with rounded ends and three leaves. Any finish it ever had has long ago worn off. The far half is covered with books and papers. The living-room end is clear. We sit down at it, at right angles.
Neither the culture wars nor triple heart-bypass surgery last September seems to have diminished the energy that has allowed Bloom to write or edit 29 books over 43 years, with two more in the works. Nineteen of his books have been translated into a total of more than 20 languages. Several have been best sellers. Though firm book publishing statistics are elusive, there is little doubt that he is the best-selling critic alive today, and quite possibly ever, in any language.
Asked to describe himself, Bloom declares, "I am a teacher essentially, whether I am writing or whether I am in the classroom. I am a committed teacher. I don't really distinguish between writing and reading and teaching." Next year will be his 50th as a teacher.
A black sweater almost covers his white shirt, with no tie, a T-shirt visible at the neck. His trousers are charcoal gray. He says he has lost 45 pounds under doctors' orders, and intends to lose that much more. The folds of his lower cheeks, beneath his chin, bespeak that loss of weight, of fullness. An apple he has been eating, its bright, well-chewed surface still unbrowned, lies on the table. During the interview, he refers to me, four people who telephone and a pair of new arrivals all as "dear" or "my dear."
Bloom's wife, Jeanne, arrives through the kitchen. She is energetic, thin, moves gracefully. She has been photocopying pages for the anthology in the Yale library. She is a retired child psychologist. They have been married since May 1958, and have two sons.
With easy irony, she tells us she crossed a picket line this morning, put up by Yale's maintenance and administrative worker unions and teaching assistants. The idea that she -- "an old Stalinist" -- would cross a picket line, she says, would have been unthinkable in her youth.
Bloom, this bitter enemy of postmodernism -- some would say of modernism -- makes it emphatic that he is no tory. "I am a lifelong Democrat," he insists, "with a capital D. But the last presidential candidate I voted for who wholly pleased me was the first Harry Truman in 1948. I wouldn't vote for a Republican for dogcatcher." He volunteers fervent criticism of President George W. Bush, casting him among the forces that are dumbing down the United States, by example and by political policy. He remembers when young George W was a student at Yale, but he never taught him.
The house is two stories, with brown wood shingles, on a block with other houses of similar but different design. The street is adjacent to Yale University and its brick buildings. For a man of enormous commercial as well as intellectual success, it is a very modest, simple, informally efficient way to live.
What drives the warrior? Bloom cites one of his main heroes: "Emerson said -- and everything that concerns me most mattered to him -- that everything that matters in life has to do with the transcendental, the extraordinary. ... The transcendental and extraordinary. People always do find it in one way or another. They call it falling in love sometimes."
Underlying all aesthetic values, he declares, are unmistakable standards of excellence. He perceives a body of literature, always growing, that stands above all else because of its intelligence, its scope, its insight into the mysteries of life. That constitutes what he and others call the Western Canon, which is the title of Bloom's 1994 best seller, with more than 100,000 copies sold.
So why be at war? Bloom's intellectual enemies -- often grouped under the term "multicultural" -- reject the notion of a literary canon as evidence of corrupt and tyrannical dominance by "dead white males." Most insist that there are no absolutes of literary or artistic value -- that, in fact, there are no significant relative values at all. They replace the idea of the canon with a compensating egalitarian standard: There is greater merit in genre literature, pop literature and academic study based on neglected perspectives.
Bloom says his isolation insulates him from the Yale and other faculties, but he is persuaded by those he does know that the forces who are in control are not simply playing academic politics, that they are true believers.
"One wishes that these people were charlatans and hypocrites," he says. "But unfortunately, they are self-persuaded zealots. They really do believe they are saving humanity. And the nation and the world. Of course, they are not doing any such thing. They are, in fact, only adding to the incredible pressure that the counterculture has evoked."
He remains somewhat optimistic about the general reading public in the United States and beyond. On the basis of lectures, readings and other contacts outside the academy, Bloom says, he believes the influence of the multicultural enthusiasts extends very little beyond campuses. "But they have, I think, destroyed their profession. ... They have authentically diminished, not the common reader in my judgment, but what you might want to call official culture."
He is eager to argue that very intensely.
Everything about Bloom is intense. He's regarded as a genius or an evil force -- and nothing in between.
Sir Frank Kermode, a distinguished British critic, in a review of Bloom's Genius in The Guardian last year, called him "the most celebrated literary critic in the United States" and declared that Bloom "really does stand as a monument to a weird heroism. ... To say there is no one like him is to be too moderate."
To the contrary, in the summer 2002 issue of Hudson Review, Joseph Epstein, a distinguished essayist and a professor at Northwestern University, wrote: "For many years now, bombast, rant, and confident obscurity have been his reigning notes." And, declaring Bloom to be not very intelligent, Epstein raged that "he has staked out his claim for being a great critic through portentousness, pomposity, and extravagant pretension, and, from all appearances, seems to have achieved it."
A small sampling of dozens of positive assessments of Bloom and his work might begin with Michael Dirda's review of The Western Canon in The Washington Post Book World: "A work of power and plangency ... deeply, rightly passionate about the great books of the past." Dirda has called Bloom, along with Edmund Wilson and F. R. Leavis, one of the three most important literary critics writing in English in the 20th century. Peter Ackroyd, reviewing Bloom's How to Read and Why for The Times of London, called him "Magnificent ... he is never less than memorable."
Is there any person -- except at the extremes of politics -- who today incites such vehemently disagreeing appraisals?
Who is this man? How did he come to be? He was born in New York City on July 11, 1930, the youngest of five children of Paula and William Bloom, Orthodox Jews whose parents had brought them to New York from Eastern Europe. Yiddish was spoken at home, and Bloom learned to read it by the time he was 3, then Hebrew at 4, and English at 5 -- though he did not hear English spoken till he was 6.
By 10, he says, he "became cathected upon poems" in English. "I suppose that I feel so passionately" he says, "about Shakespeare, about Dante, and Cervantes, Proust, Tolstoy, the major writers, because they carried my heart away when I was a tiny child. I just collapsed into the Melrose Branch of the Bronx Public Library, like someone who had really come home. I couldn't stop reading." And, now famously, it soon became evident that he was blessed with a prodigious memory and the capacity to read at gale speed. His family, he says, was "very proletarian." His father was a garment worker who was born in Odessa. His mother was born in a shtetl outside Brest-Litovsk and was a housewife. His father's father was an Odessa dockworker. But, he says, with intended irony, "they eventually discovered that way back there were collateral branches who had included Talmudists. Talmudists deliberately cultivated, as Jesuits do, feats of memory and feats of reading speed. There must be a sort of acquired characteristic."
He went to the Bronx High School of Science and finished first in the statewide regents examination, earning a full scholarship to Cornell. He studied English, especially the Romantic poets, intently. On graduation in 1951, he went to Yale, where he earned a Ph.D. with a dissertation on Percy Bysshe Shelley, and soon became an instructor in English there.
"Yale was the great citadel of the so-called New Criticism," Bloom says of his early days there. "T.S. Eliot and his acolytes. He was considered to be the Christ figure on earth around here. And with it went the whole series of cultural and literary choices. Nineteenth century English and American literature hardly existed. Whitman was not taken seriously as a poet. Emerson -- as Eliot remarked, the essays of Emerson already are an encumbrance. ... Shelley was considered a bad poet. I don't have to go on. I spent a considerable part of my early career with all the fervor of which I was capable, in the classroom and teaching and lecture podiums, sparking a romantic revival."
Age has barely dulled the edge of his reading and remembering. "The memorization has not faded," he says, "It is still there. I can still recite by heart nearly everything I have ever loved. And that makes teaching, of course, very easy. It gives me a preternatural advantage. The reading rate when I was very, very small for a while was scary. When I was courting my wife, Jeanne, I was a faculty instructor in English here. She remembers sitting next to me in the library one day and she couldn't believe what I was doing, because I was turning the pages and reading them as I went."
As an undergraduate, he says, "I would get a bit drunk and recite Hart Crane's 'The Bridge' frontwards and then backwards, quite like a tape recorder running wild."
We have a lunch of asparagus, fresh tomatoes, good bread and an excellent light frittata, prepared by Jeanne. She serves red Rhone, but Bloom does not partake. By now, he is slowing down. But his focus is still sharp. He retains more than adequate energy to damn his intellectual enemies -- "the so-called feminists, so-called New Historicists, so-called Marxists -- they are none of these things. ... They are also called the Resentniks." He cites the shrinking of English departments in many universities and lays it to the fact that "nobody cares, especially undergraduates, for this."
The blame, he insists, lies with the faculties. "Yet, you can't get rid of these people. They constitute, I would think, 60 percent of the middle generation in the academy. They profess to be political but it always turns out they're not interested even in local politics, but only university, college and departmental politics. And ... the graduate students who are authentically interested, who love poetry, get nowhere. It's endlessly insidious: post colonialism, garbage bins that just go on and on and on." He seems to celebrate his isolation from the academy. "I left the Yale English department to become professor of Bloomology, as it were, in 1976."
Is there no future in U.S. universities for the values Bloom holds sacred? A remote hope, he suggests, lies in the fact that "no undergraduates anywhere, except the occasional theological student, wants this claptrap."
So, if these courses and departments are unpopular and unconvincing, how then can faculties be brought around? "I occasionally think that the only remedy for the situation is to abolish what I think ought to be abolished anyway," he says, "which is university and college tenure. It was there in order to guarantee free speech, freedom of the mind. ... It works now to safeguard people who wish to deny free speech and have only politically correct speech."
Bloom loves guerrilla talk. He takes it back almost 30 years to 1974, a year after publication of his enormously controversial book The Anxiety of Influence. It put much of Yale's English department at war with him. He left the
department and was named the university's DeVane Professor of the Humanities. Since 1983, he has held the title and chair of the Sterling Professor of the Humanities.
As he tells of a life of academic conflict, it's clear he has won many battles. He is also the Berg Professor of English at the graduate school of New York University and former Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard. He has amassed an immense number of prizes, honorary degrees, awards, visiting professorships and grants, including a MacArthur Prize Fellowship. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which awarded him its gold medal for criticism.
Much of his work -- writing and teaching -- has been about poetry, analyzing, dissecting, celebrating. Yet he says he has never written poetry. "Not a line," he insists, the palm of his right hand striking the oak. "I am willing to write, I need to write, but if I were to write a poem it would come out a bad pastiche, 50 percent Wallace Stevens, 50 percent Hart Crane. They fixated me on poetry."
Nor, despite his adoration of Shakespeare, does he seriously cross that line to acting or directing. Bloom has played the part of the Ghost on a taped version of Hamlet. Sir John Falstaff -- a principal in Henry IV, 1 and 2, and in The Merry Wives of Windsor -- is Bloom's most cherished, celebrated Shakespearean character, who for appetite, wit, courage and substance, he puts above even the dark Prince Hamlet. He has played the part of Falstaff three times -- he refers to him adoringly as "Sir John." The experiences convinced him that he is not an actor.
At a number of points during the interview -- some four hours altogether -- he recites poems or, rather, snatches of poems. They come in bursts, with a sense, almost, of a minor ecstasy, a bubbling joy. "I think literary criticism is an art," he says. "It may not be a great genre or mode of literary art, to be compared to the epic or the novel." But he clearly believes in the vitality and importance of what he does. "The critics I have cared for are people who are profoundly and personally and with their whole hearts and their whole intellects fascinated by imaginative literature."
With delight, he makes the point that he has never learned to type, writes entirely in longhand, these days with a Pentel. The housekeeper is vacuuming, first in the hallway outside the kitchen and then upstairs.
Bloom long has referred to himself as a "Jewish Gnostic." He's asked to elaborate. "I am using Gnostic in a very broad way. I am nothing if not Jewish. I spoke Yiddish before I spoke English, I still read Yiddish poetry, and recite Yiddish poetry to myself. I really am a product of Yiddish culture. But I can't understand a Yahweh, or a God, who could be all-powerful and all knowing and would allow the Nazi death camps and schizophrenia."
He speaks of those curses from experience. The death camps wiped out his mother's and father's families and almost all his aunts, uncles and cousins. He recounts that very close friends have had schizophrenia in their families or their own lives.
But he clings to his Gnosticism based on his belief that "there is a spark that is light within a part of each of us that is neither the soul nor the body, but is something that is the best and oldest part of us."
Bloom's right hand rests gently on his chest. There is no indication he is in pain, but the gesture brings focus on the heart. He begins relating the story of his illness: A stomach ulcer, aggravated by overdosing on pain medicine taken for arthritis, hemorrhaged. He collapsed while shaving. Jeanne called an ambulance. Six pints of transfused blood later, he awoke in Yale University Hospital. Tests indicated potentially disastrous blockages of the three major coronary arteries. The next day he underwent open-heart surgery, "the most invasive of operations."
"Five weeks ago," he says, speaking very deliberately, "they brought me back to the hospital." The physicians got his coronary muscles back in natural rhythm. "So now I go to a cardiac rehabilitation gym three mornings a week. I watch what I am eating, subsisting on as many apples as possible." The unfinished, pre-lunch apple is still beside him on the table, its surface now brown.
Soon after that trip to the hospital, he relates, just back from the gym and alone in the house, "I suddenly felt, for the first time in almost five months, just the joy of being alive. And I leaned against that wall there" -- his right hand sweeps forward, toward the other side of the room -- "and I chanted spontaneously from the Psalms ... I chanted Psalms for about an hour and 20 minutes. There was wonderful exuberance, because I was alive again."
Throughout the interview, though he slowly tires, Bloom speaks powerfully, with courage, thoughtfulness, often digressing and then picking up again. His talk is full of irony, and he stops to celebrate that from time to time, with laughter or with a quick, insistent smile.
My wineglass from lunch is still on the table. I raise it toward Bloom and drain a final ounce.
He smiles, his hands go flat on the table. "I am not allowed to drink any more. ... So, alas, in addition to being very restrictive of diet now, in amplitude of what I eat, alas, I who like the great Sir John Falstaff loved my sherry sack, my dry sack or my amontillado, I who adored red wine and cognac and Armagnac and highland malt whisky -- these are gone forever."
"That is tragic," I say.
"Not tragic," he says. A spark, a flash of light -- is it from neither his soul nor his body? -- rises from his eyes as he smiles. "I am still alive."
* For a review of Harold Bloom's latest book, see Page 11.
BLOOM IN BALTIMORE
Harold Bloom will take part in a book-signing session from 3 to 4 p.m. on Wednesday in the Johns Hopkins University Bookcenter in the basement of Gilman Hall, on the Homewood campus, 3400 N. Charles St.
The following evening, at 5:30, he will give the Percy Graeme Turnbull Memorial Poetry Lecture in 111 Mergenthaler Hall, also on the Homewood Campus. Both events are free and open to the public. For more information, call the university's Writing Seminars at 410-516-6286.
Harold Bloom is now at work on his 30th book. His latest is Hamlet: Poem Unlimited. First came Shelley's Mythmaking, drawn from his doctoral dissertation in 1959.
His books that have attracted the most popular attention and sales are:
The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), The Western Canon (1994), The Book of J (1990) and How to Read and Why (2000).
His more scholarly works include:
The Visionary Company (1961, revised 1971), Blake's Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument (1963), Yeats (1970), The Ringers in the Tower (a collection of essays, 1971), Kabbala and Criticism (1975) and Agon (1982).
"The child alone with her or his book is, for me, the true image of potential happiness, of something evermore about to be."
-- from Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages (2001)
"The ultimate answer to the question Why read? is that only deep, constant reading fully establishes and augments an autonomous self. Until you become yourself, what benefit can you be to others?"
-- from How to Read and Why