Harold Bloom, who died in October at age eighty-nine, was The Last Great American Literary Critic. The Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale, he wrote best sellers, appeared on talk shows, and collected honorary doctorates like lint. Bloom championed the Western Canon against its critics, insisting that the so-called Dead White Males were in fact immortals. He was reviled for this by many, but perhaps he should have been pitied. By insisting that some books were undying, he vainly hoped to defy his own mortality.
Bloom played many roles in his career: insightful Romanticist in The Visionary Company (1961), coiner of a catchy but spurious idea in The Anxiety of Influence (1973), Delphic theorist allied with the Yale School of Deconstruction, failed fantasy novelist in The Flight to Lucifer (1979), and humanist popularizer in The Western Canon (1994) and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998). He was also the font of many rehashings, anthologies, and edited collections.
In his final phase, Bloom flattered the middlebrow public, with its conviction that “literature matters.” His detractors say that in his popular criticism he was a shoddy scholar, which is true. What’s worse is that he was also a lazy teacher. Vatic, vehement, and gestural, his pop-criticism did a better job of performing Bloom’s enthusiasms than of educating his readers. Vacuous claims such as that Shakespeare “invented us,” that Falstaff and Hamlet “contain us,” are meaningless enough the first time; as eternal refrains and governing themes of a book, they are inexcusable. “The indispensable critic on the indispensable writer,” blurbed the New York Review of Books. In fact, Bloom taught us far less about Shakespeare than could many a quieter critic. He purported to instruct us How To Read and Why (2000), but in fact he merely shouted at us what to read.
Bloom discussed twenty-six central writers in The Western Canon, though an additional eight hundred–plus appear in four much-derided appendices. Weighted to the Romantics and littered with gnostic jargon, Bloom’s account of the Canon otherwise resembled all traditional lineups of Dead White Men (“livelier than you are, whoever you are”). He was an unembarrassed elitist, but his incessant rhetoric of this poet over that, who’s in and who’s out, betrayed a certain moral crudeness.
Bloom’s obsession with exclusion and ranking dominated even his readings of Shakespeare. Up with Falstaff, so down with Prince Hal. Bloom’s enthusiasms seemed to require, as logical corollary or psychological compulsion, the derogation of his non-favorites. He finds other characters “unreal” next to Falstaff and Hamlet, much as he denies stature or existence to authors not “strong” enough to make his Canon.
Bloom haunted New Haven “in the likeness of an old, fat man” with astonishing verbal ability. I never studied with him, as he taught only undergrads. When he appeared on a panel at the British Art Center in honor of the Shakespeare critic A. D. Nuttall, he was in his eighties, and I was struck by his infirmity (he had “more flesh than another man, and therefore more frailty”) and his freakish command of verse. He could recite it verbatim; he could fast-forward and rewind; he could tell you how many lines he had skipped.
I heard a tale from a professor, who said he had heard it from a former student of Bloom’s, who said she had dallied with him (part of Falstaffianism is lechery). The professor had asked her, “Why on earth? What erotic appeal could that fat rogue exert?” She said she had arrived at Bloom’s office hours, and Bloom had risen from his chair and recited from memory, rapturously, word-perfectly, the introductory paragraph of her midterm essay. This trick probably works better at Yale than elsewhere. Naomi Wolf, far less amenable, reported a more concise come-on: “You have the aura of election upon you.”
Wolf narrated her disgust in a 2004 article for New York magazine: “His heavy, boneless hand was hot on my thigh. . . . I turned away from him toward the sink and found myself vomiting.” It was a classic #MeToo scenario, years before #MeToo. It paints a humiliating picture of Bloom, as fat and old and courting rejection. Making a virtue of necessity, Bloom had patterned himself openly after other eminent old fat men: Samuel Johnson, Zero Mostel, and above all Falstaff. Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays contain the sad truth that when age encounters golden youth, golden youth will likely reject it. They also contain a certain consolation, of which Bloom availed himself perhaps too avidly: Identification with an “immortal” character can lend a literary luster to one’s own foibles and failures.
In Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Falstaff tutors Prince Hal, the wastrel heir, in verbal wit and riotous living. When Hal accedes and becomes Henry V, Falstaff expects that “the laws of England are at [my] commandment.” Instead, the new king rejects him (“I know thee not, old man”), advises him to lose some weight, and conquers France as the heroic Christian “star of England” no one expected.
Literary men, being dovelike, recoil from Hal’s warlikeness and his subordination of personal to national loyalties. They disdain his lack of reflectiveness, his use of wit for power and patriotism rather than lyricism or suicidal ideation. One wonders whether some have not identified with Falstaff just a bit—being, typically, older men in better shape cognitively than physically, and mentors to glittering youth. If Falstaff is the sentimental oversized self-image of the literature professor, Hal is the thrillingly educable and heartbreakingly fleeting undergraduate.
Bloom confesses in Falstaff: Give Me Life (2017) that his identification with the Fat Knight began when he was sixteen, bookish, and overweight. Writing at eighty-six, he complains of geriatric ills and says that the old clown’s vitality “cures me.” He recalls the several occasions on which he has read the role of Falstaff onstage or joined the cast of an indulgent theater company. He reproduces a pseudo-Shakespearean monologue for Falstaff, which he authored and once recited at the close of a Falstaffiad he had edited. Is it parody or pathos? Certainly the latter.
Give Me Life, though brief, is padded out with block quotes, some redundant, and frequent chapter breaks. Its argument is familiar, scattered, and repetitive—a rehash of The Invention of the Human, his omnibus Shakespeare book from 1998. The earlier polemic was more cogent and more savage. In the middle of Give Me Life, Bloom suddenly softens: “I . . . recant some of my earlier views of Hal. He is an admirable politician and a keen quester who seeks glory and power. Why should he not? He is called to that condition.”
Bloom says openly what could be gleaned between the lines of Invention: What pains him about the Falstaff-Hal relation is that it builds toward rejection. “What is it to dread rejection? . . . We fall in love impossibly as though defeat is our desire. . . . I think back through my long life and remember the squalor of loneliness.” The death of the great clown reveals the dread of rejection as a dread of mortality. As Mistress Quickly laments, “The king hath killed his heart.” For the old to be cast off by the young they have mentored is the death of them—ominous news for Bloom, self-anointed steward of the Canon.
What is a canon, and what is its purpose? A sacred canon is the authoritative body of texts from which a religious tradition derives its tenets, and by which it shapes its imagination. A sacred canon has other functions, too, which may be performed as well, or nearly so, by a secular or literary canon. It embodies what is believed and valued by a culture in and across time, and in so doing binds the living to one another and the dead. It contains authorizing narratives by which individuals may make sense of their experiences. Conservatives hold that the literary canon contains the wisdom of the ages, and that education in it makes us wiser and more virtuous. Progressives hold that the literary canon’s authorizing power should be used to promote social justice.
Bloom scorned sacred canons, and he rejected all the familiar justifications and uses for literary canons. He insisted that literature would not make us good, and that reading was not a collective occupation but the most solitary occupation, as solitary as death. Death drives both authors and readers. Authors transmute their fear of mortality into the aspiration to canonical immortality, to create works “that the world [will] not willingly let die.” Readers in the Canon learn “the proper use of [their] own solitude,” in preparation for the final solitude of mortality.
But what if the Canon itself could die? Its stewards are “beleaguered, because they cannot be certain that fresh generations will rise up to prefer Shakespeare and Dante to all other writers.” Bloom displayed fear and resentment of the gifted, wayward youth who declined his bequest of the Canon. He mentioned prodigal students who had joined the “School of Resentment”—“Feminists, Marxists, Lacanians, New Historicists, Deconstructionists, Semioticians”—and would open and destroy the pantheon in which reside the immortals. These assaults seem to have been for him the final form of rejection.
Despite his refusal to regard it as a repository of cult or culture, a source of guidance or a means of salvation, Bloom leaned harder on the Canon than did anyone else in the 1990s Canon wars, right or left. In Bloom’s telling, Falstaff is an infinitude, “a cosmos” unto himself. This was also his own cherished self-image. And it is what he would have called, not pejoratively, a “strong misreading.” The rest of us observe that the Fat Knight dies babbling the Psalms.
Julia Yost is senior editor of First Things.