Harold Bloom, a titan of literary criticism who was renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of English literature and notorious for his unfashionably traditional judgments of its most important poets, novelists and playwrights, has died at age 89.
Bloom, who had been in failing health, died Monday at a hospital in New Haven, Conn., his wife told the Associated Press.
In literary terms, the longtime Yale and New York University professor was an oxymoron -- a serious scholar who wrote for the masses.
He made his mark academically in 1973 with “The Anxiety of Influence,” a dense tome that laid out a theory, heavily dependent on Freud, about the psychic struggle that produces great poets. But in later years he was a determined populist who translated highbrow concerns about literary education for a general audience. He did it so successfully that he became the rare literary critic who topped bestseller lists.
Tapping cultural insecurities, Bloom offered unequivocal answers to questions he considered fundamental to literacy. Which writers belong in the literary pantheon and which in the dustheap? Should we read to satisfy social or political agendas, or should we read to understand our essential selves? As new schools of criticism took hold of American universities in the 1960s and beyond, allowing proponents of Marxism, deconstructionism, feminism and multiculturalism to revise the curriculum, Bloom emerged as a stouthearted defender of tradition. Maya Angelou, Salman Rushdie, Stephen King? No, no, no! he cried. Shakespeare, Milton, Whitman? Yes, yes, yes!
His magnum opus, “The Western Canon” (1994), became his rejoinder to those marauding theorists, whom he lumped together and derided as a “School of Resentment.” The book singled out 26 writers -- nearly all dead white European males, including Shakespeare, Dante, Borges and Beckett -- whose works he considered mandatory reading. Flamboyant in his political incorrectness, he alienated entire movements with flippant critiques of the “malaise” he saw sweeping the academy.
“I am not,” he archly proclaimed in a 2000 Times of London article, “a proponent of Eskimo lesbian fiction.”
The most audacious critic of his generation, he was true to form in “The Book of J” (1990), which treated the Bible as literature and argued that the Old Testament was written by a woman. Biblical scholars were unpersuaded by his thesis, but the book became a bestseller. So did his unapologetically prescriptive “How to Read a Book and Why” (2000), essentially a condensed version of Bloom’s canon.
Bloom’s celebrity was due as much to his personality as his ideas. He was a character as colorful as Falstaff, Shakespeare’s great comic creation, with a physique to match. A rotund man with melancholy eyes, he could be caustic, bombastic, cheeky and charming. A MacArthur “genius” grant winner, he was gifted with a voracious memory and could perform thousands of poems, including such epics as Milton’s “Paradise Lost” and Hart Crane’s “The Bridge,” which he once recited backwards.
He was born in New York City on July 11, 1930, to immigrant parents from Eastern Europe. His father, William, was born in Odessa, Ukraine. His mother, Paula, was from Belarus. Bloom was the youngest of five children.
Bloom claimed that by the time he graduated from college in 1951 he routinely read 1,000 pages per hour and had memorized hundreds of poems. After completing his doctorate at Yale in 1955 with a dissertation on Percy Bysshe Shelley, he joined the faculty.
At the time, the prevailing theory of literary criticism at Yale was New Criticism, which emphasized closely analytical readings. New Critics disdained the Romantic poets in favor of the 17th century metaphysical school led by John Donne and carried on in the 20th century by modernists Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot
Bloom loathed Eliot. “He was considered to be the Christ figure on Earth around here,” Bloom said in a 2003 Baltimore Sun interview.
Abhorring this state of affairs, Bloom set out to overturn the modernists and restore the Romantic poets to what he regarded as their rightful place at the heart of Western literature. He pressed his case in classroom lectures and his first six books, which included “Shelley’s Mythmaking” (1959) and “The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry” (1961).
He is widely credited for the Romantic revival in English literature.
In his mid-30s Bloom fell into a deep depression and began obsessively reading the work of Sigmund Freud. His psychic struggles dragged on for six years, during which he began to write an epic poem inspired by a nightmare. The poem turned into a theory of poetry -- ”The Anxiety of Influence.”
His theory argued that poets are like sons who rebel against their father, an adaptation of Freud’s theory of Oedipal rage. According to Bloom, the urge to overshadow brilliant work of the past leads “strong” poets to usurp their predecessors and create their own significant works. Bloom drew heavily on the Romantics to illustrate his theory that composing a poem is a “fierce process” of overtaking and revising the best poetic works of the past.
The book was both dazzling and befuddling. It employed so many obscure terms, New Yorker writer Larissa MacFarquhar wrote in a 2002 profile, “that it seemed to have been written by a kabbalistic Lewis Carroll.”
But British critic Terry Eagleton called it “one of the most daringly original literary theories of the past decade.”
Bloom was a celebrity in the academy, but grew increasingly beleaguered. He had tolerated the deconstructionists -- chief among them French thinker Jacques Derrida – and although he contributed an essay to a book with Derrida and other proponents of deconstruction, he denied he was one of them. As other new schools of criticism gained popularity -- New Historicists, socialists, feminists and multiculturalists, the ones Bloom derided as a “rabblement of lemmings” who were destroying literary studies with their nonliterary agendas — he was seen as a reactionary. One of his former students, New York Times book writer Charles McGrath, noted that the old professor began to joke that he was a Marxist of “the Groucho Marxist school … whose motto is ‘Whatever it is, I’m against it.’”
In 1974 he divorced himself from Yale’s English department and became a humanities professor — “a department of one, a professor of nothing,” he said. He reported to Yale’s president and mainly taught courses on Shakespeare, but he wasn’t giving up the battle. He wrote “The Western Canon” to save traditional literary education from “the barbarians.”
“I have resisted the backward reach of the current canonical crusades, which attempt to elevate a number of sadly inadequate women writers of the 19th century, as well as some rudimentary narratives and verses of African-Americans,” he wrote. He was especially harsh on Alice Walker, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel “The Color Purple” -- about the tragic life of a poor, uneducated black woman in Georgia -- had become required reading in many English literature classes. Bloom termed her an “extremely inadequate” writer.
“A book like ‘The Color Purple’ is of no aesthetic interest or value whatsoever,” he told the Paris Review shortly before “The Western Canon” was published, “yet it is exalted and taught in the academies. It clearly is a time in which social and cultural guilt has taken over.”
In Bloom’s world, great literature is original and the most original of all was Shakespeare. His next bestseller, “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human” (1998), offered the bold thesis that Shakespeare so transformed perceptions of human behavior that he essentially invented the human personality. Bloom’s favorite Shakespeare characters -- Hamlet, Macbeth and especially Falstaff -- “taught us to understand human nature,” Bloom wrote, because they possess “inner selves” and “develop rather than unfold.”
Bloom continued to teach beyond the half-century mark of his career at Yale, swearing that he would have to be carried out of the classroom “in a great big body bag.” He very nearly was; he suffered many serious health problems, including open-heart surgery in 2002 and a fall that resulted in a broken back in 2008.
He complained that he was treated like a dinosaur by most of his colleagues but said he didn’t care. He had made his case for literary genius and “the world-altering power of a poet’s imagination.” He remained convinced that great poetry changed the world.
Bloom is survived by his wife, Jeanne Gould, a retired child psychologist, and his children Daniel and David.
Woo is a former Times staff writer.
Former Times staff writer Mary Rourke contributed to this report.