Navigate to Arts & Letters section

In Bloom

A student remembers the great literary critic, who died this week at 89

David Yaffe
October 16, 2019
Photo: Pascal Perich/Contour by Getty Images
Harold Bloom in New York City, 2011 Photo: Pascal Perich/Contour by Getty Images
Photo: Pascal Perich/Contour by Getty Images
Harold Bloom in New York City, 2011 Photo: Pascal Perich/Contour by Getty Images

You have to be careful with the ones who get to you early. You haven’t developed your defenses, you don’t know who you are yet, and you are still reading enough to catch up. The condition that I am speaking of is “influence,” and the person who really defined it, in a heady mixture of Freud and Gershom Scholem and Dr. Johnson, is Harold Bloom. When Bloom was a boy in the Eastern Bronx he was asked, at the age of 12, how he planned to make a living. “I want to read poetry,” he said. He was then told, for the first time in his life, that there were professors of poetry at places called Harvard and Yale. His parents spoke only Yiddish. His sister got him a Hart Crane book for his birthday. He would grow up to be a figure of influence himself, and with this influence came notoriety, and with this notoriety, much tsuris.

The words “Harold Bloom” are a trigger warning to many of his detractors. Bloom, when asked how he stayed so productive—he wrote books at the pace at which most people read them, and he read them at the pace at which most people watched TV—credited two things: “insomnia, and many, many enemies.” Some of them have been waiting for this day.

By the time I was a senior at Sarah Lawrence, my betrothed and I would train down to his graduate seminar at NYU, and we would eventually take it for credit. He would recite Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, Yeats, and Lawrence and talk of “belatedness” and “waning fecundity.” He would declaim T.S. Eliot, just so he could show us how Whitman did it better. Possessed by memory, as one of his book titles put it. He had much of the Norton Anthology of Poetry rattling around in his head. For him, it seemed tragic to be getting old. For me, it was embarrassing to be young, still getting schooled. I would show up for seminars wearing the same combination of black V-neck sweater and maroon button down shirt. He did a double take. One of us would never memorize The Faerie Queene and be able to recite it backwards. He was a character of his own invention. Sometimes, the Bronx came out, and he would even throw in Yiddish phrases. (He told me he still dreamed in Yiddish.) But it was the ironic, affected anglophile most people encountered. He talked like someone who learned English from the great English poets, and that is because he did. Everyone he spoke to was “My dear fellow,” “My dear,” “My child.” It was the closest, I thought, I would ever come to knowing Oscar Wilde or Dr. Johnson. I was 22 years old. Why wasn’t I just rocking my youth and reveling in bacchanal rituals? Instead, I was obsessively reading, furiously underlining, neurotically scribbling in the margins, an uneasy epigone.

It is lonely to live in literature, and even more lonely to try writing it yourself. But, really, the universe is lonely anyway, and a little less so if you can read as much of the good stuff as you can, then teach your students how to separate wheat from chaff. I am one of his students, and even if I never use the term “strong poet,” the part of me that loves literature without resentment—sometimes overlapping with his sensibilities, sometimes not—is connected to that larger voice, that omnivorous figure, who has eaten, digested, ruminated, pointed, and who taught us that we were in a pact with the heavenly muses. We who were listening were told, in the words of Hart Crane, “Witness now this trust.” He did not want to clone, or to re-litigate the arguments from the 1950s Yale English Department, when the New Critics were anti-Semites who consigned the Romantic poets to the dustbin. The cast of characters change; the struggle continues. Most people know Harold as the champion of the Western Canon. I know that he loved Bud Powell and Charlie Parker and W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers. (That was Harold’s kind of Marxism.) This was the Harold who, as a 17-year-old, told Bud Powell that he was experiencing anxiety of influence with Earl “Fatha” Hines. “Fatha, indeed,” he told me.

When I was an inpatient at Lenox Hill Psychiatric Hospital, I called Harold from the pay phone. I needed to hear the voice of someone wise. His number was easy to remember because it was four sevens and “WIT.” He asked, “My dear fellow, are you high or are you low?” I said, “First I was low, then I was high, now I’m here.” We talked about the Western Canon of Bipolar, of Robert Lowell (I was into him and he wasn’t), of Delmore Schwartz, of Powell and Charles Mingus. Not a bad group. “This does not become you, my dear. Not when you are married to such a pre-Raphaelite stunner.” I told him I was never bothered when he appreciated my wife’s beauty, something he did extravagantly and repeatedly. “Why should you be? I am a feeble 75. If I was 35, you’d have something to worry about.” I asked Harold what he was writing. It was, he said, a book about every writer and every book. It was a book that eventually had to be scaled down, abandoned, and sold to another publisher.

When I was his blushing ephebe, I felt the need to read everything I could and then have an opinion, a condition he would have called an agon. That anxiety has congealed somewhat. I have misread what I have misread, and my own writing comes out as it does. Being Harold’s student was like being in the Lewis Carroll map of the earth that was coterminous with the earth itself. The sublime is a vast thing, and Bloom’s accumulations were abundant. Most of us just have the helm of the garment. We can never see the whole thing. If we are lucky, we can devote our lives to witnessing it, to creating something of our own that gives succor to others. Harold has left us. The sublime is still there. He devoted most of his 89-year-old life to it. He made his many, many enemies. He cultivated acolytes and detractors. He wanted his students, even Camille Paglia, to be original.

“Live while you can. It’s a mistake not to.” Henry James wrote these words and Harold certainly lived them, and his version of living while he could was to keep reading, interpreting, and reading some more. He was in and out of hospice a few times, and he taught his last class, via Skype, last Thursday, living out his promise to never retire and be carried out of the Yale campus on a stretcher. Harold, that promiscuous blurber, got a blurb from me just recently, and I had been hoping he approved. The last time I talked to him, he said, “My dear David, I hope, before I die, we can meet again.” I feel like I am doing it right now. There will always be a part of me that still wonders what he thinks about a given aesthetic experience, and it is that part of me that wants him hanging over my shoulder, not a superego, but a muse. We learn from the best not so that we are derivative or stymied, but so we can be inspired, so that we can, to allude to his beloved Wallace Stevens, be the world in which we walked and find ourselves more truly and more strange.

The world of Trump and Twitter and STEM is a world Harold never made. Not by a long shot. The realm of Shakespeare and Kafka and Beckett and Bud Powell and Charlie Parker and Strangeness and anon—that is the world that we are here to aspire to, to argue over, to defend. 2019 is not a Bloom-friendly time. This memory, along with others, will cry out across cyberspace, where texts will collide with each other, until the next news cycle announces itself, very soon. This remembrance is for a time that is already mostly gone. One day, beyond the last thought, the last solitary reader will read the last poem, when literature is off the curricula and attention turns to whatever takes its place. Bloom fought the good fight. It’s not over yet.


Harold Bloom died at 89 this week.

David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. Follow his Substack:

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.