“Reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable,” T.S. Eliot announced in 1933 to his audience at the University of Virginia. Eliot was no fascist, but he was willing to deliver his sentence about Jews during a high tide of anti-Semitic feeling, the year of the Nazi seizure of power. Eliot’s anti-Semitic note blended smoothly with his praise of intolerance. In his Virginia lectures, which later became After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, he railed against a modern world “worm-eaten with liberalism.” Impossibly enough, Eliot yearned for an orthodoxy that could impose moral law on a nation homogeneous in “race” and manners.
Many miles north of Virginia, also in 1933, a Jewish toddler named Harold Bloom was learning to talk in his mother’s kitchen in the East Bronx. Seven years later, at age 10, he would discover in the Melrose branch of the Bronx Public Library two poets who burned with the heretical romantic flame that Eliot detested: Hart Crane and William Blake. That same year he read Moby-Dick and exulted with Melville’s doom-eager Ahab. (Meanwhile, oceans away, the Germans and Japanese were setting fire to the globe.) In high school he plunged into Faulkner’s cauldron of Gothic torments and marveled at how the Southern master raised shlock to the status of high art. In college at Cornell, Bloom studied with M.H. Abrams, who had begun to rehabilitate the Romantic poets against the wishes of Eliot. But when Bloom arrived at Yale graduate school, he entered a den of Eliotic orthodoxy. The lions of New Criticism glowered at the Yiddish-speaking proletarian from the Bronx.
“When I was a child, my ear had been ravished by Eliot’s poetry, but his criticism—literary and cultural—dismayed me,” Bloom writes in The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, his sparkling and accessible new tour of a dozen essential American writers from Emerson to Crane. At Yale in the 1950s Eliot’s judgments were largely sacrosanct: He had deemed the Romantics dangerous eccentrics, Emerson and Whitman bad influences. D.H. Lawrence was “a very sick man indeed,” captive to his “daemonic powers”—so Eliot intoned in After Strange Gods. By the 1980s, when I arrived at Yale grad school, Bloom’s new anti-Eliot canon had won out: Blake, Shelley, Wallace Stevens, and Elizabeth Bishop had replaced the old guard’s Donne and Pope. Bloom, by following his daemon, had single-handedly made a revolution in literary taste.
The daemon, Bloom explains, is the intimate yet alien spirit that tells any true reader or writer who and what she is. When we read one of Dickinson’s cryptic, diamond-like lyrics, when we chase after Faulkner’s nightmare-harried Joe Christmas or scale that “harp and altar, of the fury fused,” Hart Crane’s Brooklyn Bridge, we glimpse these authors’ daemon. We grasp at least fitfully what makes their brilliance so true, so overwhelming. There are as many daemons as there are individuals, but exposing yourself to the radiance of Bloom’s dozen American masters will strike any genuine reader with the force of revelation.
Bloom’s structure is inventive. He pairs his favorite American authors so as to create new insights: Whitman and Melville, Hawthorne and James, Emerson and Dickinson, Twain and Frost, Stevens and Eliot, Faulkner and Crane. Some of the pairs are predictable, some less so. Stevens said that he and Eliot were “dead opposites,” and he lampooned the Anglo-Catholic Brahmin from St. Louis as one of “the lean cats of the arches of the churches.” Dickinson, Bloom persuasively says, answers Emerson’s tough hopefulness with her iron-sealed guarantees about the permanence of loss. Whitman and Melville, Bloom tells us, sense the powers of the ocean the way Tolstoy senses the powers of the earth. Faulkner and Crane, both sublime raiders of the inarticulate, push the American language up to and beyond its limits.
Bloom is a personal and passionate reader who prizes the face-to-face. For him reading resembles falling in love: The author who chooses you turns you inside out, making the world look utterly new and strange. In one of the many autobiographical asides that dot The Daemon Knows, Bloom explains that he read Whitman with new intensity in 1965, during a severe mid-life crisis. “Walt, more than any other poet, pulls you close to him,” Bloom comments. Bloom needs the direct encounter with an author, and no author is more direct than Whitman: He expertly shows how Whitman’s evasiveness fuses with his immediacy. The Daemon Knows contains by far Bloom’s best criticism of Whitman, an author notoriously hard to write about.
Whitman is a healer, and his soothing, puzzling incantations help us through our dark nights. Melville, by contrast, is a prophet, and “Prophets do not heal; they exacerbate,” as Bloom rightly says. The ardent Ahab stands for the side of American power that sees truth in vast ruin. He fathers the lethal, thrilling heroes of Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy. There is real danger in such taste for destruction, and Bloom knows it. Yet he insists that the daemon instructs, rather than merely filling us with Ahab’s mad passion to strike at the gods.
Facing Whitman’s poetry, Bloom asks, “How to convert my ravishment by this into knowledge?”
One way ravishment becomes knowledge is by giving us a sharp sense of limits, and the primary human limit is death. Bloom cites Whitman’s lines about the grass that springs from buried flesh in “Song of Myself”: “This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,/ Darker than the colorless beards of old men,/ Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.” Then he marvelously notes that this is “a passage Hemingway must have pondered, since his characteristic voice—evenly weighted, usually precise, emotionally deferred—is both anticipated and surpassed by it.” Whitman resides at the center of Bloom’s book while Hemingway remains outside it because Whitman, unlike Hemingway, sees that there is something beyond death and fate: the daemonic self’s freedom.
Bloom traces a lineage of independent heroic women in American letters, from Hester Prynne to Isabel Archer to Faulkner’s Lena Grove. He adds that he might have written about Cather, Wharton, and Dreiser too, since all three produced superb female heroes. Standing against patriarchal threats, these women exhibit a quiet stubborn power. Hawthorne’s Hester clinging to her scarlet A is “our truest feminist,” Bloom remarks, a rebel against Puritan patriarchy. Lena Grove in Light in August moves us because, oddly serene, she stands apart from the turbulent actions that surround her. “There are in Faulkner uncanny moments of listening,” Bloom writes, “as if his narrative art sought a still center, where racial and personal violence, and the agonies of copulation and dying, could never intrude.”
American intellectuals have always had an uneasy relationship with the ferocious visionary enthusiasm that their countrymen and -women so often display. The American thirst for awakened, God-endorsed selfhood frequently strikes the intellectual as both reckless and naively romantic. Thirty years ago Bloom wrote The American Religion, a canny, spirited account of what he called our “post-Christian” sects. All of them, Bloom argued, insist on the self’s direct knowledge of God, from Mormons to Pentecostals and Christian Scientists. Bloom was surprised by these believers’ fierce certainty that God and the true self were the same. Jesus, they often said, knew and loved each of them personally, and even “falling in love was affirming Christ’s love for each of them,” Bloom writes in The Daemon Knows. “In such a labyrinth of idealizations I get lost,” he adds, “lacking the thread that might lead to an escape.” Jewish skeptical wisdom demands that we rein in such American zeal, our country’s never-ending thirst to be loved by God. If there is chosenness, it must be conditional.
Bloom laments in The Daemon Knows that the end result of unfettered, God-approved selfhood must be the Tea Party’s self-absorbed greed. Yet he also genuinely admires his heretical enthusiasts, since they have their hands on the daemonic live wire. The wonder at an alien God runs in Bloom’s veins as surely as in those of a snakehandler from the Florida panhandle. Home-grown religious oddballs appeal to him as they did to Flannery O’Connor, whom he greatly admires. The daemon rides roughshod and splendid when a writer like O’Connor can turn raw American spiritual struggle into art and when a critic like Bloom can bring together the country’s literature with its strange yearning for a God who validates selfhood.
We need more of Bloom’s daemonic eagerness. Skepticism, not passion, rules the day in many classrooms. The academy all too often produces criticism that lacks personal vision and directness, an injustice to both readers and books. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the American religion that exalts God in the lone self too frequently offers passionate vision untempered by sufficient critical skill. Making great art out of vision means testing and criticizing, not merely yielding to Dionysus. Bloom pursues the superior visions, the ones that depend on thought rather than raw instinct, and that’s why we cherish his writing.
Bloom’s eloquent farewell to Hart Crane is the last chapter in his book, the final time, he says, he will write about his original poetic spirit guide. Dead before his 40th year, Crane had an absolute, unerring drive to consummation in both life and art. His poems are an orchestrated ecstasy, so rich and intense that they can both bewilder and intoxicate readers. Bloom has been fascinated by Crane’s dense, hypnotic lines for more than 70 years now, and he gives them his all in The Daemon Knows. For Bloom, it is clear, Crane will always be the poet.
“Poems, novels, stories, plays matter only if we matter,” Bloom writes. We ought to think about books the same way we think about ourselves. Why do books mean so much, why do they have the force to astound and cure, denounce and explain, condemn and save us? If we are curious enough about these questions, we might unlock the daemon, the inspiring secret that Bloom has been on the track of since he was a child lashed by Hart Crane’s sublime words. The Daemon Knows opens us up the way Crane opened up the 10-year-old Bloom, by showing why some books matter to us like life and death.