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Literature as a Way of Life

by Harold Bloom

Pub Date: May 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-300-16760-3
Publisher: Yale Univ.

The distinguished critic again examines the interactions among writers that have been the main focus of his attention since The Anxiety of Influence (1973).

As in that seminal work, Bloom (Humanities and English/Yale Univ.; Fallen Angels, 2007, etc.) takes a decidedly Freudian view of literature, depicting each generation of artists struggling with the titans of the past to carve out their own place in the pantheon. Ranking matters to Bloom; it’s not enough to proclaim Beckett, Joyce, Proust and Kafka “the masters of prose fiction in the twentieth century”—they must be judged as “transcending” Thomas Mann, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. His audience is “those dissident readers who…instinctually reach out for quality in literature, disdaining the lemmings who devour J.K. Rowling and Stephen King as they race down the cliffs to intellectual suicide in the gray ocean of the internet.” Looking beyond sentences like that, and beyond Bloom’s trademark swipes at feminists and Marxists, readers (dissident or otherwise) will find his usual closely argued exegeses of the writers he loves—and that love goes a long way toward atoning for his aggressive contentiousness. He traces the poetic tradition stretching from Shakespeare through Shelley, Browning and Yeats to Walt Whitman, Bloom’s “American Homer,” whose epic presence shadows Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane and such contemporary poets as James Merrill and John Ashbery. Unsurprisingly, since Bloom prefers poetry “free of all history except literary biography,” he stresses existential themes: the nature of self, the soul’s quest for meaning, the omnipresence of death, our final destination. The octogenarian clearly has his legacy in mind as he strives to reject old charges of misogyny and exclusivity; he makes reference to his many Asian American students, and a few female names (Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop) have slipped into his references, if not his full-scale analyses. But we wouldn’t want Bloom to be anyone but Bloom: an old-fashioned literary critic passionately committed to art for art’s sake.

An autumnal summing-up, winding through “the labyrinth of literary influence” to conclude, “[t]hat labyrinth is life itself.”