A deep consideration of significant American writers, from Emerson to Pynchon.
For more than 50 years, Bloom (Humanities/Yale Univ.; Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism, 2019, etc.) has produced incisive literary criticism, offering both close readings of writers’ works and their place in what he considers to be the American canon. Drawing from published volumes, several long out of print, and assorted other sources, Mikics (English/Univ. of Houston; Bellow’s People, 2016, etc.) gathers a sampling of Bloom’s essays on writers of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to represent the scope and depth of the critic’s capacious interests. Organized chronologically by the writer’s birthdate, the collection begins with Emerson, whom Bloom considers “the inescapable theorist of all subsequent American writing. From his moment to ours, American authors either are in his tradition, or else in a counter-tradition originating in opposition to him.” Bloom is much focused on “the anxiety of influence” between one writer and another, a theme he explored in one of his early books, The Anxiety of Influence (1973), and which emerges throughout his criticism. Essays tend to focus on what Bloom considers a writer’s exemplary work rather than their entire oeuvre: The Portrait of a Lady dominates the essay on Henry James, whom Bloom deems the “subtlest of novelistic masters (excepting Proust).” He regards Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon a greater achievement than Beloved and The Great Gatsby more worthy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “canonical status” than “the seriously flawed Tender Is the Night.” Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts seems to Bloom a “remorseless masterpiece,” far above anything else West produced and surpassed only by Faulkner’s most well-known novels. Although he finds “West’s spirit” in some of Pynchon’s novels, “the negative sublimity of Miss Lonelyhearts proves to be beyond Pynchon’s reach, or perhaps his ambition.” Besides defending his own evaluations, Bloom sets his views alongside those of many major critics, including Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, Nina Baym, Irving Howe, and Northrop Frye.
An erudite tour of the American literary landscape from one of its most important observers.