Elegiac, gracious literary ponderings that group and compare 12 giants of American literature.
Pairing these seminal authors of the “American Sublime” sometimes by influence (Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James) or because they are contemporaneous (Walt Whitman and Herman Melville) or populist and ironical (Mark Twain and Robert Frost), literary titan Bloom (Humanities/Yale Univ.; The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of the King James Bible, 2011, etc.) lends his enormous, shaggy erudition to their works. Now 84, the author examines the poems of Whitman or of Hart Crane (his avowed favorite), as well as such characters as Isabel Archer from James’ novel The Portrait of a Lady, Candace Compson from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Hester Prynne from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Wildness might be another way of characterizing the “daemonic” elements in the works of these authors, a ferocious unbounded self-reliance, as espoused in Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was full of ambivalence, pageantry, and “heroic erotic vitality.” With each author, Bloom carefully considers his or her specific work (Emily Dickinson is the only female), cited in fairly robust extracts, in terms of “tricks, turns and tropes of poetic language,” which he delights in tossing up and playing with—e.g., Shakespearean influences and great American tropes such as the white blankness of Ahab’s whale. Yet as gossamer as Bloom’s pearls of literary wisdom are, his personal digressions seem most true, striking, and poignant. He characterizes himself as the “Yiddish-speaking Bronx proletarian” who arrived at Yale at age 21 and was not made to feel welcome. He brought with him a boundless enthusiasm for Hart Crane and uneasiness with the “genteel anti-Semitism” of T.S. Eliot (one of Bloom’s “Greats,” but grudgingly so).
As always, Bloom conveys the intimate, urgent, compelling sense of why it matters that we read these canonical authors.