I’m almost certainly the only student in the history of the Ashland Public School System to dress up as Harold Bloom for Career Day. I was in fifth grade and my look was carefully curated: a big baggy sweater and a pair of khaki pants, intentionally tousled hair, with a copy of Bloom’s 1994 The Western Canon in hand. A more ridiculous image of my kid self is hard to imagine.
To be clear, I wasn’t really a Bloom fan at the tender age of eleven. My dad had bought The Western Canon, that rare book of literary criticism that became a national bestseller, and I’d excitedly, confusedly read it from start to finish. I didn’t understand much of what Bloom had to say. What was this “School of Resentment” that he so frequently railed against? Who were these “New Historicists” who were “attempting to reduce and scatter Shakespeare”? And what the hell did a sentence like this mean: “But the real me, the me myself, is not only a known realm but the faculty of knowing, something close to the Gnostic capacity to know even as one is known”?
Yet despite my inability to follow most of Bloom’s arguments, I knew that I wanted to know what he knew, to love all those writers (Dante and Chaucer, Dickinson and Pessoa) that he loved, to feel as passionately about poems and novels and plays as he did. The greatest future I could imagine was one in which I got to read all day long, and Harold Bloom—garrulous, brilliant, pompous, impossibly well-read Harold Bloom—was what I thought a professional reader looked like.
My relationship to Bloom’s work has changed over the years, as have my tastes. (If I had to dress up as a critic now, I’d probably choose Patricia Lockwood.) There’s much that I admire about Bloom: his leaping, associative mind, sensitive to how one poet’s words or soul might rhyme with another’s; his defense of the aesthetic as the primary criterion by which to judge art; above all, his sense that deep reading is “the proper use of one’s own solitude.” I’ve come to find other traits less admirable: some merely annoying (his tendency to repeat himself), some maddening (his sloppy argumentation; his frequently self-pitying stance that imagines the world is out to get him and readers like him). Still, I agree with William Giraldi’s assessment of Bloom’s achievement: “No other American critic since Emerson has done more than Harold Bloom to make literary comment as artful, as creative, as dynamic, as the literature it aims to assess.”