Why Readers Resented Harold Bloom

I tried to stump him—and only once succeeded.

Harold Bloom
Ted Thai / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

When I saw the literary critic Harold Bloom last Wednesday, on the morning of Yom Kippur, something was different: For the first time, he did not mention death. His moods have long tended to the morbid. Twenty years ago, I wrote him a note and said he would be welcome to visit my college in the California desert. “When next I am in the vicinity of Death Valley,” he replied, “it will be metaphoric, as I approach farewell.” He was 69 and healthy. At Yale, where he taught for more than 60 years, he greeted another student’s friendly “How are you, professor?” with “I am born unto death.” (He was standing at a urinal at the time.) I live near his house, and when I would stop in to say hello, he would note the great writers who had died since our last conversation: Sam Shepard, Philip Roth, Ursula Le Guin.

But last week he was mostly sunshine. He even remarked, with an amazed smile, that he had met a baby, and that baby was 89 years his junior. He noted that he had a seminar to lead the next morning. That seminar was his last. Bloom died yesterday, nearly fulfilling an old vow that he would leave his last class in a body bag.

Bloom’s detractors hated him for many reasons. Naomi Wolf accused him of sexual harassment. He scoffed at reader favorites like Stephen King (who had “a remarkable absence” of imagination), J. K. Rowling (“heavy on cliche”), and J. R. R. Tolkien (“sometimes, reading Tolkien, I am reminded of The Book of Mormon”). He stopped participating in the discipline of academic literary criticism sometime in the 1970s, having decided that most of his colleagues were resentful of greatness—not just his own, but of the very notion that one book or poem might be better than another, and that one task of a critic is to explain and defend such distinctions, to articulate aesthetic judgments. In 1977, he whined about his colleagues to Hanna Holborn Gray, Yale’s president, and was rewarded with a special appointment, reporting directly to the provost, and sparing both him and his colleagues the pain of interaction.

His detractors were, I am sure, at least resentful of Bloom’s prodigious ability to read and recall great literature. I certainly resented it, or at least envied it. When I first met Bloom in person, I spotted Little, Big, a 1981 novel by John Crowley, on his dining-room table. He said he had read it again that morning “for the 46th or 47th time.” I was skeptical: The copy on that table looked like it had never been read at all. By chance I had read it recently, too, and I proposed that one of the characters was modeled on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Sandman. He immediately quoted both books, confirming my hypothesis. I guess that’s the secret to keeping books in mint condition: If you memorize them on a first, gentle reading, you need never open them again.

He had read everything worth reading, or claimed to have. When he could still walk, he would allow bystanders on Yale quads to quote random lines of Milton to him, and he would pick up the line and keep reciting until he reached the other end of the quad.

I tried to stump him—and only once succeeded. Last year, during one of Bloom’s periods of seriously failing health, I told him that as a teenager, I loved the novels of Anthony Burgess. Bloom could barely move, and he sat, as always, in a wheelchair in front of a table stacked with books and medicines. His voice shook with weakness, but he told me his Burgess stories and reminisced about drinking Fundador with him in New York. I said I had read all his novels but one: Earthly Powers, from 1980. (It begins with a perfectly Burgessian sentence: “It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me.”)

Then came Bloom’s startling reply: He had not read Earthly Powers either. Extracting that admission felt like a small victory, a confirmation of the human limitations of a man whose powers of reading sometimes seemed irritatingly superhuman.

“I ordered it from London,” he said. “It took nearly three weeks to arrive.” He then gestured feebly to a short stack of books between us on the dining-room table and instructed me to remove a single sheet of paper concealing the top book.

The book was a mint-condition copy of Earthly Powers. The one book he hadn’t read was already on top of his pile, and would presumably be downloaded into his head by suppertime.