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.