The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom

Bob Bowen
Professor, BA

Without fear of contradiction or being accused of unwarranted hubris, I start here by saying that I have something in common with the illustrious and famed critic, Harold Bloom. First, we were both born during the 1930s. But as it is commonly known, there are countless (albeit dwindling numbers of) folks who can claim that spirited decade as the point of their earthly entry. Second, our surname begins with the same letter. However, “B” is a common letter for last names, so that’s no big thing. And, third, we have/had an attachment to Yale University. I was born at Grace-New Haven Hospital on Chapel Street, a few blocks from that esteemed institution; and grew up on Dixwell Avenue in the Elm Haven Housing Project, a scant mile north of the university. Still, geographical proximity is a no brainer and few flags can be waved because of it. Anyway…now that our questionable but unplanned kinship has been duly established, I’ll move on to other concerns.

I must say that I consider myself to be a late Bloomer in that my familiarity with Haughty Harold [and I say this with unfettered admiration] comes many years after reading other lesser known literary critics. But Bloom has a special “touch” which I find appealing, unique and off-putting all at the same time. I am kinda sorta sadly nearing the end of his well known and widely read The Western Canon – The Books and School of the Ages. Tradition and common sense might suggest that I wait until (finally!) closing the well-worn cover of the tome before attempting to craft any kind of assessment or review. But I am thoroughly convinced that neither his style, reach, wisdom nor attitude will diminish by the time I reach “endgame.” If nothing else erudite Harold Bloom is nothing if he isn’t consistent. I find reading him as much a labor of literary love and just plain and simple labor.
List of Edward Said memorial lectures. Wikipedia
Interviews with Harold Bloom. Stanford Presidential Lectures in the Humanities and the Arts.
“Black Matters” (abridged). Toni Morrison, The Independent.

Bloom has a way of more than casually hinting that those who venture to read him should [make that must] likewise read extensively or, at the very least, be vaguely familiar with the broad sweep of literature that he has absorbed over the years. I am convinced that this is an all but impossible undertaking. I am furthermore convinced that he was reading prenatal hieroglyphics on the lining of his mother’s womb well before his rush into the waiting world – or perhaps some waiting New York library– on July 11, 1930.

A personal contradiction and wake-up call immediately came to my mind after reading his early (p 16) observation that “…literary criticism, as an art, always was and always will be an elitist phenomenon.” If there was/is anything that I did not and do not need it’s the well-intended machinations of elitists of any and all genres. Years ago I had read with measured albeit real disdain, E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy – What Every American Needs to Know. It galled me that someone would have the (excuse the intentional redundancy) gall to actually construct a list of what one should read in order to be – and I did not excuse the expression – culturally literate. It stuck me as paternalistic on the one hand and highly presumptuous on the other. But I suppose that’s another review for another time.

Fast-forwarding to bombastic Bloom, I self-queried: “Why am I wasting my time with this Elm City academia elitist dude?” And I had and have no sane and sensible response except that there was and is something about what he does so well that I continued to pour through his insightful and enlightened pages with no small measure of struggle coupled with appreciation. To my surprise and delight I very early learned of Bloom’s virtual worship of no less a literary giant than William [the Bard] Shakespeare. One cannot even casually think of Harold Bloom absent frequent and unabashed reference to Shakespeare. Whether extolling the contributions to world literature of Emily Dickinson, Dante, Milton, Beckett, Neruda, Proust, Molière or Cervantes, Bloom magically and intentionally weaves his views around the accompanying indispensability of – what I will designate – William the Great. My conscious bias comes from an earlier not-to-be debated list of Hillhouse High School English class readings. We read lots of Shakespeare. Period! And in those days, the word “canon” was better understood as the “cannon” that would be leveled at the posterior of students rebellious enough not to memorize and, on occasion, act out what the Bard had penned centuries before. So, in terms of relative familiarity, Bloom most competently treads on turf that isn’t all that strange or unattractive to me. He places an unbending emphasis on originality, which can also be viewed as unprecedented creativity. For example, he says Shakespeare:

“…wrote the best prose and the best poetry in the Western tradition”

and that he

“…will not make us better and he will not make us worse, but he will teach us how to overhear ourselves when we talk to ourselves.”

Wow! Not even parents can achieve this result!

Harold Bloom cannot be faulted for readily falling into line with some all too often accepted and unchallenged contemporary thinking on topics or persuasions. He will and does find himself at odds with those in and out of academia over such matters as social justice, multiculturalism and most assuredly feminism. He doesn’t spend much time addressing these issues but then neither does he back away from his occasionally combative convictions. Whether this makes him a stubborn literary elitist or the skilled provocateur of a good argument is the choice of the reader. Just as it is the reader’s choice to “buy into” his predispositions on a headache-inducing list of authors and insights, which he takes for comfortable granted.

To his quasi-credit – at least from my perspective — Bloom asserts “the Canon will never close” even with the caveat that “it cannot be forced open by our current cheerleaders.”

There is a small measure of contradiction to his non-stop journey through the broad literary landscape when Harold the Hun offers this morsel of reassurance to the reader:

“No one has the authority to tell us what the Canon is.”

I cannot help but wonder then what good purpose is served by some 500 plus pages of Bloom making a rather convincing case to the contrary. Perhaps hanging out in New Haven for too long has its New England downside…a well-earned Yale PhD in tow notwithstanding.

Finally, one might ask, is Harold Bloom “worth” reading? Well, to quote someone Bloom probably wouldn’t, I say:

“You betcha!!”

One thought on “The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom

  1. Bob, what a well-written overview of this book–great to read your voice . . . miss hearing it more often around the place. I do, however, think you’re being far too lenient with Bloom. Somewhere around 1990 I was at the MLA and Bloom was speaking there. I heard him say the following, during a Q&A, about women and people of color and the canon: “As soon as one of them writes something worthy of consideration then they can be in the canon too.”

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