“The defense of the Western canon is in no way a defense of the West or a nationalist enterprise. If multiculturalism meant Cervantes, who could quarrel with it?”
Harold Bloom, The Western Canon
It’s been remarked that in the last two decades of his life, the infamous Yale literary critic Harold Bloom was sufficiently preoccupied with his eventual demise that, when a student ran into him in a bathroom and asked “How are you, Professor?,” Bloom, at the urinal, replied, “I am born unto death.” The anecdote dates from when Bloom was 69, and does a marvelous job of conveying just how the incomparably melodramatic Bloom had come to personify bathos itself. Bloom would live for another two decades, dying in mid-October and leaving the literary and journalistic worlds scrambling to debate his politics, Jewishness, and critical legacy. Quite aside from these debates, to my mind the most fascinating aspect of Bloom’s career was his almost entirely unique position as a Jewish intellectual guru who resented WASP America but possessed an exuberant love of Western literary culture that led him, ironically, into direct conflict with many of the forces assailing the same group. Although his reasons and motivations are complex, in the case of Harold Bloom, the enemies of his enemies were not his friends. In the following essay I want to explore Bloom’s position as Jewish activist and guru, his attitudes to the old Yale WASP elite, and the nature of his defense of the Western literary canon.
Harold Bloom grew up in the Bronx as an Orthodox Jew in a Yiddish-speaking home. His parents had emigrated from Eastern Europe, with Bloom often claiming that his father had been a dockworker in Odessa. One senses that some of Bloom’s autobiographical comments over the years were heavily entwined with myth intended to inflate his own standing, and his oft-made claim that he was self-taught in English at the age of five (simply by reading the collected works of Shakespeare) seems gratuitously fanciful. What is clear is that at a relatively young age he became preoccupied with the Collected Poems of Hart Crane, a bipolar homosexual who drowned himself, which set off his lifelong fascination with poetry and literature. Bloom received his B.A. in Classics from Cornell University in 1951, and his PhD in 1955 from Yale.
As a young Jew entering the English department of an elite WASP institution, Bloom was intrinsically part of a more widespread cultural and racial confrontation. Between the 1920s and 1950s, in English departments and in many other disciplines, both WASPs and Jews perceived group interests as being at stake as they contended for positions of academic and cultural dominance. At Yale, WASP professors expressed doubts and concerns that “Jews lacked the cultural and religious background for teaching English literature,” which was presumably the subtle articulation of the belief that Jews would be implicitly hostile to much of the English literary canon. Elliot Cohen, for example, a founding editor of Commentary, was denied a position in Yale’s English Literature department during the Depression years, with the explanation: “Mr. Cohen, you are a very competent young man, but it is hard for me to imagine a Hebrew teaching the Protestant tradition to young men at Yale.” By the end of the 1950s, however, WASP resistance had effectively collapsed and large numbers of young Jewish intellectuals, such as Theodore Weiss, Louis Menand, Alfred Kazin, and, indeed, Harold Bloom, flooded influential English Literature positions at most, if not all, Ivy League colleges.
Many of these young academics adopted highly confrontational and aggressive stances. Peter Herman comments that, despite later claims of personal oppression, Bloom “flaunted his working-class and Jewish origins, eschewed the coat-and-tie code of ‘50s and ‘60s Yale, and, generally, to the extent that it was possible to do, seems to have forced Yale to accommodate him rather than the other way around.” Accommodation in Bloom’s case eventually resulted in him being granted his own “Department of One,” owing to the fact he found it impossible to work with colleagues who had quickly grown to despise him. More generally, accommodation for Jews meant the securing of a monopoly, with Werner Cahnman crowing with delight in the 1960s that “Jews are now explaining Anglo-Saxon cultural achievements and the nature of American society to an American reading public … [These] are sensitive topics that are not usually entrusted to strangers.”
Of course, they’re not usually entrusted for strangers for a reason, and Jews brought with them all of the historical grievances, psychological baggage, and biting hostility that one might expect. Between the 1950s and 1980s (and continuing to some extent to this day), T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were the two primary targets for ascendant Jewish literary academics, with both poets serving as proxies for all that the Jews saw wrong in Western culture — anti-Semitism, Christianity, traditionalism, and a sense of ethnic pride. Bloom himself would recall 1950s’ Yale as “an Anglo-Catholic nightmare. Everyone was on their knees to Mr T. S. Eliot.” Anthony Julius, probably the foremost Jewish assassin of Eliot’s literary reputation would later praise Bloom as “the first major critic in the English tradition wilfully to assert rather than sublimate his Judaism … [Bloom] has challenged the Christian direction of English literary studies.” In his 1995 T.S. Eliot, anti-Semitism and literary form, Julius could hardly contain his delight that Bloom declared “war” on “the abominable Eliot,” adding that Bloom’s criticism “makes inventive use of kabbalistic categories, and draws on Freud, Scholem, Buber, and Luria.” Bloom’s thoroughly Jewish assassination of Eliot’s reputation was seen as conclusive by Julius, who smugly reflected: “Eliot’s authority is diminished. … Certainly, his career is no longer exemplary.” Bloom would in turn praise Julius’s 2010 Trials of the Diaspora: A History of Anti-Semitism in England, a text brimming with lies, bestowing the following in a review for the New York Times Book Review: “Julius is a truth-teller, … I am grateful for his calm balance … and extraordinary moral strength.” Extraordinary indeed.
The ethnically nepotistic activities of Bloom and Julius in relation to Eliot suggest much about the true import of the fact “Jews are now explaining Anglo-Saxon cultural achievements and the nature of American society to an American reading public.” While we may be encouraged to believe that the entry of Jews like Harold Bloom into our arts helped us to become more ‘worldly’ and ‘objective’ in our creative life, sober reflection on contemporary Jewish activity in English literature reveals quite the opposite. Even if we accepted Bloom’s perspective, it may be said that we have merely replaced the ‘Anglo-Catholic nightmare’ with a Jewish one. And rather than being on our knees to ‘Mr T. S. Eliot,’ everyone is now on their knees to Jewish victimhood. The apparent Jewish inability to appreciate English literature beyond the narrow purview of ethnic interest is demonstrated with even the briefest of bibliographies from the field’s leading scholars:
- Derek Cohen and Deborah Heller’s Jewish Presences in English Literature
- Bryan Cheyette’s Constructions of ‘the Jew in English Literature and Society and his Between Race and Culture: Representations of ‘the Jew’ in English and American Literature
- Harry Levi’s Jewish Characters in Fiction: English Literature
- James Shapiro’s Shakespeare and the Jews
- Edgar Rosenberg’s From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish Stereotypes in English Fiction
- Gary Levine’s The Merchant of Modernism: The Economic Jew in Anglo-American Literature
- Heidi Kaufman’s English Origins, Jewish Discourse, and the Nineteenth-Century British Novel
- Esther Panitz’s The Alien in the Midst: images of Jews in English Literature
- Edward Calisch’s The Jew in English Literature: As Author and as Subject
- Matthew Biberman’s Masculinity, Anti-Semitism, and Early Modern English Literature
- Eva Holmberg’s Jews in the Early Modern English Imagination
- Phillip Aronstein’s The Jews in English Poetry and Fiction
- Nadia Valman’s The Jewess in Nineteenth-Century British Literary Culture
- Frank Felsenstein’s Anti-Semitic Stereotypes: A Paradigm of Otherness in English Popular Culture
- Jonathan Freedman’s The Temple of Culture: Assimilation and Anti-Semitism in Literary Anglo-America
- Sheila Spector’s British Romanticism and the Jews: History Culture and Literature
- Anna Rubin’s Images in Transition: the English Jew in English Literature, 1660-1830
These works are in addition to hundreds of articles appearing in influential journals and magazines where English literature is viewed through the eyes of ethnic resentment. Writers like Julius would have us believe that the position of the Yale academics of the 1950s in relation to Jewish entryism was based on irrational bigotry and ignorant anxieties. And yet the trajectory of literature in the English language, both in respect of its past and present, has moved in a radically different direction since the end of the WASP dominance. Harold Bloom was a key part of that change in direction, but despite his key role in advancing destructive and deconstructive Jewish thinking in English literature, it remains a remarkable fact that, in the eyes of many, Bloom came to be seen as a conservative figure who fought courageously against cultural Marxism and what he himself termed “the school of resentment” in English literature. How did this happen?
His personal resentment for Eliot aside, there can be little doubt that Bloom was obsessively impressed with Western literature. I’ve written previously, in an essay on Jewish academic activism against the cultural memory of Ezra Pound, on the duality of Jewish attitudes to the figures of their love/hate:
Although one may instinctively expect the ‘anti-Semitic’ work of poets like Pound and Eliot to deter the attentions of Jewish literary scholars, the reality is quite different. Indeed, in the mirror image of Menand’s claim, it actually appears that it is Jews who have the obsession with Pound. Pound, perhaps more than any other poet, has exerted an attractive influence over a large swathe of Jewish scholars, all of whom have been pulled magnetically towards him by a burning zeal to deconstruct his work, life, and legacy. This juxtaposition of hatred with attraction is subtly expressed in Anthony Julius’s T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism and Literary Form, in the course of which Julius writes that Jews reading Eliot’s poetry are both “appalled and impressed.” These academic activists are appalled because they perceive an unjustified critique upon their ethnic group, and they perceive this critique all the more keenly because of their ethnocentrism. They are impressed because they appreciate, and are threatened by, the talent of their target, often despite themselves. The ‘attraction’ arises from the desire to deconstruct and demean that talent, and thus avenge or assuage the critique.
For Bloom, Eliot sufficed as a totem upon which to purge the majority of his Jewish hate, leaving only awe and appreciation for much of the rest of the West’s literary tradition. Bloom himself proved a deeply inadequate novelist, and even as a writer of non-fiction he has been rightly described as “bloated and repetitive.” But he was almost certainly blessed with an exceptional memory for text, which he put to substantial use in some of his better known theories concerning what he termed “the anxiety of influence,” whereby authors are subconsciously, even unwillingly, influenced by their own literary idols. It is a supreme and perverse irony that many scholars now observe that Bloom may have unconsciously semi-plagiarised this, his most famous idea, from none other than “the abominable” T. S. Eliot, who articulated a remarkably similar thesis in his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Possible plagiarism aside, Bloom’s memory, together with his unarguably voracious appetite for reading, led to him becoming a kind of pop literary connoisseur — the man to go to when you want to find out if something is worth reading. He became someone everyone looked to for literary guidance — a guru.
In some ways, Bloom played the role exceptionally well. Some of his books became mass market bestsellers, and I happen to own both The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (1994) and How to Read and Why (2000), and my children have a copy of his Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages (2001). These books show Bloom more or less his best, and he was at his best when making selections from what was already largely agreed to be the best of English literature. In other words, Bloom’s best work merely involved pointing to the best work of others. When consulted for TV interviews, one could heartily agree with Bloom’s declaration that Harry Potter was “slop,” and a “period piece” “destined for the garbage can.” In his own collection for children, like that above, he offered instead the writings of Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Rudyard Kipling.
Bloom was also fiercely resistant to any diminishment in the status of the canon, and to the entry into the canon, under political motivation, of inferior works by Blacks, feminists, and minorities. When the literary world erupted in praise of President Clinton’s inaugural poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” by Maya Angelou, Bloom was almost alone in mocking its inadequacy, adding that he dare not protest further for fear that, “our own universities would feel compelled to indict us as racists and sexists.” The Guardian view on the late Bloom is predicable:
One of the most influential critics of the past half-century, Bloom was also one of the most divisive. He railed against what he called “the school of resentment”, the “Feminists, Afrocentrists, Marxists, Foucault-inspired New Historicists, or Deconstructors” who were not interested in literature but only wanted to “advance their programs for social change.” Bloom insisted on “the autonomy of the aesthetic.” The quality of a poem or novel or play must be judged in its own terms; social or political concerns were irrelevant in such judgment. He insisted, too, that the “western canon” — the body of great works that represents the triumphant best of western culture — was something to celebrate and defend. It’s little wonder that Bloom became a central figure in the “culture wars” of the 1990s, embraced by conservatives and loathed by many on the left, for whom he was a champion of “dead white males.”
And yet, even in his best form, Bloom never truly shook off the draw of Jewish activism. He was prone to the self-glorification we now see as common to the Jewish condition, and is one of the most famous critics to have made the comically tendentious claim that Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, was the ethnically Jewish descendant of Conversos. Bloom was all-too-quick to add Jews to his canon, offering gushing and largely undeserved praise for Kafka with the “take home” message that: “Patience becomes not so much the prime Kafkan virtue as the only resource for survival, like the canonical patience of the Jews.” Freud, meanwhile, was admitted to Bloom’s canon, and celebrated as the greatest essayist since Montaigne. He cites a total of 26 Yiddish and Hebrew poets, unknown to most people and certainly unread by them, as suitable for inclusion alongside such figures as Chaucer, Voltaire, and Goethe. His canon could therefore be summarized as “The Best of the West … and some random Jews that you’re just going to have to trust Bloom are worthy of inclusion.”
Perhaps the most insidious of Bloom’s proffered notions, however, was the idea that the Western literary canon was something universal and completely detached from Western culture and the Western peoples. In this respect, Bloom was much like a wine connoisseur who could point you in the direction of an excellent Merlot, but, if asked where it was grown, in what kind of soil and so on, would tell you earnestly that such matters are of the utmost irrelevance. What matters, he might say, is that the wine simply appeared in the bottle and can be enjoyed by everyone. As such, Bloom informs us that “the enigma of Shakespeare is his universalism,” and assures us that “the defense of the Western canon is in no way a defense of the West or a nationalist enterprise.” In Bloom’s reading, it’s purely a matter of historical and sociological accident that Goethe was German and not Chinese, that Shakespeare was English and not Ugandan. The lives of these men, their surroundings, their religion, their sense of identity, and the fact they existed in a culture that let them produce their art, and encouraged them in it, was simply of no import to Bloom whatsoever. The people who brought this literature into being could disappear and, just maybe, a Homer could right now be scribbling his Iliad in the Congo.
And that is surely the greatest indictment of his position as a Jewish guru to the end, no matter how unconventional he may at times have appeared.
 A. Julius, T.S. Eliot, anti-Semitism and Literary Form (Thames & Hudson, 2003), 52.
 E. P. Kaufmann, The Rise and Fall of Anglo-America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 219.
 P. Herman, Historicizing Theory (New York: State University of New York Press, 2004), 229.
 W. Cahnman, Jews and Gentiles: A Historical Sociology of their Relations (New Brunswick: Transaction, 2004), 192.
 A. Julius, T.S. Eliot, anti-Semitism and Literary Form (Thames & Hudson, 2003), 52.
 Ibid, 56.
 A. Julius, T.S. Eliot, anti-Semitism and Literary Form (Thames & Hudson, 2003), 57.
 H. Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages (New York: Riverhead, 1994), 120.
 Ibid, 430.