Tea With Harold Bloom, on the Occasion of His 45th Book

Yale professor and critic Harold Bloom. Photo: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/New York Magazine

Harold Bloom is 84 and a little under the weather. He is one of Yale’s more famous professors (where he’s been teaching for 60 years) and the author of dozens of books (including an anthology for “Extremely ­Intelligent Children”), many of them best sellers, many of them fascinating and enlightening, some of them infuriating or confusing (if you are not up on your Gnostic texts or the Kabbalah), and all of them written in his unmistakable voice — imperious, sympathetic, melancholy, intimate, playful, and brilliant in both depth and breadth. Long before we were friends, and in an academic pool in which I don’t so much as dip a toe, he was also a major pot-stirrer. I gather that the admiration he expresses for many women poets, for many gay poets (“Three out of four poets in America are gay or bisexual,” he says. “More than half of all the great poets are”), for James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison (“A great friend, a magnificent writer, his Invisible Man is a novel as powerful as Magic Mountain”), for the poets Jay Wright and Thylias Moss, for writers as contemporary as Don DeLillo, Carl Phillips, and Henri Cole, didn’t count for much with the opposition when he wrote The Western Canon in 1994. He was seen as a forceful, unpleasantly old-fashioned defender of the Canon As Was. As he says, he was described as someone who partook of a cult of personality or self-obsession rather than of the “special vision” of critics focused on issues of gender, color, and power — and Lacanians and deconstructionists. He coined the catchy phrase “School of Resentment” (“I think, really, they resent difficult poetry and aesthetic splendor”), and he made a lot of people understandably angry, some of whom are angry still.

Elderly, unrelated orphans, Harold and I adopted each other as cousins instantly, a few years ago, after a friend brought us together for a cup of tea. I found a more erudite version of my undaunted, acerbic, intelligent father, Murray. He saw me, fondly, as like his mother in temperament, “the marvelous Paula, warm and vibrant and loving.”

We meet regularly at the house he shares with his wife, Jeanne Gould, a retired school psychologist. It is an iconic professor’s home, with art of every kind, comfortably worn furniture, and more books than I have ever seen (and I have seen a lot of houses like these). Sometimes, while I wait for Harold to settle in, I scan the latest tower of books in front of me on the dining-room table, not even bothering with the stacks listing toward the far end, where Jeanne’s laptop sits, ready for her correspondence and Harold’s dictation.

Some of today’s stack: Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms, by Friedrich Schlegel (“Very important to me”); Elizabeth Bishop, by Colm Tóibín (“That very well-done novel on Henry James, very good”); The Poetry of Kabbalah, by Peter Cole; Jewish Cryptotheologies of Late Modernity, by Agata Bielik-Robson (“Splendid lady”); Nothing to Declare, by Henri Cole (“Very good. The best poet of his generation”); Shakespeare’s Horses, by Joseph Harrison (“My pupil. Next to Henri Cole.”), and multiple books by authors I expect to see: Hans Jonas, Gershom ­Scholem, Friedrich Hölderlin.

Then there is a pile of stuffed animals on the living-room couch that belong not to their grown sons but to Jeanne and Harold. I ask, and he tells me, happily. “Well, there’s Valentina, the ostrich, named after Valentinus, second-century author of The Gospel of Truth; she presides over the boys. This little toy wombat, named MacGregor, from a William Morris exhibit, it reminds me of the story about Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Mrs. William Morris. MacGregor, the wombat, was sent to Rossetti by an Australian admirer of that name. Whenever Rossetti visited his closest friend, William Morris, he would bring MacGregor over. William Morris loved to lie down upon the floor and play with MacGregor and draw sketches of him. During that time, the redhead Jane Burden, wife to William Morris, but endless mistress to Rossetti, would run upstairs with the painter-poet for a rapid encounter. Thus, poor MacGregor served as an unwilling pander. And this little baby gorilla, well,
we call Gorilla Gorilla. And there is that famous original A. A. Milne donkey, Eeyore, and the last of our boys here, Oscar, the duck-billed platypus, named in honor of my hero, Oscar Wilde.”

We have scones and tea and we get down to talking about his new book, The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime (Spiegel & Grau). Harold can tell that I’m a little nervous. I’ve already admitted that I haven’t read the last chapter, which is as good as admitting that I don’t fully grasp the greatness of Hart Crane, whose Collected Poems Harold has been appreciating since he was 10.

“Cousin Amy, zie gesundt. This is a family affair. This is, as the great [Isaac] Babel said, how it was done in Odessa. We are two Odessan Yiddish literary types having a conversation.”

He explains how the book came together and almost didn’t. “It took four years,” he says, “partly because, alas, there were four or five hospitalizations and two bad falls. It was a time punctuated by exhaustion, illness, the insistence on going on, on continuing to teach.”

Much of the literature he discusses in this book he has discussed in previous ones, but in The Daemon Knows, Harold wants to persuade. “Shelley said that the function of the sublime is to persuade us to give up easier pleasures for more difficult ones. One purpose of this book is to emulate Shelley in regards to my own readers.” He wants, he tells me, to “aid other readers in their own personal quests to find themselves more truly through the reading of superb imaginative literature.” He emphasizes personal.

“I think it’s the best thing I’ve written on Emily Dickinson,” he tells me. “What’s new about it, what’s really vital, is the close relationship between her and Shakespeare, who in the end is the dominant figure for her, as he should be for all of us.” The dominance of Shakespeare over all of us is not new ground for Harold, but the depth of his feeling for Dickinson is — if not new, newly burnished. He reads to me from a dense, convincing argument in The Daemon Knows and then: “After Shakespeare, she is the most original, incisive, profound thinker among all the great poets in the English language, British and America. Shakespeare writes bisexually because he writes universally,” he says. “And Dickinson has that comprehensiveness, too.” This leads us to Walt Whitman, one of the stars in the Bloomian firmament and the subject of the new book’s first chapter. “He writes with such nuance and indirection and subtlety. He longs for contact, but he fears it. He writes, ‘To touch my body to someone else’s is as much as I can bear.’ And it is a marvelous moment when he writes, in ‘To You, Whoever You Are,’ in 1856, ‘Whoever you are, I place my hand upon you, that you may be my poem.’ I cannot think of another poet who addresses the reader with this wonderful immediacy and intimacy. Oh, it breaks my heart,” he says.

Compared to some of his other books, there may not be as much hue and cry about the The Daemon Knows, and Harold doesn’t seem to mind. As tired as he is, there is snorting and a dismissive wave of his hand, for the reviews he doesn’t read but has heard about. “As someone sympathetic once said of my reviews, ‘It’s an invectorium.’ I can only write the way I teach: personally and passionately. And with this book, you see that there is nothing polemical, only the style of old age: trying to see what one still has to say.”

Mindful of the passing of friends, of everyone’s illnesses and how long people his age are likely to live, he says, “This is probably my penultimate book.” Jeanne hands me the table of contents for the next project, a “rather more complex book.” I exclaim that I’m happy to see that he’ll be writing about Elizabeth Bishop, one of my favorite poets.

“Yes, finally,” Harold says. “I’ve only written a little bit about Elizabeth Bishop before. She stayed here overnight. A very splendid person. A great poet.” And he tells me another irresistible story.

*This article appears in the May 4, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.

Tea With Harold Bloom, for His 45th Book