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Obituary for Harold Bloom

Obituary for Harold Bloom

by William H. Benson

October 31, 2019

     Harold Bloom passed away on Monday, October 14, at the age of eighty-nine, leaving behind his wife Jeanne, and his two sons, David and Daniel.

     Bloom also leaves behind thousands of awe-inspired students, for Bloom taught at Yale University, in its English department, for sixty plus years, ever since the year that he received his doctorate in English there, in 1955. He taught his last class on Thursday, October 10. 

     One colleague observed, “There’s always a pack of people sitting around him to see if any bread or fishes are going to be handed out.” Another said, “Beautiful, brilliant students surrounded him. He was a vortex of power and intellectual charisma.”

     He also leaves behind a number of impressed readers who bought his forty odd books, but few could understand the heavy ideas contained therein. His books though brought him fame as the country’s leading literary critic, and substantial wealth.

     Harold’s parents, William and Paula, migrated to America after World War I. The Holocaust consumed the unfortunate relatives who remained behind in Odessa, Russia.

     Harold was the youngest of five children, three older sisters and an older brother. When five years old, one of Harold’s older sisters took him to the East Bronx library, and there he discovered Hart Crane, W. H. Auden, and T. S. Eliot. Bloom’s ability to memorize lines of poetry amazed his family.

     Soon, he discovered the classics, Homer and Plutarch and Ovid, as well as the English Romantic poets. He idolized Chaucer, Cervantes, Emerson, Freud, and Shakespeare for the rest of his life, and memorized sizable portions of their works, that he would recite to his awe-struck students.

     Harold and Jeanne lived in “the same rambling nineteenth-century brown-shingled house in New Haven, Connecticut,” for sixty plus years, a house that was “loaded with thousands of books.”

     Bloom displayed an intriguing writing style, bombastic, arrogant, filled with exaggerations, but most wise and perceptive. An observer said, “It is impossible to read deeply in Bloom without him flooring you with feeling.” Indeed!

     Certain works of literature captivated him. He said, “Walt Whitman overwhelms me, possesses me, as only a few others—Dante, Shakespeare, Milton—consistently flooding my entire being.”

     He did not write fiction. Instead, he wrote about the fiction that others had written.

     He wrote, “A literary work is not a social document to be read for its political or historical content, but is to be enjoyed above all for the aesthetic pleasure it brings. Not to worship the great books, but to prize the astonishing mystery of creative genius.”

     His books’ titles explained what he intended to explore within. For example, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds; Where Wisdom Shall Be Found; How to Read and Why; and The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages.

     Bloom’s most profound book he published in 1992, and entitled it, The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation. In it, he announced that for now he was a religious critic, and that he would apply rules of literary criticism to each of several Protestant Christian denominations.

     Bloom wrote, “A nation obsessed with religion rather desperately needs a religious criticism.” He then dared to critique, each in turn, the Pentecostals, the Southern Baptists, the Mormons, and others.

     He said, “I write both to blame and to praise the American Religion,” and “Religious criticism needs to enter that area, which lies between theology and spiritual experience.”

     Bloom agreed that the world needs literary critics to keep alive the works of writers from the distant past, and then to pass their thoughts and their words on to other eager young students.

     Of all Bloom’s bold statements, one that I find most intriguing is, “Like Shakespeare, Chekhov cannot be called either a believer or a skeptic; they are too large for such a categorization.”    

     Yet, Bloom enjoyed quoting others. For example, centuries ago, Rabbi Tarphon would say, “It is not necessary for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

     And from Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” Bloom quoted, “It is a good thing for a man to bear himself with equanimity, for one is constantly keeping appointments one never made.”

     One writer who mentioned Bloom’s passing said, “For Bloom, the worst part about death was surely that he could not take a book with him.”