In Memoriam

Harold Bloom: acclaimed literary critic, beloved teacher, ‘complete original’

Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

Harold Bloom, world-renowned literary critic and Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale, died on Oct. 14 in New Haven. He was 89 years old.

Bloom was widely regarded as the most recognized literary critic in America. Among his master works are “The Anxiety of Influence” (1973), “The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages” (1994), and “How to Read and Why” (2000).

Bloom, who taught his last class on Thursday, was a “galvanizing teacher” who did not simply teach poetry — he inhabited it, said Yale President Peter Salovey, the Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology. Bloom’s critical books, said Salovey, “infused with his erudition, changed the landscape of poetic criticism.”

David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English, remembers Bloom as being “as complete an original as a scholar can be.” Bromwich added that Bloom made lasting contributions to the critical literature on Shelley, Blake, Yeats, Stevens, Shakespeare — and a great many other poets. “He had a prodigious energy for both writing and editing, but I think teaching mattered to him most of all. He was an extraordinarily generous friend and colleague — as if he simply had more to give and more to spare than others do,” said Bromwich.

Born in New York City, Bloom was educated at Cornell University and the University of Cambridge. He received his Ph.D. from Yale in 1955, and began serving on the Yale faculty that same year.

Bloom published his first book, “Shelley’s Mythmaking,” in 1959, and proceeded to write more than 40 award-winning books during his career, including “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,” in which he wrote “Shakespeare is God,” and said Shakespeare’s characters are as real as people and have shaped Western perceptions of what it is to be human, according to The New York Times obituary.

When Bloom began teaching in the late fifties the most lauded and most frequently taught Romantic poet was Keats and the most admired and frequently taught modern poet was T.S. Eliot. Bloom argued for a different canon, and his poets – Shelley, Blake, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop — sometimes known as the “Yale School” because his students left Yale to teach them around the nation — transformed reading lists in schools and colleges everywhere. His own theory of poetry, developed in “The Anxiety of Influence,” was also transformative. In that seminal book Bloom argued that all poets were intimidated by the great poets of the past, but the most successful of the new poets were those brilliant enough — “strong” enough — to overcome earlier influence. Many of his later books argued from that premise.

In “The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages,” the Yale literary critic defended the concept of the Western canon by discussing 26 writers whom he saw as central to the canon. In “How to Read and Why” — Bloom’s book on the pleasures and benefits of reading well — he wrote that “information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?”

Bloom co-edited, with Lionel Trilling, “Romantic Poetry and Prose” and “Victorian Poetry and Prose.” Bloom’s books have been translated into more than 40 languages, and he edited hundreds of anthologies concerning numerous literary and philosophical figures for the Chelsea House publishing firm.

Bloom received a MacArthur Fellowship in 1985. From 1988 to 2004, he was the Berg Professor of English at New York University while maintaining his position at Yale.

The Yale scholar was teaching two courses at Yale this semester: “Shakespeare and the Canon: Histories, Comedies, and Poems; Art of Reading a Poem” and “Poetic Influence from Shakespeare to Keats.”

Right up until the last week,” said Langdon Hammer, the Neil Gray Jr. Professor of English, “generations of Yale students found him the most inspiring and memorable teacher they ever had. He was the same man outside the classroom: visionary, sorrowing, wicked, elegant, funny, profoundly learned, personal, and loving.

Harold Bloom understood that literature was a contest for cultural authority,” adds Hammer. “Therefore, it was about power and rhetoric, and it was written by real people in history, with biographies. After the New Criticism, this was a radical innovation. The fact that he made that innovation at Yale, the home of the New Criticism, was significant: his own theory of influence emerged from the struggle to produce it. It opened the way for feminist and political criticism of various stripes — which he deplored theatrically, and for so long you can forget he had once been the iconoclast.”

For 60 years he was a large and unusually influential presence on the Yale scene and in the literary world, arguing for a poetic canon he loved and helped make famous. His students now teach and have their own influence in colleges and universities throughout the nation. On behalf of the Yale community, I extend my deepest sympathy to his wife Jeanne and his sons Daniel and David,” said Salovey.

A memorial service will be held at Battell Chapel at a date to be announced.

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Media Contact

Bess Connolly: elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu, 203-432-1324