Harold Bloom cashed in on middle-class Americans' hunger for literary culture.
The Yale professor and prolific author of best-selling books on Shakespeare and other great Western writers died Monday at age 89 in a New Haven hospital, according to a New York Times front-page obituary.
Like Clifton Fadiman, Mortimer Adler and the Harvard "Great Books" collection, Bloom sought to impart literary knowledge to average readers. While previous workers in the trade published great-book editions for home libraries, Bloom attracted those who wanted literary wisdom without reading the books. Dwight MacDonald called the earnest desire for self-improvement "middle brow."
With his wild hair, hound-dog eyes and portly figure, Bloom was a living academic charicature. Reveling in his resemblance to the comic actor Zero Mostel, Bloom was known for his florid lectures, among Yale's most popular.
A few of Bloom's female students. including author Naomi Wolf, accused him of sexual impropriety, which he denied. Wolf said he placed a hand on her thigh.
From his perch at Yale, Bloom defended the white-male-dominated Western canon, mostly British and American. He issued thunderclaps against ethnic and women writers, whom he disparaged as the "school of resentment."
In one of his controversial books, he found that a woman at King Solomon's court had written the Jewish bible. He also claimed that Shakespeare had "invented the human," or formed the modern consciousness.
Bloom possessed a photographic memory and could recite all of Shakespeare, Romantic poetry, "Paradise Lost" and "The Fairie Queen,"according to the Times. That seems more insane than laudatory.
A literary factory, Bloom also edited a number of critical books on American and British authors, handy tools for English teachers and students.
As a critic, he ruined several writers' reputations, including Robert Lowell's. The poet's standing has rebounded in recent years.
Many who picked up Bloom's books seeking a guide to literature were left mystified. His Yale colleague, the poet John Hollander, criticized Bloom for his unclear writing, according to the Times. Bloom was notorious for using obscure literary terms.
Bloom made his mark with "The Anxiety of Influence," a ground-breaking book that asserted that young writers seek to overthrow their literary forebears through misreading their works. That was a blow against the prevailing New Criticism, which focused on texts without examining their historical and biographical contexts.
Some considered Bloom a charlatan. His unmistakable Bloomian style of bombast and encyclopedic knowledge intimidated many readers who bought his missives. Many undoubtedly were inspired to go on and read the books, using him as a guide. He began a mini-boom in Shakespeare studies issued by other academics, which continues unabated.
He championed the traditional Western book culture as elite schools like Yale instituted programs in gender studies, film, TV and even cartoons. His pronouncements were the dying cries of a a long-established literary hegemony. That his literary elitism produced so many best-sellers is amazing. In the age of Twitter-short attention spans, such success is unlikely to be duplicated.