[I]n populous Egypt they fatten up many bookish pedants who quarrel unceasingly in the Muses’ birdcage.”

—Timon of Phlius, 230 B.C.

For almost as long as there have been literary works, there have been literary canons, largely established by bookish pedants who do, indeed, “quarrel unceasingly.” The quarreling began early in the third century B.C. and continues today. The “birdcage” to which Timon refers was the great Library of Alexandria, part of a larger temple complex known in the ancient world as the Museum of Alexandria, established by Ptolemy II. Ptolemy, and his father before him, were literary kings who sought to spread the influence of Greek cultural achievements and who founded their museum for precisely that purpose. It was in Alexandria that what we call Hellenism was born.

To be fair, most of the scholars whom the Ptolemies patronized were more than mere pedants; among them were historians of note, natural philosophers like Archimedes, and poets like Apollonius of Rhodes, author of The Argonautica. However, for present purposes, it may be that the greatest achievement of those men, many of whom lived rather monkish lives as permanent members of the museum community, was their preservation of the Greek texts which we study today as part of our “classical” heritage. That we are able to read the Iliad; the Odyssey; the great tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides; the comedies of Aristophanes; the Greek lyric poets; the philosophical texts of Plato and Aristotle; and many others is largely due, in the first instance, to the vast labor of preservation undertaken by the Alexandrians.

The literary canon has always been associated with the sacred. Ptolemy II’s museum was a temple dedicated to the Muses, presided over by a priest. Even today, in our relentlessly secular world, the idea of a canon still exudes at least a trace of sacral odor. Harold Bloom, possibly the 20th century’s most vociferous American proponent of the canon, fashioned himself a literary high priest, steeped in kabbalistic lore. For the uninitiated, Bloom, who died in October 2019, was probably the most widely read American literary critic in recent decades. His most important works were The Anxiety of Influence (1973), A Map of Misreading (1975), The Western Canon (1994), and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998). Bloom, perched in his tenured aerie at Yale in the late 1960s, fought a lonely crusade against post-structuralism (or deconstructionism), cultural materialism, feminism, and the New Historicism. Against the fashionable pronouncements of the death of the “author,” Bloom upheld, at times almost quixotically, the Romantic idea of genius, of an authorial originality that transcended the detritus of history and ideology. For this he must be praised, though his efforts have been of little avail. The formal study of literature in our colleges and universities remains a dismal affair. All too often, great works of poetry, fiction, and drama have become, in the hands of our pedagogical Gestapo, a platform for the dissemination of ideological agendas undisguisedly hostile to the very idea that a work of literary art might possess an enduring aesthetic value that demands their devotion and respect. Indeed, these intellectual parasites swarm over the canonical corpus like maniacal Lilliputians, determined to immobilize and castrate the object of their fury—the power of the sublime (as Bloom might have put it).

So, let us pay proper homage to a formidable teacher who wore his passion for literary genius on his sleeve, undaunted by the clattering jackdaws who mocked him at every turn. On the other hand, let us admit that Bloom was not perhaps the defender of the canon that more traditional lovers of great literature would have chosen. As The American Canon makes evident, Bloom reads American literature with an Emersonian eye or, perhaps one should say, a “transparent eyeball,” to use the Sage of Concord’s own image. Emerson, in Bloom’s estimation, is the “inescapable” theorist of the American tradition, the shaper and sustainer of the American “climate.” In a chapter on Thoreau, he calls Emerson the “Father, the pragmatic image of the ego ideal, the inescapable precursor, the literary hero, the mind of the United States.” In chapter after chapter Bloom ferrets out traces of the Emersonian influence, finding those traces not only in Thoreau, Whitman, Melville, Hart Crane, and Wallace Stevens, but also in the works of writers who would have vociferously denounced any affinity with Emerson and his Transcendentalism—especially Southern writers like Faulkner, O’Connor, and the still living Cormac McCarthy. It should be noted that the great Kentucky poet, Allen Tate, failed to make Bloom’s canonical list—an omission all the more disturbing when one realizes that poets decidedly inferior to Tate, like Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, made it. But what is it about Emerson that merits the kind of adulation that Bloom bestows upon him?

As Bloom would have it, in a handful of his best poems and essays, Emerson offers us not simply the quintessential American philosophy, but the American religion. It is a latter-day Gnosticism, a religion of the Self, not the self as understood in a purely egocentric sense, but the uncreated Self which dwells at the deepest levels of consciousness and yearns for union with the unknown God, a God bearing no relation to the created world. Emersonian “self-reliance” is not merely a pragmatic assertion of individual autonomy, but a mystical declaration of “amoral dialectics of power.” According to Emerson, “Power ceases in the instant of repose; it resides in the moment of transition from a past to a new state…” This, then, is the secret of the American rejection of history, of our unmitigated love of futurity, of our devouring restlessness. There, in the transition from past to future, lies the power for which we yearn, for it is the power of self-creation. The “God” who presides over this religion can have nothing to do with Christ, who, after all, belongs to the past, and was a failure, an impotent object of scorn, while “Americans demand victory.” The true American religion, says Bloom, is charismatic and “Protestant without being Christian.” Make of that what you will.

Bloom’s anti-Christian (and anti-Catholic) animosity is most evident in his reflections on Flannery O’Connor’s most characteristic stories. He insists that in spite of her professedly orthodox Catholicism, her fictional vision—as distinct from her essays—was an “American version of the cosmological emptiness that the ancient Gnostics called the kenoma, a sphere ruled by a demiurge [the God of Judeo-Christian orthodoxy] who has usurped the alien God [the true deity of the Gnostic vision]…”—a God who remains “beyond the reach of our prayers.” Another essay would be required to demonstrate how wrongheaded this is. Suffice it to say that for any serious reader (or any reader not inclined, like Bloom, to strong misreadings), O’Connor’s fictional cosmos is anything but empty. The possibility of grace is always evident at some level—albeit often implied—and that grace is possible only as the gratuity offered by the Creator of this fallen world, who Himself became flesh. Since in his view O’Connor’s fiction reveals a hidden residue of Gnostic sensibility, Bloom does not label her, as he does T.S. Eliot, a “neo-Christian”—a term he uses to dismiss a number of early 20th century writers, including C.S. Lewis, who positioned themselves forcefully within the Christian tradition and who, like Eliot, made a point of subordinating the individual talent to the shaping influence of that tradition.

Indeed, Eliot is something of a bête noire for Bloom. He could not, of course, simply drop Eliot from the canon, given the enormous power of poems like The Waste Land and Four Quartets, not to mention Eliot’s critical oeuvre. The chapter on Eliot runs for a mere two-and-a-half pages in a work of 426 pages. Eliot, sneers Bloom, “was the prophet who proclaimed the onetime existence of a great blob of classical and Christian butter that started to melt in the later seventeenth century, slid down Enlightenment and Romantic slopes, and at last superbly congealed in The Waste Land.” Nowhere else in this volume does Bloom resort to such juvenile rhetoric. What is astonishing is that his remarks on Eliot make virtually no attempt to conceal his resentment and, perhaps, envy of Eliot’s massive achievement. He readily admits his own struggle as a critic has been to overcome Eliot’s attacks on the Romantic poets and writers whom Bloom champions, including Emerson, Shelley, Blake, Whitman, Wilde, and D.H. Lawrence. Of Eliot’s position on Emerson, he writes, “His scorn for Emerson is so ill-informed that some personal bias has to be noted in it.” Yet, all too typically, Bloom offers no evidence of what might be “ill-informed” about Eliot’s view of Emerson. What remains of this stingy chapter dwells largely on Eliot’s refusal to acknowledge the greatness of Whitman. Indeed, he quite dubiously suggests that Eliot in The Waste Land was so indebted to Whitman that any acknowledgement of that indebtedness would have “jeopardize[d] the originality of the Eliotic masterwork.” We can safely assume that the term “masterwork” is used only grudgingly here, though perhaps sincerely.

Whitman’s place in Bloom’s fanciful American canon requires more comment. Bloom, to be just, is quite generous in his assessment of a number of deserving American writers. Chapters on Dickinson, Hawthorne, Melville, James, Cather, Hurston, and Welty, for example, are well worth perusal. In those chapters his commentary is often insightful and nuanced. But for Whitman, his adulation is unadulterated by critical acumen. In a chapter that runs on for 33 pages, we learn that “If Emerson founded the American religion, Whitman alone holds the place permanently emblematic of the life of the spirit in America.” If this is true, God help us all. What, precisely, in Whitman’s achievement justifies such veneration? It is simply that Whitman most perfectly expresses the sublime selfhood that is the essence of the true American personality: “The poetry of [Whitman’s] ‘real me,’ intricate and forlorn, is addressed to the ‘real me’ of the American reader,” but not precisely the common men and women that Whitman so often celebrated. It is a poetry that communicates its truth only in evasiveness, and can be fully comprehended only by an “elite” who understand the hidden Gnostic significance of Whitman’s “androgynous” and “kabbalistic” vision of the divine wellsprings of the American self. It is only in Whitman that the Emersonian poetry of power finds its fullest expression, for Whitman is the supreme poet of transitions, of the movement toward futurity, as in, for example, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” Whitman’s “real me,” it seems, is not so much “Adamic” as “pre-Adamic” and is “no part of the creation,” but rather a Gnostic “fragment of the original Abyss preceding nature.”

The reader may be forgiven for thinking that Bloom’s rhetoric here verges upon New Age psychobabble, for it is not far removed from that. However, The American Canon remains on the whole a highly readable work, largely free of theoretical jargon. One might happily quarrel with Bloom on any number of points and, more importantly, challenge his criteria of selection. In fact, those criteria are never made fully explicit. However, in his introduction to the volume, its editor David Mikics, a former student of Bloom’s at Yale, provides some insight into the qualities Bloom sought in a canonical writer or text. Perhaps the most important of these is something Bloom called the “daemonic,” which is most apparent in writers whose genius is rooted in the preternatural depths of the self (not unlike the Socratic daemon), and which “runs a scale from divinity to guilt.” Daemonic works radiate an aura of the sublime—that which evokes, in the Romantic tradition, both awe and terror. Moreover, as Mikics indicates, the daemonic is communicated over time between writers, begetting the power of the “anxiety of influence” that Bloom judged to be necessary for the most powerful works. Stated dogmatically, this would mean that truly great works are always strong misreadings of precursors whose daemonic power threatens to paralyze the aspiring writer, though to Bloom’s credit he does not always adhere to this criterion, admitting that some authors have created sublime works without any apparent anxiety of influence. It remains to be seen whether Bloom’s critical reputation will endure. Indeed, it remains to be seen whether, in a century or so, there will be any readers capable of reading Bloom, or his precursor Eliot, with any understanding. Bloom once styled himself our “owl of Minerva,” and while this is no doubt an overblown analogy, it is likely that he meant it ironically. He will be missed, if only for his magnificent provocations.

[The American Canon: Literary Genius from Emerson to Pynchon by Harold Bloom (Library of America) 435 pp., $32.00]