John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.
Much has been written of travel, far less of the road. --Edward Thomas, The Icknield Way 1. My apartment in Brooklyn is a 20-minute walk from the subway. Strange as it may seem, this constitutes a prohibitively long distance in New York terms. To traverse it involves an apparently tedious march past a medley of odd little bars, thrift stores, clapboard houses, churches, project towers, and forklift-busy warehouses. Skirt around the small triangular patch of ground commemorating World War I soldiers from the neighborhood before rushing through the waft of crushed leaves on Woodpoint Road, then the salty bang of Ho May Kitchen. Perhaps a momentary glance at the dog that watches quizzically from a third floor condo, and on the corner of Meserole a lithe young cat known, only by me of course, as The Hopester. All that variety in 20 easy minutes, and it sometimes seems that people would prefer, if given the choice, a couple of miles running nowhere on a treadmill. Don’t get me wrong. If you can hammer out a mile or three on a treadmill I salute you. But it appears that the pleasures of ambling, dawdling, sauntering, strolling, and even straight-up walking have been subordinated to the means/end logic of appointments, schedules, and target bodies. Activities get slotted into temporal compartments so that maximum utility is gained and the humble walk is relegated to nuisance. The Sunday Times has a section in its magazine called "A Life In The Day." A couple of years back it covered a day in the life of a ninja. No kidding. Masaaki Hatsumi, grand master of the Togakue school of ninja. There, he remarked, “I make a habit of never having any sort of routine. It's bad to have a pattern to your life, because the three easiest times to kill a man are when he's on the toilet, when he's in bed or when he's eating.” I don’t know whether Masaaki Hatsumi would judge the walk from the subway to my door a long one, but I have long admired his idea of avoiding routines. It is true that I have no -- or at least, very few -- worries about being assassinated on the toilet. But beyond that, there is immense value in the suggestion of being alert to what is around you, of perhaps noticing now and then (in the words of Louis MacNiece) “the drunkenness of things being various,” and of being open to the possibility that something wondrous and wondrously brief might happen to you or I at any given moment. It is true too that my brief strolls around hipsterville 11222 hardly constitute the way of the ninja, to say nothing of the 40 miles a day that a hardcore wanderer like Samuel Coleridge could muster in his time. But on reading The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane, a wonderfully meandering account of the author's peregrinations and perambulations through England, Scotland, Spain, Palestine, and Sichuan, one is reminded over and again of the textured history and unpredictable beauty of routes themselves as opposed to mere destinations and (if this is not in fact a tautology) the infinite possibilities that come with cultivating an openness to chance. Yet strictly speaking, Macfarlane’s book is not so much a story of movement as it is of metaphor. Leading the reader along the Icknield Way, for example -- a centuries old chalk path across southeast England -- the author takes as his guide the poet Edward Thomas, who, in a remarkable creative outpouring between 1914 (when the poet Robert Frost, a frequent Gloucestershire walking companion, told him his prose was verse in disguise) until his death in the trenches of 1917, wrote scores of poems about paths and ways and walking. While crossing the Cairngorm massif, a mountain range in the Highlands of Scotland, Macfarlane draws on the work of novelist Nan Shepherd, who once declared “my eyes are in my feet.” Other scribblers like William Wordsworth and Ludwig Wittgenstein, Roger Deakin and Henry David Thoreau saunter across the pages like truant ghosts, reminding us how many of those we admire are intimately tied to the places in which they moved -- Glencoyne Bay, Walden Woods. Such connections between writing and motion are not incidental details here. Rather they constitute a key concern of the book, a consideration of the manner in which metaphors shape our experience and experience shapes our metaphors. In other words, an attempt to give a richness of appreciation to the fact that, in English and Latin, the basic metric unit of the poem is the foot. 2. Macfarlane is certainly not alone in celebrating the wonders of wayfaring. W.G. Sebald and Iain Sinclair are only two of the most recent figures in a tradition that stretches back through Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Louis Stevenson to the 17-century Japanese poet Basho and beyond. But Macfarlane’s particular gift is his ability to bring a remarkably broad and varied range of voices to bear on his own pathways and to do so with a pleasingly impressionistic yet tenderly precise style. Consider this sentence, in which time and sensation combine so that eons are gradually funneled down through years, days and minutes into the Now: The waymarkers of my walks were not only dolmens, tumuli and long barrows, but also last year’s ash-leaf trails (brittle in the hand), last night’s fox scat (rank in the nose), this minute’s birdcall (sharp in the ear), the pylon’s electric crackle and the crop-sprayer’s hiss. Or this, an account of walking the Broomway, a footpath barely visible and just about at water level during low tide, going straight out to sea for three miles before hitting high land again on the deliciously named island of Foulness: Half a mile offshore, walking on silver water, we crossed a path that extended gracefully and without apparent end to our north and south. It was a shallow tidal channel and the water it held caught and pooled in the sun, such that its route existed principally as flux; a phenomenon of light and currents. Its bright line curved away from us: an ogee whose origin we could not explain and whose invitation to follow we could not disobey, so we walked it northwards, along that glowing track made neither of water nor of land, which led us further and further out to sea. Along that particular pathway, Macfarlane draws variously on the work of the early 20-century naturalist W.H. Hudson, poet and farmer Wendell Berry, and the visual artist William Fox. But just as illuminating are the people met and accompanied -- Patrick Arnold, whose hand-drawn map of the Foulness coastline provides safe passage and who, because of an accident in 1857, believes he owes his life to the Broomway, or the author’s friend David Quentin, “the only Marxist tax lawyer in London.” In this manner, Macfarlane treads pathways that before our eyes become repositories of lives and stories. A frequent activity along these journeys is the building of cairns -- small dome-shaped constructions of stones -- piled up to serve as markers: of ways taken, of moments noted, of people passed away. On the westerly moraine of Minya Konka, Macfarlane constructs a pair of cairns that mark the sighting of the peak. But more than this, they mark the story of one Jonathan Wright who died there in 1980 and was buried by his climbing team in a crevasse in the glacier. Remarkably, almost 20 years later, his daughter made a pilgrimage to the spot where he died only to find his frozen and preserved body under the surface of the ice. She was able to see him in the flesh, preserved almost as well as the day he died. She could touch his face, and she did so. She cut a lock of his hair. Shortly afterwards, they reburied Jonathan, 20 years on from his death. Cairns for Macfarlane serve almost as poems made manifest and embedded in the landscape: elegies in gneiss, odes of mica, flint ballads. Of fishermen in the Outer Hebrides he tells us that “on a guga hunter’s last visit to the Rock, before he becomes too old to return, he builds a cairn to mark his relationship with the island.” On the Isle of Lewis, he searches for an elusive path traced on no maps, laid by a crofter called Manus MacLennan decades earlier, barely perceptible to the inattentive: “click. Alignment. Blur resolving into comprehension. The pattern standing clear: a cairn sequence, subtle but evident, running up from near the Dubh Loch shore.” Clicks, comprehension, subtle sequences. Are we really seeking trails in a landscape here or are we perhaps more accurately following the line of a lyric, the musique concrète of some immense epic written by a cattle herder across the hills and bogs of the Highlands? Is there a difference? 3. Paradoxically, the greatest virtues of Macfarlane’s approach to his subject matter -- his openness to chance encounters and digression, a willingness to allow the material to shape the book, the eschewal of tight thematic structuring -- are arguably at the roots of the book’s only real shortcoming, a certain studied aimlessness that can occasionally leave the reader weary of its 400-plus pages. Macfarlane’s first book Mountains Of The Mind, which explored Western culture’s changing attitudes towards the great peaks and ranges of the world, was an altogether more tightly controlled venture. Chapters dealt with particular issues and the book climaxed with a thrilling re-imagining of George Mallory’s doomed attempts to scale Mount Everest in 1921, 1922, and, fatally, in 1924. His second book, The Wild Places was a looser, almost mystical affair, but equally satisfying in its hunt for wild landscapes and places on the knife-edge of nature. The Old Ways assembles itself differently, in a manner that cedes virtually all authority to its materials. Here chapters have such titles as “Chalk,” “Peat,” “Ice,” and “Flint,” and are thematic only to the extent that each deals with a specific journey or set of journeys. Macfarlane does, however, repeat the strategy of concluding with the story of his guiding spirit. Edward Thomas’s story -- his restless life and his tragic end by pneumatic concussion on Easter Monday, 9 April 1917 in the battle of Arras -- is told with poise and sensitivity. And a remarkable story it is. Here was a writer who saw himself “not as something rooted in place and growing steadily over time, but as a shifting set of properties variously supplanted and depleted by our passage through the world.” A poet who, upon being sent an early draft of Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” reads it as a personal rebuke of his indecisiveness in regard to joining the war effort. A few weeks later, in July 1915, he enlists. However, a small amount of tedium seems only right when one reads of travels taken over days, weeks, and months; of the obsessions and compulsions that could lead a visual artist like Richard Long to walk a straight line dozens of times over and over again to create that most ephemeral of works: a path in the desert sand. And what better way to tell the story of pathways and roads, treks and rambles than through a book that refuses the easy satisfactions of end points and destinations? If I am pushed to find a point to The Old Ways beyond the immediate pleasure of the details, it is to be found in the sense that all the roads and paths contained in it converge to become one road. That the ways taken connect the walker to a whole manifold of ways and a manifold of wayfarers. That routes taken can be understood almost as physical poems, songlines of a culture. And although Macfarlane regrettably does not extend his journeying to the USA, one need only think of Highway Route 61, the “blues highway,” to remember all that lies waiting within the roads and pathways of America. As he so eloquently states in the final pages of the book, “The land itself, filled with letters, words, texts, songs, signs and stories. And always, everywhere, the paths, spreading across counties and countries, recalled as pattern rather than as plot, bringing alignments and discrepancies, elective affinities, shifts from familiar dispositions.” There is indeed much to be found when your eyes are in your feet.
In winter of 1814, British sailors recorded seeing “clouds of ashes” at the peak of Mount Tambora, a volcanic mountain in the East Indies. A few months later, in the spring of 1815, Tambora exploded with huge, jet-like flames, a column of fire known as a “Plinian” eruption, after Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. But Tambora burned hotter than Vesuvius, and it was so powerful that it ejected rock, ash, and other materials into the stratosphere, where they remained suspended, wreaking havoc on global weather patterns for the next three years. 1816 was known as “The Year Without Summer”—a relatively mild title for a year that brought famine, disease, and poverty. In the United States, there was snow in June, destroying crops and bringing the country’s first economic depression. In Ireland and China, unremitting rains flooded fields; while in India, monsoon season never arrived. Bacteria flourished in these stagnant, impoverished conditions, and outbreaks of typhus and cholera can be traced back to that dreary, volcanic winter. I learned these and many other historical details from Gillen D’arcy Wood’s Tambora: The Eruption That Changed The World. Tambora is a new book, but one I discovered haphazardly, through that great portal of haphazardness: Wikipedia. I was fact-checking an overwrought simile (re: procrastinating) and landed on the Wikipedia entry for Frankenstein, where I learned that the great fictional monster was the indirect result of “The Year Without Summer.” I’d never heard of “The Year Without Summer” and in its addictive way, Wikipedia provided a link to an article on the subject, which in turn provided a link to the 1815 Eruption of Mount Tambora, which in turn provided a link to the Pacific Ring of Fire, which in turn led to an article about plate tectonics, which in turn led to a page about super-Earths, which in turn led me to wonder about the origin of the universe and what is the meaning of life on Earth, which I believe is that state of existential confusion to which all Wikipedia rabbit holes eventually lead. I am grateful that on this particular foray, it only took six steps—and also, of course, that it led me to read Tambora, which gave me a glimpse into a startlingly dramatic period in history. To get back to “The Year Without Summer” (which at this point in July sounds like a marvelous situation) and the creation of Frankenstein, you must transport yourself to a storm-lashed villa on Switzerland’s Lake Geneva. There, sitting in front of a roaring fire, is Percy Shelley, Mary soon-to-be-Shelley Godwin, Mary’s stepsister, Claire Clairmont, Lord Byron, and also, Lord Byron’s doctor (whose presence is somewhat irrelevant, but who I will include, anyway, in the spirit of Wikipedia). This privileged, literary bunch has been driven indoors by unseasonably cold weather, driving rain, and spectacular thunderstorms—all due to Mount Tambora, although of course they don’t know it. Bored and perhaps tired of reciting poetry, they decide to have a contest for who can tell the best ghost story. Mary’s late entry is a tale about a student, Victor Frankenstein, who discovers how to bring life to inanimate material. Frankenstein uses this power to create an eight-foot tall “creature” who is never given a name, but who eventually kills Frankenstein’s wife and escapes to the North Pole. It’s not a ghost story but a monster story, one inspired by Shelley’s extensive readings into science and myth. Wood argues that Frankenstein was also inspired by the stormy, Tambora-induced weather, and that “the pyrotechnical lightning displays” raging outside Shelley’s villa windows were written into the novel. He cites a passage from Frankenstein in which a teenaged Victor Frankenstein witnesses an oak tree catching fire after being struck by lightning: “As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared and nothing remained but a blasted stump.” This is Frankenstein’s moment of inspiration, or as Wood writes: “In the fierce smithy of that Tamborean storm, Frankenstein is born as the anti-superhero of modernity—the ‘Modern Prometheus’—stealer of the gods’ fire.” That small extract gives a taste of Wood’s prose style, which can veer toward over-the-top, but one of the things I liked about Tambora was its generous dose of literary criticism. Not only does Wood mention the influence of Tambora’s volcanic weather on Frankenstein, he also writes about the ways that Shelley’s 1826 post-apocalyptic novel, The Last Man, may have been inspired by the cholera epidemic that emerged in the wake of Tambora. Wood also discusses the poetry of Shelley’s fireside companions, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley; and in his chapter on China, Wood quotes from the verse of Li Yuyang, who chronicled the heavy rains and flooding that came as a result of Tambora: Rain falls unending, like tears of blood/from the sentimental man/Horses sink and shudder/like fish in the rippling water. Reporting on the effects of Tambora on America, Wood turns to the writings of Thomas Jefferson, whose Edenic vision of America and in particular, his home state of Virginia, was challenged by the inexplicably cold weather brought on by Tambora. Even more challenging was the real estate bubble and economic depression that followed The Year Without Summer, thanks to what we would probably now characterize as “fluctuations in the global marketplace.” Today, we understand very well how the weather affects local, and even global economics. (And in fact, while I was reading Tambora, I heard a radio story on NPR’s Marketplace about the ill-effects of this past long winter on the American economy.) We may also have a better understanding of how the weather, and in particular severe weather, affects literary imagination. It doesn’t take an especially sensitive critic to link the recent popularity of post-apocalyptic novels to headlines like “Climate Change Deemed Growing Security Threat By Military” and “In Sign of Warming, 1,600 Years of Ice in Andes Melts in 25 Years.” But the extent to which the human imagination can actually understand and foresee global environmental change is harder to gauge. It’s telling that many post-apocalyptic novels focus on the survival of an individual or a family or perhaps a very small group of people. The story has to be scaled down, otherwise the prospect of a post-apocalyptic future is too big, or maybe just too depressing, to imagine. With Tambora, Wood doesn’t have to imagine anything—or maybe it’s fairer to say that he doesn’t have to make anything up. He frequently has to imagine what it would have been like to experience extreme weather, disease, and famine, without any scientific understanding of why it is happening. Wood acknowledges this problem in his preface: “The formidable, occasionally mind-bending challenge in writing this book has been to trace cataclysmic world events the cause of which the historical actors themselves were ignorant.” He sees the eruption of Tambora and its devastating after-effects as a case study for rapid climate change, arguing that the years post-Tambora offer “a rare, clear window onto a world convulsed by weather extremes, with human communities everywhere struggling to adapt to sudden, radical shifts in temperatures and rainfall.” Wood further argues that the influence of Tambora on this period of history has been overlooked because “the Tamborean climate emergency followed hard upon the devastations of the Napoleonic Wars and has always remained in the shadows of that epochal conflict.” I like that Wood uses the word “epochal” to characterize the importance of the Napoleonic Wars, because an epoch is also a unit of geological time and seems to hint at the irony that Wood is exposing: human societies have been mostly profoundly shaped by environmental factors thousands of years in the making, yet we continue to look to recent historical events (usually wars engineered by Great Men) to understand our predicament.
Harold Bloom is getting old. The venerable and untiring critic has reached the age of 81, the age Dante thought would allow one to reach the perfection of mind and spirit. Bloom would be the first (and he repeats himself in this, as in all things) to admit that he falls pretty solidly short of this luminosity. The nickname he chose for himself is "Brontosaurus Bardolator Bloom" - an amiable enough monster, as he wryly remarks. He once rather charmingly referred to Leopold Bloom, the wonderfully curious and unpretentious leading man of Ulysses as his "namesake." In this new volume of criticism, proclaimed to be his last, he rejects the idea of grandly associative names except, of course, for the fortunate few who’ve earned them: Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Whitman, Wordsworth, and Joyce among them, as well he might. He’s spent most of his life absorbed in their imaginations. The Anatomy of Influence: Literature As A Way Of Life is simultaneously a swan song, mash note, and fever dream. It’s interesting to see how Bloom frets and struts his hour upon the page. To my mind, Harold Bloom is not so much the judicious patriarch or brazen egomaniac or even a vogon (as one detractor had it) as he is a grandmother - endlessly harried, fiercely loving, and relentlessly worried about the future of his brood. One could say that the bombastic Brontosaurus is really no more than the mother hen of his corner of literary history. He has been known to address his interviewers as “my child,” “my dearies,” and “my little bear.” Every photo of him I’ve ever seen displays the hollow-eyed gaze of a sort of maternal weariness, an insomnia of wondering if the lights are going out and if the house will still be standing when he finally shuffles off the mortal coil. As for his method and his taste, it might be summed up in a bit of his critical mythology. For Bloom, especially when starting from his breakthrough 1973 essay "The Anxiety of Influence," the issue at hand has always been the nature of literary influence. The idea is that a poet wants to begin to create though at first he feels threatened and anxious that a stronger, precursor poet has already said what he wanted to say before he had the chance to say it himself. The influence of the precursor is overwhelming in its inspiration and the poet begins to copy the voice or style or philosophy of the precursor poet, causing an anxiety over the poet’s struggle for identity, for individuality. The agon, a word rooted in the competition between Greek tragedians, is when the poet is struggling to overthrow this contaminating power. The way this is accomplished is through a Lucretian clinamen, or unpredictable swerve from the precursors’ dominance. The result is sublimity; the rapture of a distinct, powerful, and utterly strange new voice which appears. The readers discover themselves, always themselves, as an inscrutable interiority always deepening and widening, as they read through the panoply of what Bloom unabashedly calls genius. He is fond of citing Emerson on this: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts, they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” The contention would seem to be on what authority, of course, Bloom would be able to decide that one writer has sufficiently influenced or superseded another, and on what grounds. There does not seem to be an objective answer to this, given that interpreting interpretations is a tricky business at best. It doesn’t matter as much as it might, though - criticism can falter when it decides on its own that it contains the last word on any text. History is a long record on the folly of this. A plethora of meanings, an opening up of new avenues of discovery, a startling juxtaposition is plenty to grow on. Bloom, to his credit, is aware of this: “opponents accuse me of espousing an ‘aesthetic ideology,’ but I follow Kant in believing that the aesthetic demands deep subjectivity and is beyond the reach of ideology.” Subjectivity never ends. Bloom’s position does not, and should not, mean you discriminate between superior and inferior cultural productions. History can’t - and shouldn’t - be avoided in criticism, and Bloom errs in his cantankerous avoidance of historicism, but if societies do in fact write books, the minds who craft them certainly do not come to us mass produced. In his Genius: A Mosaic of A Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (sort of a choice anthology of favorite poets, novelists, and playwrights), he remarks that “there were many neurotic spinsters in 19th Century Amherst, but there was only one Emily Dickinson.” It may be best for politics and cultural production as such to be considered an ingredient of the soup and not the sum total of the soup itself. What sets him off, as he rather irritatingly tends to repeat here and elsewhere, is what he calls “The School of Resentment” - the Marxist, Feminist, Post-Colonial, Deconstructionist methods of approaching a text. His use of a Nietzschean concept is telling, both for what he accuses and how he accuses it. For Bloom, this culture theory approach trivializes the power of imagination, absurdly reducing it to circumstances of gender or class stature or ethnicity. It’s interesting how this kind of gripe has been heard before, usually from some self-righteous idiot who bemoans the lowering of America’s mental and spiritual standards while preening on Fox News or scribbling another paranoid, myopic screed for some Moral Majority book club, the better to pay off his gambling debts and mistresses. Bloom’s not a conservative, at least as far as politics go, and the distinction is worth remembering. If the new frontier for political affiliation is cultural and taste-based vindictiveness (Starbucks vs. Wal-Mart, Fox vs. CNN, The Noble Canon vs. Gangsta Rap), and it is well-argued that it was the right wing who created the mess in the first place, then it pays to see a believer in the canon remind us that despite “the war for America’s soul,” good little boys and girls are not going to be saved by reading their Bible and their Emerson to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and merrily stride towards a Manifest Destiny: It is scary to reread the final volume of Gibbon these days because the fate of the Roman Empire seems an outline...Dark influences from the American past congregate among us still. If we are a democracy, what are we to make of the palpable elements of plutocracy, oligarchy, and mounting theocracy that rule our state? How do we address the self-inflicted catastrophes that devastate our natural environment? So large is our malaise that no single writer can encompass it. We have no Emerson or Whitman among us...I did not consciously realize this then, but my meditation upon poetic influence now seems to me also an attempt to forge a weapon against the gathering storm of ideology that soon would sweep away many of my students. It’s very penetratingly said that Bloom’s canon is sometimes low on non-Western voices. Bloom is pretty bombastic in what he loves and why he loves it, and he can’t go at least a page or two without pumping out another reference to Shakespeare and how the Bard’s omnivorous consciousness almost overshadows the book he’s analyzing. Bloom likes to mingle his views with those of the lords of language, and good for him. Proximity, however, is not approximation. I don’t think a writer can decide for themselves who their authentic precursor is; there’s way too much bubbling around in the stew of the creative mind to locate such an inspiration. If an interested reader takes inventory of Bloom’s school for the ages, there are indeed plenty of Dead White Men (and Women) to be found, but there are also more than a few interestingly subversive texts to be found. I discovered Ishmael Reed’s searing Mumbo Jumbo on this recommendation and I doubt very much that it was chosen as an encroachment of European cultural hegemony. Same goes for Bloom’s "20th Century Sublime," which includes The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, the concluding ten minutes of which is hard to see as anything but hilariously anarchic satire on whatever is patriotic and pious in western history. The same could be said of Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, for that matter. The list also includes Charlie Parker’s Parker's Mood, Bud Powell’s Un Poco Loco, and the “Byron The Light Bulb” sequence from Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I mention these not to engage in academic tit-for-tat, but to emphasize the inherently idiosyncratic nature of all criticism. His indignation is incandescent. Bloom celebrates what he is moved by, what outrages and delights him, what “ravishes his heart away.” Bardolatry, “the least religious of all religions,” is Bloom’s great love. The first half of the book is taken up with the idea of “Shakespeare the founder.” Shakespeare is the omnivorous, omniscient one: his creative capacity is boundless and subsumes everything which comes before or after it. In a previous work, Bloom even makes the provocative if dubious claim that he “invented the human.” He hasn’t changed his mind. Bloom sketches the various places where the Bard is to be found in all manner of literature, and in Bloom he is never out of sight. He often quotes Giambattista Vico’s saying that “we know only what we ourselves have made” but in the end, Shakespeare has made everything for us. Shakespeare the person is unable to be found within his created works, so thoroughly has he subsumed himself into his personalities: Iago, Lear, Othello, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Ariel, just to name a few. Bloom is obsessed with one character above all: the Prince of Denmark. Hamlet is the wildest, “supremely outrageous,” most coruscating intelligence to be found anywhere in the work. His special book length study on the topic is entitled Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, and it’s not unlimited for nothing. Hamlet is a character who destroys everything in his path, composing cognitive splendors of almost nihilistic intensity, he is mad but “mad north-northwest.” Bloom can’t get enough of him - he links him with Paradise Lost’s Lucifer, for one, and wonders what it would be like if he had Edmund or Iago to contend with onstage. The Dane’s instantaneous cognition and meta-cognition is enough to send Bloom awhirl. The Lucifer comparison is apt in many ways, though one gets the feeling that his Oedipal theory of poetic influence is based on such prodigious and intimidating reading (he’s said to be able to read several hundred pages an hour) that it’s exhausting to keep up. He once mentioned that his only attempt at therapy resulted in his therapist explaining that he was being paid by the hour to listen to lectures on the proper way to read Freud. If that isn’t the mark of a true literary man, I don’t know what is. The second half of the book deals with the pervading influence of Emerson as the mind of America, and Walt Whitman as its poet. Whitman’s influence is with us as deeply as Emerson’s was with him. Who hasn’t been touched by his rhetoric? It might be fair to say that for American poetry Whitman’s own debt to Emerson is appropriate: “I was simmering, simmering, simmering, Emerson brought me to boil.” Bloom tracks his vision through several of the most celebrated poets of the past 50 years, some struggling to throw off Whitman’s influence and coming into their own, some being transformed in digesting it - D.H. Lawrence, Wallace Stevens, Mark Strand, John Ashbery, A.R. Ammons, Charles Wright, and - especially - Hart Crane. Crane has been with Bloom since he encountered his work in the Bronx Public Library, at ten years old, and has stayed with him ever since. He claims to have memorized “nearly all” of Crane’s poetry and insists upon memorizing in general as much as one can so as to possess the poems yourself. When he writes about the words which have left him in awe for seventy years, the resonance is palpable - “Perhaps his truest vista is comprised by the final four stanzas of the ‘Proem’”: O harp and altar, of the fury fused, (How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!) Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge, Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry- Again, the traffic lights that skim thy swift Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars, Beading thy path- condense eternity: And we have seen night lifted in thine arms. Under thy shadow by the piers I waited; Only in darkness is thy shadow clear. The City’s fiery parcels all undone, Already snow submerges an iron year... O sleepless as the river under thee, Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod, Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend And of the curveship lend a myth to God. Poor Harold has been fighting and fretting over the fate of the canon for nearly a century. I don’t think it’s quite so dire. I’ve yet to meet a passionate reader who doesn’t love any or all of his Western Canon: Shakespeare, Dante, Milton, Blake, Dickens, Austen, Wilde, Whitman, Proust, Joyce, and Beckett - to name merely a few - are all doing pretty well, thank you. He needn’t despair. We are still eating and drinking well of what Bloom passionately recommends. A little political correctness doesn’t stop the fact that aesthetic splendor, cognitive power, and imaginative daring still matter. If anything, it might change the way that it matters in the larger social sphere. There is always a Whitman or an Emerson yet to emerge, even in what he grimly terms "our evening land." Any fan of his can thank him for suggesting language and stories newer and fresher and duly more strange than a lifetime of reading could grasp. Bloom reads Wallace Stevens writing of Whitman “walking along a ruddy shore./ He is singing and chanting the things that are a part of him,/ the worlds that are and will be,/ death and day./ Nothing is final, he chants. No man shall see the end./ His beard is of fire and his staff is a leaping flame.” If that can be enough for him (and he seems to think it might be) then may he contentedly sink into our common plot for a long, well-deserved rest. There will always be plenty of anxiety to go around.