The Canon Guard: Harold Bloom’s The Anatomy of Influence

August 22, 2011 | 8 books mentioned 23 9 min read

coverHarold 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.

coverBloom’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.

covercoverIf 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 BrothersDuck 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.

coverBloom 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.

is an editor at The Arts Fuse whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Baffler, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and other places. A longtime resident of Boston, he has recently moved to New Orleans.


  1. Excellent piece, and I only wish I could agree with you that “the fate of the canon” is not “quite so dire” as Bloom suggests. His main beef isn’t with passionate readers so much as universities, which as far back as “The Western Canon” he insisted were bent on “destroying all intellectual and aesthetic standards.” I can’t really speak for the present state of academia, but the English major does always seem to me in a more or less perpetual state of decline.

  2. Bloom’s anxious defense of the canon reminds me of “On the Meeting of Garcia Lorca and Hart Crane” by our new Poet Laureate.

    Oh, yes,
    let’s bless the imagination. It gives
    us the myths we live by. Let’s bless
    the visionary power of the human–
    the only animal that’s got it–,
    bless the exact image of your father
    dead and mine dead, bless the images
    that stalk the corners of our sight
    and will not let go.

    The source of Bloom’s great appreciation of the canon is the same as that which produces his obsession with its death.

  3. “Interpreting interpretations is a tricky business at best.” So true, Matt Hanson!

    Bloom’s webs of influence are genius creations themselves, and just as fictional as Shakespeare. Down with the canon! Long live the canon!

  4. The best defense the Canon has is by being far better than the vast majority of crap that came after.

    But if people are now by and large coprophagic …

  5. “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.”

    I love Bloom, but this is protesting far too much.

    As for his maternal (perfect word choice) protectiveness of the canon, I agree with Rodney that it seems directed more at the dissolution of the canon—or of enjoying books more for the sublimity they produce than the critical-theory-theses they generate—in the university.

    As an MFA candidate at a state university, I can’t blame Bloom for his concern; this year we have more classes about the shape and production of The Text as an object than we do classes explicitly about literature.

  6. This was the shit. Excellent work, Matt!

    I’m not a big of Shakespeare but I liked reading your piece all the same.

  7. I enjoyed this very much – difficult to come up with a good summary of Bloom, but you did it. I do have one question though – why shouldn’t we “discriminate between superior and inferior cultural productions”? Are you saying that it all contributes to the rich tapestry?

  8. The book title seems to be “The Anatomy of Influence” (not “.. of Criticism”). It’s incorrect in the Amazon link and the article title.

  9. Really excellent review–you have a bead on Bloom, and that’s not easy to do. Nice balance of appreciation and skepticism, and always respectful. The worried grandmother trope is perfect for Bloom! “A little political correctness doesn’t stop the fact that aesthetic splendor, cognitive power, and imaginative daring still matter.”

  10. Why anyone pays attention to Bloom in the last 20 years is beyond me. He has said nothing new, rehashed once interesting theories and turned out a quasi-dogmatic criteria which the younger (smarter) Bloom would have mocked. He has taught a bunch of dimwits to misuse the word gnostic, so it’s good he’s gifted readers with that telling sign of lazy writing and thinking.

  11. Guys, it’s Nathanael West, not “Nathaniel.” Love the site, but you need editors with sharper eyes. “Finnegan’s Wake” (sic), etc.

  12. This is a really, really good essay. I need to return to Bloom and then return to this essay . . . really extremely provocative and spirited!!!

  13. I believe it’s “Anatomy of Influence.” “Anatomy of Criticism” is the also quite fine Northrup Frye title.

  14. I am surprised Bloom did not mention the Love Melancholy section of Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy when discussing Shakespear’s Sonnet 147. It would have driven his point home in a dovetail.

  15. Just wanted to say, this essay reflects a loving vitality toward its subject, as much as it maintains a cautious telescoping outwards.

  16. I have registered a thesis with the same title two years ago! (Anatomy of Influence). Wonder if he knows I got there first?

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