Harold Bloom was a rarity: a best-selling and widely known literary critic. Affectionately dubbed the "King Kong" of criticism, Bloom died Monday at the age of 89, at a hospital in New Haven, Conn., according to his wife,
Over a redoubtable career, Bloom wrote scores of books, edited hundreds more and irritated innumerable intellectuals by arguing, for example, for the superiority of Western literary traditions.
Bloom was born in the Bronx, N.Y., to a Yiddish-speaking family that had emigrated from Eastern Europe. His father was a garment worker, and Bloom did not hear English spoken until the age of 6.
Educated first at Cornell University and then at Yale University — which at the time still maintained an informal Jewish quota — Bloom quickly established himself as a brilliant student. Yale would become Bloom's intellectual home for more than five decades. He taught classes there up until the week before his death, and his lectures on William Shakespeare drew throngs of enthusiastic undergraduates and a not-insubstantial following online.
Bloom had a photographic memory, and claimed he could recite all of Shakespeare, all of John Milton's "Paradise Lost" and copious swaths of British Romantic poetry. He was widely respected in mid-20th-century literary circles, but over the years, he fell out of fashion, in large part for his outspoken disdain for fellow scholars who he deemed "resentniks" — Deconstructionists, feminists and multiculturalists, whose cultural politics, he felt, minimized the genius of the writers he lionized.
"To a rather considerable extent," Bloom told The Atlantic magazine in 2003, "literary studies have been replaced by that incredible absurdity called cultural studies which, as far as I can tell, are neither cultural nor are they studies. But there has always been an arrogance, I think, of the semi-learned."
But Bloom also championed various minority and female scholars, authors and theater directors. He once proclaimed Ursula K. Le Guin a greater writer than J.R.R. Tolkien and suggested, in his 1990 bestseller, The Book of J, that much of the Hebrew Bible may have been written by a woman.
Bloom's intense, visceral pleasure in reading and language has made something of a critical comeback in recent years, in the form of "postcritique" scholars. In spite of a lifetime of laurels and unusually lucrative book contracts for an academic, Bloom seemed resigned to his reputation as past his prime.
"As I am something of a dinosaur, I've named myself Bloom Brontosaurus Bardolator," he told The Atlantic. "It's not such a bad thing to be."
NOEL KING, HOST:
Harold Bloom, an acclaimed rabble-rouser in the world of literary criticism, has died at the age of 89. While he was at Yale University, Bloom spent decades tussling with his intellectual opponents. He wrote hundreds of books and essays, and for a literary critic, he was unusually famous. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this remembrance.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Harold Bloom was born in the Bronx to immigrant parents. His father was a garment worker, and the family spoke Yiddish at home. Bloom did not hear English until he was 6 years old, but he fell in love incandescently with English language poetry.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
HAROLD BLOOM: Poetry matters and has always mattered because it answers the deepest aesthetic and cognitive needs and manifests the most extraordinary aesthetic and cognitive values.
ULABY: Harold Bloom on NPR in 2002. After establishing himself as a formidable 20th-century critic, Bloom was scorned by the academic establishment for writing accessible and widely successful works of criticism. He came to poo-poo literary theory that he thought drained passion from works of genius. Many of those geniuses were white and male. Bloom allegedly knew all of Shakespeare by heart and the Hebrew Bible and vast epic poems. Here he is teaching a poem by Wallace Stevens at Yale in 2006.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BLOOM: (Reading) Clear water in a brilliant bowl, pink and white carnations, the light...
Notice the pause because enjambments are very important in Stevens and particularly in this poem.
STEPHEN GREENBLATT: He possessed a gigantic amount of literature in his head.
ULABY: Stephen Greenblatt is a Harvard professor and former student of Bloom's.
GREENBLATT: It was a thrilling experience when I was a 17-year-old.
ULABY: But Greenblatt would come to butt heads with Bloom in what he calls his absolute belief in the genius of the canon's great writers. And towards the end of Bloom's career, he says Harold Bloom was seen as...
GREENBLATT: Grumpy and intolerant and absurd, theatrical and overbearing and so forth. Somebody can find all kinds of adjectives to describe, but you set that aside to be in a kind of awe.
ULABY: In 2004, writer Naomi Wolf accused Bloom of inappropriately touching her while she was his student. Bloom denied those charges. Bloom's type of passionate engagement with literature has long been unfashionable among academics, but it's actually coming back a bit among scholars who identify as postcritique. To glory in the pleasure of reading, to contain castles of language in your mind, that was Harold Bloom's gift and grace and his legacy.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF BRAMBLES' "PINK AND GOLDEN BILLOWS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.