Harold Bloom, critic who championed Western canon, dies at 89

“Shakespeare is God,” Dr. Bloom declared.
“Shakespeare is God,” Dr. Bloom declared. Mark Mahaney/New York Times

NEW YORK — Harold Bloom, the prodigious literary critic who championed and defended the Western canon in an outpouring of influential books that appeared not only on college syllabuses but also — unusual for an academic — on bestseller lists, died Monday at a hospital in New Haven. He was 89.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Jeanne Bloom, who said he taught his last class at Yale University on Thursday.

Dr. Bloom was frequently called the most notorious literary critic in America. From a vaunted perch at Yale, he flew in the face of almost every trend in the literary criticism of his day. Chiefly he argued for the literary superiority of the Western giants like Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Kafka — all of them white and male, his own critics pointed out — over writers favored by what he called “the School of Resentment,” by which he meant multiculturalists, feminists, Marxists, neoconservatives, and others whom he saw as often betraying literature’s essential purpose.

“He is, by any reckoning, one of the most stimulating literary presences of the last half-century — and the most protean,” Sam Tanenhaus wrote in 2011 in The New York Times Book Review, of which he was the editor at the time, “a singular breed of scholar-teacher-critic-prose-poet-pamphleteer.”


At the heart of Dr. Bloom’s writing was a passionate love of literature and a relish for its heroic figures.

“Shakespeare is God,” he declared, and he asserted that Shakespeare’s characters are as real as people and have shaped Western perceptions of what it is to be human — a view he propounded in the acclaimed “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human” (1998).

The analogy to divinity worked both ways: In “The Book of J” (1990), Dr. Bloom challenged most existing scholarship about the Bible by suggesting that even the Judeo-Christian God was a literary character — invented by a woman, no less, who may have lived in the court of King Solomon and who wrote sections of the first five books of the Old Testament. “The Book of J” was a bestseller.


Dr. Bloom was widely regarded as the most popular literary critic in America (an encomium he might have considered faint praise). Among his other bestsellers were his magnum opus “The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages,” published in 1994, and “How to Read and Why” (2000).

That record of commercial success led many in the academy to dismiss him as a populist. “Mention the name of Harold Bloom to academics in literature departments these days and they will roll their eyes,” the British scholar and author Jonathan Bate wrote in The New Republic in 2011.

The Bronx-born son of a garment worker, Dr. Bloom might have been a character out of literature himself. With his untidy gray hair and melancholy eyes encircled by shadows, he was known to hold forth from what his students called The Chair, which he, of ample girth, amply filled, surrounded by stacks of books.

He was fond of endearments, like “little child.” He addressed both male and female students as “dear” and would kiss them on the top of the head.

Dr. Bloom called himself “a monster” of reading; he said he could read, and absorb, a 400-page book in an hour. His friend Richard Bernstein, a professor of philosophy at the New School, told a reporter that watching Dr. Bloom read was “scary.”


Armed with a photographic memory, Dr. Bloom could recite acres of poetry by heart — by his account, the whole of Shakespeare, Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” all of William Blake, the Hebraic Bible, and Edmund Spenser’s monumental “The Fairie Queen.” He relished epigraphs, gnomic remarks, and unusual words: kenosis (emptying), tessera (completing), askesis (diminishing), and clinamen (swerving).

He quite enjoyed being likened to Samuel Johnson, the great 18th-century critic, essayist, lexicographer, and man about London, who, like Dr. Bloom (“a Yiddisher Dr. Johnson” was one appellation), was rotund, erudite, and often caustic in his opinions. (Dr. Bloom even had a vaguely English accent, his Bronx roots notwithstanding.)

Or if not Johnson, then the actor Zero Mostel, whom he resembled.

“I am Zero Mostel!” Dr. Bloom once said.

Like Johnson’s, his output was vast: more than 40 books of his own authorship and hundreds of volumes he edited. And he remained prolific to the end, publishing six books since 2017 alone, including two this year: “Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind” and “Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism.” His final book is to be released on an unspecified date by Yale University Press, his wife said.

Perhaps Dr. Bloom’s most influential work was one that discussed literary influence itself. The book, “The Anxiety of Influence,” published in 1973 and eventually in some 45 languages, borrows from Freudian theory in envisioning literary creation as an epochal, and Oedipal, struggle in which the young artist rebels against preceding traditions, seeking that burst of originality that distinguishes greatness.


Dr. Bloom argued that a poem was both a response to another poem and a defense against it. Poetry, he wrote, was a dark battleground where poets deliberately “misread” those who came before them and repress their debt to them.

This was a view that ran counter to the New Criticism, the dominant literary theory in midcentury America that put aside matters like historical context and author’s intentions and rather saw literature as a series of texts to be closely analyzed, their meaning to be found in language and structure.

Dr. Bloom crossed swords with other critical perspectives in “The Western Canon.” The eminent critic Frank Kermode, identifying those whom Dr. Bloom saw as his antagonists, wrote in The London Review of Books, “He has in mind all who profess to regard the canon as an instrument of cultural, hence political, hegemony — as a subtle fraud devised by dead white males to reinforce ethnic and sexist oppression.”

Dr. Bloom insisted that a literary work is not a social document — is not to be read for its political or historical content — but is to be enjoyed above all for the aesthetic pleasure it brings. “Bloom isn’t asking us to worship the great books,” the writer Adam Begley wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 1994. “He asks instead that we prize the astonishing mystery of creative genius.”


Dr. Bloom himself said that “the canonical quality comes out of strangeness, comes out of the idiosyncratic, comes out of originality.” Begley noted further, “The canon, Bloom believes, answers an unavoidable question: What, in the little time we have, shall we read?”

“You must choose,” Dr. Bloom himself wrote in “The Western Canon.” “Either there were aesthetic values or there are only the overdeterminations of race, class and gender.”

Attached to “The Western Canon” is an appendix listing the works of some 850 writers that Dr. Bloom thought would endure in posterity. Plato and Shakespeare and Proust are there, of course, but so are lesser-known figures, like Ivo Andric, a Yugoslav who won the 1961 Nobel Prize in Literature, and Taha Hussein, an important Egyptian writer and intellectual.

Many in the literary world delighted in trying to decipher the meanings behind Dr. Bloom’s sometimes idiosyncratic choices. Some puzzled over his judgment, for example, that of all John Updike’s considerable body of work, only the novel “The Witches of Eastwick” would last. Dr. Bloom’s critics noted that Updike had once referred to Dr. Bloom’s writings as “torturous.” Philip Roth, a friend of Dr. Bloom’s, garnered six mentions. Alice Walker was ignored altogether, but poet J.D. McClatchy and critics David Bromwich and Barbara Packer, all students of Dr. Bloom’s, made the cut.

Later, in “The Anatomy of Influence” — a 2011 book he called, prematurely, his “virtual swan song” — Dr. Bloom seemed to soften his canonical stance, conceding that a critic of any heritage is obliged to take seriously other traditions, including non-Western.

The spotlight he commanded could also put him in the glare of unwanted publicity. In 1990, GQ magazine, in an article titled “Bloom in Love,” portrayed him as having had intimate entanglements with female graduate students. (“A disgusting piece of character assassination,” he was quoted as telling Begley in The Times Magazine.) The writer Naomi Wolf, a former Yale graduate student, wrote in New York magazine that he had once put his hand on her knee and caused her emotional trauma. Dr. Bloom vigorously denied it, asserting moreover that she had never been a student of his. (“I have never been indoors with that human being in my life” he told Time magazine.)

The clarity of his prose was also questioned. “Harold is not a particularly good explainer,” his friend the poet John Hollander once told The Times, adding, “He’ll get hold of a word and allow this to generate a concept for him, but he’s not in a position to say very clearly what he means and what he’s doing.”

Still, Dr. Bloom won huge book advances — $1.2 million in the case of “Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds” (2002), a popular but erudite work on which great books a person ought to read.

Harold Bloom was born on July 11, 1930, in the East Bronx, into an Orthodox Jewish household. He was the youngest of five children of William and Paula (Lev) Bloom, struggling immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father was a garment worker.

The first book Harold read was an anthology of Yiddish poetry. He soon discovered the New York Public Library’s branch in the Melrose section of the Bronx and worked his way through Hart Crane, W.H. Auden, and T.S. Eliot. He graduated from the exclusive Bronx High School of Science — “that ghastly place,” he called it — and went to Cornell on a scholarship, where he dazzled his professors.

When he graduated from Cornell in 1951, his teachers insisted that he go to another institution for graduate school. “We couldn’t teach him anything more,” said M.H. Abrams, the eminent critic and scholar of Romanticism who was Dr. Bloom’s adviser.

He earned his doctorate at Yale.

His heroes were Emerson and the English Romantics, but Romanticism was in ill repute at Yale. Nevertheless, he wrote his doctoral thesis on Romanticism and adapted and published it as his first book, “Shelley’s Mythmaking” (1959). He published a more comprehensive study of the Romantics, “The Visionary Company,’’ in 1961. In championing the Romantics he was credited with helping to persuade English departments to teach them again in the 1960s.

At Yale, however, he cast himself in direct opposition to the prevailing ethos, particularly with “The Anxiety of Influence,” positing that great literature is an act of rebellion against the writers who came before. Though he briefly aligned himself with the Yale deconstructionists Paul De Man, J. Hillis Miller, Jacques Derrida and Geoffrey Hartman, Dr. Bloom broke with the Yale English department completely in 1977. He was appointed De Vane professor of humanities and eventually Sterling professor of the humanities, the highest academic rank at Yale, in effect becoming a department unto himself.

News of his death received a mixed response from former Yale students. Some praised his extraordinary erudition and ability to recite verse from memory, while others noted allegations of sexual harassment.

At his death Dr. Bloom lived in the same rambling 19th-century brown-shingled house in New Haven that he and his wife, a retired psychologist in the Branford, Conn., school system, had occupied for more than 50 years and filled with thousands of books, paintings, and sculptures. He had married Jeanne Gould in 1958.

In addition to his wife, Dr. Bloom is survived by two sons, Daniel and David.

His greatest legacy could well outlive his own name: the title of his breakthrough book, ‘‘The Anxiety of Influence.’’

He was referring to poetry in his 1973 publication, but ‘‘anxiety of influence’’ has come to mean how artists of any kind respond to their inspirations. Dr. Bloom’s theory has been endlessly debated, parodied and challenged, including by Dr. Bloom. The book’s title has entered the culture in ways he likely never imagined or desired, such as The New York Times headline that read ‘‘Jay-Z Confronts the Anxiety of Being Influential’’ or the Canadian rock band that named itself ‘‘Anxiety of Influence.’’

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.