Way back in that innocent year 1959, a young professor of English at Yale published a slender volume of literary criticism called “Shelley’s Mythmaking,” an erudite and transgressive analysis of the English Romantic. Thus was launched the remarkable career of the great Harold Bloom. A half-century later, “The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime” arrives as the capstone to a lifetime of thinking, writing and teaching.
Bloom’s project is ostensibly to trace the idea of the daemonic sublime, defined as “the god within who generates poetic power,” through the work of 12 canonical American writers. His real agenda, however, appears to be twofold: to enter into complex meditations on the literature he loves, and to delineate the subtle web of interconnected allusion and influence among the writers who matter to him. A self-described “schoolteacher” who “expelled” himself “from the Yale English Department to become a department of one,” in his criticism he mixes Freudian and classical theories of exegesis with a species of close reading that includes biographical and intentional speculation.
As always with Bloom, 84, the results may not be to everyone’s taste. Aesthetically conservative lovers of poetry will relish Bloom’s mental peregrinations, despite being intermittently stymied by sentences such as: Crane “invokes the diction and drive of a Catholic baroque mystic to adumbrate a vision of personal transcendentalism, with its superb apotheosis of the American Sublime.” Others may be repelled by his occasional repetitiveness and categorical resistance to identity politics and postmodernism.
The primary strength of “The Daemon Knows” is the brilliance and penetration of the connections Bloom makes among the great writers of the past, the shrewd sketching of intellectual feuds or oppositions that he calls agons. He begins his chapter on Ralph Waldo Emerson, for example, with the startling assertion that “the Southern literary men and women I have known . . . had no regard for the Concord sage, who would have returned their scorn,” a memorable generalization that no other critic of our time would have the temerity to make. The apercus tumble down torrentially: Emily Dickinson is “supernally intelligent” and a “radical nihilist”; Edgar Allan Poe’s “verse is of a badness not to be believed”; Herman Melville “is the most Shakespearean of our authors.”
Bloom’s books are like a splendid map of literature, a majestic aerial view that clarifies what we cannot see from the ground. To read Bloom is to be given, also, the great gift of disagreeing with him. Even if you think he’s ridiculous — and he can be at times — you may find yourself pacing about the room, book in hand, muttering counterarguments. You will find good company in the likes of Frank Kermode, who accused Bloom of engaging in “wild critical adventures.” This may make readers wonder if Bloom’s evaluation of influence and agon depend too much on supposition. Can we ever truly know who read whom — and when? Does it matter?
Also, perhaps Bloom’s allergy to new critical thinking is not just “hopelessly old-fashioned,” as he puts it — a touch disingenuously, one suspects — but the sign of an uncharacteristic critical inconsistency. If T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden’s “resistance to Emerson is a tribute to his strength and perpetual relevance,” why would the same not be true of Bloom’s resistance to Michel Foucault or Jacques Derrida? Emerson’s reputation survived Eliot’s disdain; surely it will survive — and perhaps even be enhanced by — deconstructionism. New ways of reading are not threats but opportunities.
But enough. Oddly, Bloom is most likable, even moving, when he allows the personal note to seep through. He traces his lifelong impatience with Eliot’s criticism, for example, to Bloom’s arrival in 1951 as a “Yiddish-speaking Bronx proletarian” at a Yale still under the spell of frigid Eliotic dicta about formalism and self-denial. “Several prolonged times when close to death,” he writes, “I have recited Whitman to myself as medicine. . . . He has healed me and goes on helping me to get through many sleepless nights of anxiety and pain.” It is this image of Bloom chanting Whitman aloud in a dark room as a talisman against the depredations of illness that lingers when the book’s covers are closed.
Lindgren is a writer and musician in New Jersey. For more books coverage, go to washingtonpost.com/books.
THE DAEMON KNOWS
Literary Greatness and the American Sublime
By Harold Bloom
Spiegel & Grau. 524 pp. $35