We would, in effect, be his clandestine understudies, participating in the class ostensibly only as auditors interested in his scholarship. Unaware of why we were really there, he told us he welcomed our intellectual engagement. We agreed to this unusual arrangement in part because we hoped to have good stories to tell — we are literature scholars, after all. And few figures in literary studies have occasioned narratives, both inside and out of the academy, as powerful and conflicting as Bloom has. Thanks in large part to his best-selling books on Shakespeare and other topics, he is often the first and perhaps only academic literary critic a layperson knows.
On the other hand, to the majority of those in the academic humanities, he was a once-great critic with a monomaniacal obsession, blind to the folly of his pursuit. His elusive opponent was what he called the “School of Resentment.” By this he meant the scholars emerging in the 1970s who argued that we should study literature not necessarily because it is beautiful but because of what it might tell us about gender, race, sexuality, history, class and so on. Bloom’s last disciples in English departments saw him as an apostle of higher truths about what makes us human. According to many others, he was a charismatic, powerful, possibly even wicked figure who profited off a culture that condoned sexual harassment and who callously dismissed as inferior the work of women, LGBTQ people and people of color. (James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Maxine Hong Kingston are among the many great writers he left un- or underappreciated.)
In the combined 12 years we spent in the English department as doctoral students at Yale, we saw Bloom no more than a handful of times. Though revered among undergraduates, he had long ceased working with most would-be professionals; he was more a myth than a man. We thought that taking these jobs would give us a last chance to see for ourselves what he was like. We didn’t expect that the story we would tell would be about how, despite all of Bloom’s bombastic rhetoric about the decline of the humanities, he couldn’t see the real way in which the profession had collapsed.
But we should have, because we both needed the money far more than we needed a good yarn.
We received our PhDs in English from Yale in 2016 and 2017, where we taught classes as graduate students and received a stipend, tuition remission and university health care. Once we earned our degrees, we found ourselves without benefits or stable employment. One of us signed up for catastrophic health insurance through healthcare.gov and secured $9,000 to teach a one-semester writing course at Yale and $5,100 for a course at Columbia Summer School. The other could find only half-time teaching — at Harvard, it’s true, but at $27,050 a year, for substantially less than the roughly $31,800 Yale grad student stipend.
If we showed up in Bloom’s classroom throughout the semester, we would be paid a few thousand dollars, enough to meaningfully supplement our modest incomes. So why not earn a little extra money to read Shakespeare and Hart Crane with the man who seemed to think of them as his personal friends?
Sometimes Bloom did indeed resemble his august reputation, dazzling with his recall and embodying — there’s no better word — portions of Wallace Stevens’s “The Auroras of Autumn” about the ephemerality of human life against the awesome power of the Northern Lights: “The scholar of one candle sees / An Arctic effulgence flaring on the frame / Of everything he is.”
And he cared deeply about his students’ intellectual development. “I want to draw more out of you,” Bloom frequently said, as if an undergraduate could teach something to a man who studied Shakespeare all his life. “What do you think?” he asked another who struggled to speak. “You’re a profoundly reflective individual.”
But most of the time, we didn’t feel we were there to facilitate unparalleled feats of pedagogy — or that Bloom was offering his students anything that they couldn’t have gotten elsewhere, apart from his virtual presence. As teachers who take pride in lesson planning and deliberate pedagogy, observing those seminar sessions could be frustrating. He tired easily and often had trouble with the Ozzian telecommunication medium. The intelligent and engaged students sometimes struggled to respond to the prompts he posed but did not have the energy to fully elucidate. He recapitulated material from his books or spent much of class asking students to read the plays aloud at length. Perhaps because he notoriously treated characters as if they were real people, he posed questions that seemed puzzling or downright unanswerable.
“What was Lear like before the start of the play? Why didn’t the other characters notice signs of his madness?”
“I have a theory that Othello and Desdemona never consummated their relationship. What do you think about that?”
As we sat in the back of his class, it became difficult not to feel that academia today resembles a pyramid scheme, with a few aging tenure-track professors at the top and masses of younger adjuncts and graduate students at the bottom. Tenured and tenure-track professors like Bloom have, on the whole, stable employment, good benefits and standing in the field. (As a Sterling professor, the highest-ranking faculty at Yale, Bloom would likely have had a salary well upward of $200,000, which is the average for tenured professors at that institution.) By contrast, adjuncts typically do not know whether their contracts will be renewed from semester to semester; they can be terminated at will and without cause. Teaching until death, as Bloom did, is the distinct prerogative of the tenured professor: a romantic ideal no longer available to most of our generation.
Once, during his seminar “Shakespeare and the Canon” — a title crafted to refer to the pantheon of mostly white male authors he venerated in his book “The Western Canon” — the video feed stalled, and a person from the IT department came in to address the problem.
“The Internet’s gone out in Howard Bloom’s class,” he said into his walkie-talkie.
“It’s Harold Bloom,” an undergraduate replied indignantly.
“He’s only the most important critic of the last two hundred years,” said another one, equally baffled.
“He’s the only one I ever heard of!” a third chimed in.
It was a telling exchange. Bloom had long looked so different, depending on where you stood, even in this most elite of universities. To the 25 or so students who eagerly populated his two small seminars, he was one of the last of the Great Critics. To the tech worker, he was another guy who couldn’t use a computer. To us, he represented an ideal, the chance to live a life of the mind, that the vast majority of humanities PhDs today will never attain.
Bloom’s vocation — specifically his status as a tenure-track English professor — marks him as a relic of the past. In 1955, the year he finished his PhD, Bloom was hired by Yale at a time when jobs for English professors were abundant. If Bloom were on the academic job market this year, specializing, as he did, in British Romantic poetry, there would be fewer than 10 tenure-track jobs in the country where he could apply. In 1969, when he was still relatively early in his career, 78.3 percent of teachers at the university were tenured or tenure-track faculty. As of 2011, that number was just 24.1 percent. Like most tenure-track faculty at Yale, Bloom spent his career teaching two courses a semester; adjuncts today often teach four or more courses, leaving them little time to read and less time to sift, shape or even explode the Western Canon. The median salary for adjunct professors is a mere $2,700 per course. Earning a few thousand dollars just to sit in on Bloom’s course placed us, in many ways, among the lucky ones.
Bloom had been prophesying the demise of the humanities for at least 25 years, but he couldn’t get past his bêtes noires to diagnose his discipline’s real crisis. In retrospect, we can see now that, even as Bloom was likely on the wrong side of the controversy, debating the canon was like choosing which passengers to save aboard a slowly sinking ship — or, to put it yet more crudely, what music to play as the ship goes down. His fiery polemics, as well as those of the other side, had been enabled by a profession that mostly disappeared as colleges became run more like corporations. Universities realized that they didn’t need to pay their teachers as much as they used to. If they trained too many graduate students, they would maintain a steady supply of labor that they could ask to work, at will, for a pittance. But instead of railing against the corporatization of the university, Bloom excoriated “Resentment.”
Maybe he couldn’t have done otherwise. Maybe he was, unlike the works of art he championed as enduring and timeless, a man thoroughly of his time — a working-class, Yiddish-speaking kid from the Bronx in thrall to the promise and prestige of the mid-century English department: of arbitrating what the critic Matthew Arnold famously called “the best that has been thought and said.”
Whatever the reason, Bloom couldn’t see how and why the university had changed. In the middle of the semester, we visited Bloom at his home in New Haven, a stately house with freshly cut tulips in a vase on the table and Baroque classical music playing on the stereo. He lamented that we were having trouble finding stable jobs.
“It’s because literature professors have lost the way. They don’t care about the great works anymore,” he claimed.
“I think the economy had something to do with it,” one of us said politely.
“No, I don’t think that was it.” He shook his head.
At the end of his life, Bloom could really only see us as two former graduate students eager to learn from him; he didn’t see the two struggling adjuncts at his seminar table trying desperately to remain professionally viable. We left that day and walked back to Yale’s campus, feeling grateful for the conversation but also like the invisible workers we were.