At this late point in the career of literary critic Harold Bloom (author of, among many others, The Anxiety of Influence), his legend is perhaps as important as his, well, influence. The boy coming of age in New York, consuming with singular intensity every (every?) book in the literature section of the New York Public Library, who grows up to have a nearly Johnsonian range of influence (that word again) on especially American literary thinking in the late twentieth century. In the 1980s and 90s, while Lyotards and Paglias and others (some with names that sound less like zoo animals) were erecting a post-everything Ark for theory to ford over literature, Bloom worked in another camp, stoking the fires of a Romantic concept of inspired literary Genius and how it perpetuates itself through the influence writers have on each other. Around the same time Bloom was apparently behaving like an old goat, according to his former student, feminist writer Naomi Wolf – whose feminism, judging by a lecture of hers I once attended, now resembles that of Oprah more than that of her third-wave contemporaries – who accused Bloom of “sexual encroachment” and caused the only thing approaching media furor in literary academia in 2004.

Nevertheless, Bloom’s reputation was barely affected; his books intended for a non-academic audience, The Western Canon and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, remain popular. Nearly every time I had to write about a novel or a Shakespeare play for an undergraduate course, my eyes would pass a book of critical essays he edited in the library stacks. One has to admire Bloom’s industry, and on the publication this month of his most recent book of criticism, his “virtual swan song,” The Anatomy of Influence, panegyrics are flowing in. Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, calls Bloom an “uncommon reader,” and in a lengthy, baroquely-written essay pays tribute to his keen eye while gently pointing out that Bloom’s readings, always at pains to show how one author’s work flows from that of another, are getting closer to the New Critical orthodoxies — privileging above all else the poem, its formal patterns, its echoes – which Bloom rejected early in his career.

Above I mentioned Bloom’s keen eye even though an important aspect of Tanenhaus’s essay, and indeed of the Bloom legend, is his keen ear – he is said to have a remarkable memory for poetry, again like Samuel Johnson. With the same grandiloquence that allowed him to title a book The Western Canon, Bloom is quoted as saying, “I possess almost all of Hart Crane by memory.” One imagines that Bloom does not keep his Crane for recitation, though, for fawning dinner party guests or texting undergrads, because for him literature exists almost exclusively on the page. This privileging of the written and the literary (not the textual, something I’ll come to in a minute) above all else is problematic especially when it comes to Bloom’s great master, Shakespeare. “For me, Shakespeare is God,” Bloom is quoted as saying, placing himself firmly in the Romantic tradition of bardolatry (Keats is said to have always traveled with a small portrait of Shakespeare). His criticism is often focused on the discussion of Shakespeare’s characters almost as if they were real people, a way of reading the plays originating in the early nineteenth century by Schlegel, Hazlitt, and Coleridge. As for these forebears, for Bloom Hamlet is the be-all and end-all. Even though that phrase comes from Macbeth (fourth line down).

But limiting understanding of Shakespeare to the study of his poetic proficiency and the construction of his characters without much regard for Shakespeare’s cultural milieu, for how the work is contingent on the texts in which it is transmitted, and for his plays as plays written to be performed by actors limits understanding quite a bit.
(After the break, metaphorical daisy-chains wilt in the inexorable progession of time. Or something.)

Speculation in The Invention of the Human about whether Shakespeare lived in physical fear of Christopher Marlowe is hardly useful (Bloom elsewhere implores lesser mortals to “stop speculating about his life!”), but a better understanding of the theatrical and intellectual environment both writers lived in provides crucial insight into how their plays work. My line of reasoning is broadly influenced by a school of thought called New Historicism, which originated in the 1980s and, as defined by J.A. Cuddon in the Dictionary of Literary Terms, “is interested not in asserting the transcendent or autonomous aesthetic value of literary texts but…in researching the contexts of their production, consumption and status” (545). Bloom has criticized this approach as reductive, making literature into a footnote of history. Though I am not a card-carrying New Historicist, I would point out that Bloom’s approach, too, can be reductive, as exemplified in this paragraph by the Guardian‘s Robert McCrum, who in Bloom acolyte mode is far less eloquent than usual:

Influence is unavoidable, and not all of it is bad. Bloom concedes that. In the case of Marlowe and Shakespeare, the two competing young playwrights from strikingly similar origins egged each other on to do better, and more original, work until one of them (Marlowe, of course) got caught up in and destroyed by the violence of the age. After that, the Shakespeare who had matched his rival play for play, and dramatic innovation for dramatic innovation, had the field pretty much to himself until Ben Jonson showed up.

These words, of course, are not Bloom’s, but the approach of daisy-chaining influence together is. There is no question that Marlowe and Shakespeare were competitors in the theatrical world of early 1590s London – both writers’ work shows awareness of the other’s. But how oversimplified is this vision of an author-centered theater, Elizabethan drama proceeding in a neat line from Marlowe, to Shakespeare, to Jonson. Since all of their work was performed in front of audiences first, and since the publication of playtexts was a small part of the late Elizabethan book trade, where in this vision of early modern drama are the actors who first “possessed” the plays, to borrow Bloom’s word? Where are Thomas Kyd, Thomas Heywood, George Peele, Anthony Munday, Henry Chettle, John Marston, and the many other writers who also wrote plays for the booming 1590s theater, whose work informs Shakespeare’s, too? Some of whom Shakespeare likely collaborated with? Where are the variant, bootlegged editions of plays, like the one in which Hamlet says, “To be or not to be, aye there’s the point” (which I discussed a little more fully here), which may have more authority on how the plays were actually performed than more familiar versions?

While they are not mere footnotes of history (especially not Hamlet, which Bloom rightly sees as central to the development of the post-Enlightenment intellectual’s sense of identity), early modern plays including Doctor Faustus, Hamlet, and Volpone were not produced in the antiseptic vacuum of literary Genius, but in the heady atmosphere of the most vital theatrical environment since 5th-century BC Athens. These plays are not whole without an understanding of the time and place that produced them. The danger of approaching Shakespeare as God, or just as a literary genius (for Bloom, there is no apparent difference) is that it isolates Shakespeare’s works both from the world in they were made and from the audiences that would approach them now. The Shakespeare of Sonnet 19 concludes, “Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong, | My love shall in my verse ever live young.” Poetry may assure immortality, but that means only the poet’s love will always exist in time. The problem with Bloom’s approach and that of his followers is that it rejects the messiness of history, and while through literature we may feel that we step outside time, we (and it) never can.

P.S. – I tend to get very frustrated with Bloom, upstart that I am, but I can thank him for one of the most elegant phrases about books I’ve encountered: literature, he said, gives us “the blessing of more life.”

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