Today marks the 25th anniversary of one of the silliest screeds in the history of Letters, Harold Bloom’s review in the New York Review of Books (Oct 11, 1984) of Edgar Poe’s handsome Library of America 2 volume set, ‘Poetry & Tales,’ Patrick Quinn, ed. & ‘Essays & Reviews,’ G.R. Thompson, ed.
Bloom’s savage (and spooky) article is remarkable for two reasons: its attempted ferocity and its summary of Modernist pedagogical history as a “conservative” critic abuses a timeless poet with crudely “radical” rhetoric.
In Part 1, Bloom uses Aldous Huxley to beat down Poe’s poetry, copying Huxley’s Miltonic parody of Poe, also found in “Understanding Poetry,” an anti-Poe textbook by the Fugitive New Critic Robert Penn Warren. Bloom calls Warren “the most distinguished living American writer.” Huxley’s 1930s charge that the French were wrong to admire Poe (!) was picked up by T.S. Eliot in his 1949 attack on Poe, and here in 1984 Bloom repeats it, as Poe’s verse is held up to ridicule.
Part 2: The prose is condemned as well, dismissed with the quotation of a single paragraph. “Poe’s actual text does not matter.” Bloom has a certain respect for ‘Eureka,’ which he feels is “Poe’s answer” to Emerson’s ‘Nature.’ But it’s science (Poe) v. rhetoric (Emerson)–they’re not comparable. Bloom makes no attempt to cover Poe’s vast territory. Instead, he writes: “Whether Eureka or the famous stories can survive authentic criticism is not clear.” Poe’s stories are “best read when we are very young.” “Poe’s survival raises perpetually the issue whether literary merit and canonical status go together.” “Mark Twain cataloged Fenimore Cooper’s literary offenses, but all the exuberantly listed are minor compared to Poe’s.” Strangely, even though Bloom feels Poe’s stories are “best read when we are very young,” Bloom confesses “Poe induced nasty & repetitious nightmares that linger even now.”
Bloom, in this half-deeply personal, half-frothily anglophilic essay, clutches the teddy bear of Emerson’s ‘self-reliance’ as ‘original sin’ (associated with Poe) moans beneath his bed. Allen Tate, Yvor Winters, and D.H. Lawrence are brought in to help Bloom vanquish Poe, although Bloom terms Poe “inescapable.” Bloom wants Poe out of the canon (and his bedroom) but the professor admits it will not happen.
In Part 3, Bloom’s assault now turns on crude cultural politics: “Poe, a true Southerner, abominated Emerson, plainly perceiving that Emerson (like Whitman, like Lincoln) was not a Christian, not a royalist, not a classicist.” Lincoln was a Christian, Whitman and Lincoln could not have been more different, and Poe was anything but a royalist, and no more Christian than Emerson. It’s difficult to tell whether Bloom is baiting a certain kind of reader, or writing in pure ignorance. How a man so erudite could be so ignorant is perhaps something only Harold Bloom could explain.
Part 4 looks at the Freudian aspect of Poe’s novel, ‘Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym’ and quotes Adorno calling Poe & Baudelaire “the first technocrats of art.” It’s not long, however, before Bloom turns on his chainsaw again: “Poe is a great fantasist whose thoughts were commonplace and whose metaphors are dead.” Poe’s “speculative discourses fade away in juxtaposition to Emerson’s, his despised Northern rival.”
Part 5: Poe’s ‘Ligeia’ may have been read by Helen Whitman and Elmira Royster, and perhaps this is why these women did not marry Poe. (!) Bloom, who seems to be looking to trade 3 Jesus Christ cards for one Emerson and one Whitman, writes, “…the northern or Emersonian myth of our literary culture culminates in the beautiful image of Walt Whitman as wounddresser, moving as mothering father…”
Part 6: Bloom doesn’t like Poe’s criticism, either, and dismisses Poe with a couple of obscure quotations. Bloom champions, instead, the late Victorian criticism of Arnold, Pater, and Wilde.
Part 7: “Poe was savage in denouncing minor Transcendentalists.” And Poe, according to Bloom, is racist–because “he would have loved”–published after Poe’s death–‘The Nigger Question’ by Thomas Carlyle. (Emerson, whose ‘English Traits’ is explicitly racist, was Carlyle’s literary agent in the U.S.) And one final, embarrassing cheer from Bloom for Emerson: “Poe, on a line-by-line or sentence-or-sentence basis is hardly a worthy opponent.”
Twenty-five years later, is the popular Poe still giving Bloom–and anglo-american ‘zine modernism–nightmares?