The NYTimes “notable deaths,” Dec 28, 2019
He submerged himself in literature — more grandly, and grandiosely, than anyone.
By Sam Anderson
Harold Bloom once described himself as a “monster of reading.” He claimed he could read — really read — a 400-page book in a single hour. His memory was superhuman; he carried in his head not just poems but whole libraries, word for word. At Yale, where he taught for many decades, he was known on campus for a kind of parlor trick: If you saw him crossing the quad, you could quote a line of John Milton, and he would take the baton, as he walked, and recite the lines that followed. He kept all of “Paradise Lost” — one of the longest poems in the English language, more than 10,000 lines — in his mind-vault, unabridged, alongside (supposedly) all of Shakespeare, all of William Blake, huge portions of Wallace Stevens and countless others. He was a one-man rejoinder to Plato’s complaint that writing would destroy human memory. In his final decade Bloom could still quote, off the cuff, Hart Crane’s “The Bridge” — the long, difficult poem that had electrified him as a child, some 80 years earlier. It can be hard to disentangle Bloom’s reality from his own self-mythology, but even his detractors — and he would accumulate a great many — had to acknowledge the raw power of that brain, a combination of bandwidth and storage capacity that was, by any measure, exceptional.
Literature, for Bloom, was not only the pinnacle of human culture; it was also a sort of Olympic sport, a feat of skill and strength to be mastered in private and then performed to a rapturous public. He was, indeed, a surprising popular success — an ivory-tower best seller. Bloom first broke out in 1973 with “The Anxiety of Influence,” a book that reimagined literary history as a sort of rolling Freudian psychodrama. Every writer, he wrote, is belated — hopelessly late to the party of literary greatness. The only solution is to go to war with your greatest predecessors. Shakespeare had to overpower Marlowe; Tennyson battled Keats; Pound wrestled Browning. To read literature properly is to trace these anxious skirmishes. As Bloom put it: “Every poem is a misinterpretation of a parent poem. A poem is not an overcoming of anxiety, but is that anxiety. … Criticism is the art of knowing the hidden roads that go from poem to poem.”