In Full Bloom

Guerrilla In Our Midst

A best-selling critic undaunted by his critics, Harold Bloom fights on.


March 23, 2003|By Michael Pakenham | Michael Pakenham,SUN BOOK EDITOR

It doesn't feel like a terrorist's lair.

Harold Bloom greets me jovially. Just inside the front door of his house in New Haven, Conn., is a homey, 30-foot living room, where books cover almost every surface and a bit of the floor. Within minutes, eyes bright, he instructs me that he is a guerrilla. At 72, undaunted by severe illness, he is fighting on in the aftermath of -- in his view -- a lost war between classic academic principles and what he takes to be an anti-intellectual, anti-cultural, self-servingly political conquest of higher education.

He is a large man -- some might say huge -- and moves like one, very deliberately, with little wasted motion, except to use his hands emphatically. His hair is whitening gray, bald at the top but generously wispy, flaring on the sides and neck. His skin is a bit gray, subduing a flush pinkness. His lips, especially the lower one, are full, lushly sensual. His dark eyes are bright and appear contemplative -- except when they seem to explode in flashes.

I am led resolutely through the living room, where a research assistant labors at a coffee table, sorting photocopies of poems and notes for a new anthology, The Best Poems in the English Language, which Bloom has chosen and is editing. Through an open archway is a dining room of about half the size, also oblong, and at right angles. Beyond that, in the kitchen, a cleaning woman is ironing.

Bloom brings me to the dining room table, oak with rounded ends and three leaves. Any finish it ever had has long ago worn off. The far half is covered with books and papers. The living-room end is clear. We sit down at it, at right angles.

Neither the culture wars nor triple heart-bypass surgery last September seems to have diminished the energy that has allowed Bloom to write or edit 29 books over 43 years, with two more in the works. Nineteen of his books have been translated into a total of more than 20 languages. Several have been best sellers. Though firm book publishing statistics are elusive, there is little doubt that he is the best-selling critic alive today, and quite possibly ever, in any language.

Asked to describe himself, Bloom declares, "I am a teacher essentially, whether I am writing or whether I am in the classroom. I am a committed teacher. I don't really distinguish between writing and reading and teaching." Next year will be his 50th as a teacher.

A black sweater almost covers his white shirt, with no tie, a T-shirt visible at the neck. His trousers are charcoal gray. He says he has lost 45 pounds under doctors' orders, and intends to lose that much more. The folds of his lower cheeks, beneath his chin, bespeak that loss of weight, of fullness. An apple he has been eating, its bright, well-chewed surface still unbrowned, lies on the table. During the interview, he refers to me, four people who telephone and a pair of new arrivals all as "dear" or "my dear."

Bloom's wife, Jeanne, arrives through the kitchen. She is energetic, thin, moves gracefully. She has been photocopying pages for the anthology in the Yale library. She is a retired child psychologist. They have been married since May 1958, and have two sons.

With easy irony, she tells us she crossed a picket line this morning, put up by Yale's maintenance and administrative worker unions and teaching assistants. The idea that she -- "an old Stalinist" -- would cross a picket line, she says, would have been unthinkable in her youth.

Bloom, this bitter enemy of postmodernism -- some would say of modernism -- makes it emphatic that he is no tory. "I am a lifelong Democrat," he insists, "with a capital D. But the last presidential candidate I voted for who wholly pleased me was the first Harry Truman in 1948. I wouldn't vote for a Republican for dogcatcher." He volunteers fervent criticism of President George W. Bush, casting him among the forces that are dumbing down the United States, by example and by political policy. He remembers when young George W was a student at Yale, but he never taught him.

The house is two stories, with brown wood shingles, on a block with other houses of similar but different design. The street is adjacent to Yale University and its brick buildings. For a man of enormous commercial as well as intellectual success, it is a very modest, simple, informally efficient way to live.

What drives the warrior? Bloom cites one of his main heroes: "Emerson said -- and everything that concerns me most mattered to him -- that everything that matters in life has to do with the transcendental, the extraordinary. ... The transcendental and extraordinary. People always do find it in one way or another. They call it falling in love sometimes."

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