Literary and Critical Theory Harold Bloom
Graham Allen, Roy Sellars
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0005


Harold Bloom was born in the Bronx, New York, on 11 July 1930. Brought up in a Yiddish-speaking home, he taught himself English and began to read poetry at an early age. Bloom gained his PhD from Yale University in 1955, and he has taught there ever since; he is currently Sterling Professor of the Humanities and English. He has won numerous awards, and today Bloom is probably the most famous literary critic in the English-speaking world. He is also extremely prolific. In many ways, indeed, Bloom’s work is prodigious. In this context one can give only preliminary guidance; the risk of being overwhelmed, with Bloom, remains. His career contains a number of remarkable turns. Beginning as a scholar of British Romantic poetry, he became famous in the 1970s as the theorist of the anxiety of influence and as a rather unwilling member of the group of deconstructive critics that became known as the Yale School (see Bradley 2010, cited under Deconstructive Responses and Responses to Deconstruction). In a landmark volume containing work by key figures of the group, Bloom plays a significant part, but also marks out his difference from his colleagues by entitling the volume Deconstruction and Criticism—Bloom being represented by the latter term (see Bloom, et al. 1979, cited under Edited Collections and Anthologies). By the 1990s, perhaps surprisingly, he succeeded in gaining a mass audience outside the academy, first, through his work on religion (see especially The Book of J [Bloom 1990, cited under Wisdom Literature] and The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation [Bloom 1992, cited under American Culture and Tradition]); and second, through his activities as arbiter of the Western canon and celebrant of Shakespeare’s genius (as in The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages [Bloom 1994, cited under Shakespeare and the Western Canon] and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human [Bloom 1998, cited under Shakespeare and the Western Canon]). Since this heady period of the 1990s, Bloom has remained prominent in the media and has continued to generate controversy through a series of more or less popularizing books on literature and the art and value of reading. For nearly sixty years, Bloom has influenced the critical standing of numerous historical and contemporary writers. He has produced a prodigious quantity of reviews in major English-language newspapers and journals, and in translation his work has reached audiences around the world. Throughout his career he has practiced the art of critical evaluation, with all its risks, in an age in which many academic critics appear to have relinquished that responsibility; Bloom refers explicitly to “strong” and “weak” writers, and he is not afraid to employ such markers even with the most popular of authors. This willingness to arbitrate should be viewed in the context of Bloom’s faith in great literature to fashion the self and bestow meaning; for all his pessimism, he believes that literature can at times save aesthetic experience and can even, in the case of the greatest poets, create humanity as such. The authors of this article thank the Swiss National Science Foundation and the University of St. Gallen for allowing them in 2012 to begin work on a bibliographical project from which this introductory survey has been drawn.

General Overviews

Given Bloom’s impact on so many areas of literary criticism and theory, and given that he is one of the most extensively reviewed critics in modern literary history, it is surprising that there have not been more book-length studies of his work. Fite 1985 is the earliest, functioning well as an introduction. De Bolla 1988 is a smaller but more theoretically oriented treatment. The next is Allen 1994, which begins to register the seismic shift in Bloom’s work in the early 1990s. After a period without any further book-length study, there are now clear signs of an academic return to Bloom’s work, not least in the three recent collections of essays (see Collections of Essays) and in the two major monographs, Bielik-Robson 2011 and Heys 2014, which have appeared in the past few years. Bielik-Robson and Heys, in their different ways, both begin to treat Bloom less as an academic literary critic or theorist and more as a gnostic quester for vitality—thus corresponding to his own self-description. The change of focus is a significant one and promises to open up a more nuanced assessment of his intellectual, cultural, and even spiritual importance.

  • Allen, Graham. Harold Bloom: A Poetics of Conflict. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994.

    Allen’s book surveys Bloom’s oeuvre from his early r criticism to the beginning of his interest in facticity in the early 1990s. Concluding each chapter with a case study, in which Bloom-inspired readings are explored and evaluated, this book seeks to promote Bloom’s focus on influence and intertextuality while arguing for a greater incorporation of historical or contextual perspectives. While emphasizing the merits of Bloom’s account, Allen aims to avoid the confines of the Romantic ideology (see McGann 1976, cited under Literary Criticism).

  • Bielik-Robson, Agata. The Saving Lie: Harold Bloom and Deconstruction. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2011.

    This is the most wide-ranging, nuanced consideration of Bloom’s philosophical and theological contexts to date. The book painstakingly takes us through the relations between Bloom and leading figures, such as Martin Heidegger, Jacques Lacan, Paul de Man, and Jacques Derrida. Detailed discussions illuminate the similarities and differences between Bloomian and deconstructive approaches to language, finitude, Freud, and Judaic tradition. The Kabbalistic or gnostic Bloom analyzed here promotes the saving power of the trope (the defensive lie against time) as opposed to the eradication of agency and meaning uncovered in deconstruction.

  • de Bolla, Peter. Harold Bloom: Towards Historical Rhetorics. London: Routledge, 1988.

    This book is divided into two interrelated sections, the first covering the major theoretical arguments of Bloom’s anxiety-of-influence phase, with the second being an ambitious attempt to establish an approach to literary history based on Bloom’s diachronic rhetoric. The focus remains on Bloom’s agonistic relation to the deconstructive work of Paul de Man, pitting Bloom’s form of rhetoric against a synchronic rhetoric that would reduce the human to a function of the linguistic. Building on Hollander 1981 (cited under Influence, Intertextuality, and Canon Debates), among other sources, de Bolla produces thoughtful suggestions about future modes of critical analysis.

  • Fite, David. Harold Bloom: The Rhetoric of Romantic Vision. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985.

    This, the first book-length study of Bloom, extending up to the early 1980s, is still a good place to start, especially for readers not familiar with this formative period of his work. Fite’s lucid analysis excels in introducing and contextualizing Bloom’s literary criticism, particularly his reception of US poets such as A. R. Ammons and John Ashbery.

  • Heys, Alistair. The Anatomy of Bloom: Harold Bloom and the Study of Influence and Anxiety. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.

    Heys analyzes Bloom’s engagements not only with literature, deconstruction, and New Historicism, but also with the Holocaust, Jewish traditions, Christian ideas of influence and restoration, and ultimately an American cultural tradition in which Bloom is steeped and yet to which he remains strangely immune. The study is a wide-ranging account of Bloom’s effort to find in tradition a sustaining gnosis and wisdom. The main tension demonstrated is between his celebration of an American cultural transcendence of the past and a Hebraic insistence on the inescapability of the past; out of that tension, Bloom forges his unique stance.

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