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A Perennial Wunderkind

Despite his mastery of the weary insomniac tone, Harold Bloom, who turns 80 on July 11, has enjoyed, and continues to enjoy, youthful intellectual vigor as master of the intellectual zetz (wallop, in Bloom’s native Yiddish). Born in the East Bronx to an Odessa-born garment worker and a housewife who emigrated from near Brest-Litovsk, Bloom recalls teaching himself to read Yiddish when he was 3, Hebrew at 4 and his third language, English, when he was only 5. A voracious and polyglot reader from his very beginnings, Bloom speculated to C-Span that there was a genetic component in his bookish obsessions, since despite his family’s humble origins, there were “Talmudists and Kabbalists in the family tree…. So I’m probably a throwback.”

In the Company of a Classic: Harold Bloom standing around with some old friends. Image by COURTESY OF YALE UNIVERSITY

“Throwback” is one of the kindest terms that the always self-deprecating Bloom uses, usually preferring such self-evaluations as a “pretty tired, old monster,” or even a “Bloom brontosaurus bardolater,” referring both to his supposedly extinct, and thus dinosaurlike, approach to literature and to his ongoing adulation of Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon. Last year, Yalies were startled when 97-year-old literary critic Meyer H. Abrams jauntily arrived on campus to lecture about poetry, particularly his experience teaching Harold Bloom when the latter was a Cornell graduate student in the 1950s. Bloom, overcoming some recent health problems, was present but needed cheering up, so according to the Yale Daily News, the near-centenarian Abrams “lightened the mood with his humorous energy.”

Earlier this year, students set up a “Get Well Harold” account on Twitter, and more mood lightening may be needed in October, when Bloom’s somberly titled “Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems” is published by Harper Books. Not quite literally featuring the last poems of the writers included, the book is an entirely personal, ultra-Bloomian look at literature as an affair of the heart, in which “lastness is a part of knowing.”

In his preface, Bloom somewhat surprisingly ranges off-topic to remind the reader that “unlike T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Wyndham Lewis, Yeats rejected antisemitism, a spiritual disease repudiated more firmly by James Joyce and Samuel Beckett.” Bloom adds, “To read last poems is to participate in reality testing, even if you are a believing Christian, submissive Muslim, or trusting Jew,” suggesting that the memento mori that the poems provide challenges every personal system of belief.

Only a handful of Jewish poets are anthologized in “Till I End My Song” — two short-lived Jews who died circa World War I: England’s Isaac Rosenberg and America’s Samuel Greenberg; as well as Delmore Schwartz, Anthony Hecht and Kenneth Koch. This paucity may be a symptom of an elderly critic unwilling to associate too closely at this stage of his career with the twinned themes of Judaism and death. Some readers and editors may find latter-day Bloom’s crabbing about mediocre pop culture overfamiliar, and sometimes we might wonder, as with his predictable pan of R. Crumb’s “Genesis” in The New York Review of Books last year, why he bothered.

Elsewhere and earlier, Bloom’s ferocious humor can be lastingly droll, like his derisive review, “Norman in Egypt,” which mocked Norman Mailer’s 1983 novel “Ancient Evenings.” For Bloom is temperamentally a comedian, albeit a nonstoic one. His close physical identification with Shakespeare’s Falstaff and Zero Mostel in “The Producers,” as endearingly expressed in his “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human” from Riverhead Books, turned into literal embodiment during a 2001 Shakespeare Society play reading at Hunter College, in which Bloom actually performed excerpts from the role of Falstaff for one unforgettable evening.

Bloom’s comic identity has rubbed off on some of his students, like the humorist John Hodgman, a contributor to Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” who recently told an interviewer: “I was profoundly influenced by the incredibly withering and perfect comic timing of Harold Bloom. And I say that with the utmost respect for his intellect.” Encouraging the common reader to relish the best of literature, Bloom has entered the creative worlds not just of Shakespeare, Mel Brooks and Cervantes — Sancho Panza is another well-loved role model — but also some intellectually majestic modern poets. Bloom played a key role in forming later modernist poetry, reading and vetting, before publication, works by such disparate writers as James Merrill and Robert Penn Warren.

When Bloom loves something, he can be a bewitchingly persuasive advocate, as only an obsessive and enthusiastic reader can be. In his 2007 review of Peter Cole’s magisterial anthology “The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry From Muslim and Christian Spain, 950–1492” from Princeton University Press, Bloom calls Cole, via his translations, “something like a major Jewish American poet.” Describing a Jewish-themed book as worthy as Cole’s, or Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s 1982 “Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory” from University of Washington Press, or indeed Max Weinreich’s “History of the Yiddish Language” from the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research/Yale University Press, Bloom is at his best.

Always his most useful and inspiring when urging others to experience the books that he loves, he evidently uses Judaica as the object, and subject, of his most ardent affection. It may date back to his childhood, as he told in 2007: “I had been born in the United States but didn’t know any English because none was spoken at home or in the streets. We were a solid enclave of some 600,000 Eastern European, Yiddish-speaking Jews. But I still remember one day that a missionary came to the door with a Yiddish translation of the New Testament. There’s a kind of grim joke in that, isn’t there?”

In 2004’s “Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?” Bloom states that he would “rather be Falstaff or Sancho than a version of Hamlet or Don Quixote, because growing old and ill teaches me that being matters more than knowing.” This primacy of the comedy of existence unjustly scants those products of knowing that form Bloom’s permanent literary contribution to a half-century of students and the general public. 1975’s still fresh and undated “Kabbalah and Criticism,” reprinted by Continuum Books most recently in 2005, presciently warned against dilutions of Kabbalah for average readers, and recommended the writings of Gershom Scholem, whom Bloom aptly calls a “Miltonic figure in modern scholarship.”

Bloom himself is more tonic than Miltonic in 1990’s “The Book of J” from Grove Press, an aesthetic reading of the Bible by a hypersensitive literary amateur. Scorned by the eminent translation specialist Robert Alter because of Rosenberg’s translation and Bloom’s interpretations that arise from it, “The Book of J” is still stimulating as an interpretive flight, as indeed it was intended to be.

An octogenarian “Bloom brontosaurus bardolater” may proceed at a more measured pace, telling C-Span in 2003 that “caffeine and alcohol are now strictly forbidden,” but publicly he announced at a Yale literary event last year, “If someone can give me another cognac I can say something.” Ever comic, ever tragic, Harold Bloom is inimitable, and irreplaceable, as a permanent wunderkind of the American Jewish literary world.

Watch Harold Bloom read a poem by Wallace Stevens:

To see a marathon 2003 interview with Bloom on C-Span TV, click here

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