Review: The Western Canon

The Western Canon, Harold Bloom. New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt Publishing, 1994, this edition 2014.

Summary: A spirited defense of the traditional Western Canon of literature against what Bloom calls the “School of Resentment” and a discussion of 26 representative works Bloom would include.

Harold Bloom wrote this book in 1994 at a time when the “dead white males” who constitute most of the works considered part of “the Western Canon” were under attack. With the continued growth of feminist, anti-racist, post-colonial, and queer criticism, many of the works Bloom treats in this volume have been further marginalized. Alternate reading lists have flourished, classics departments have closed down, and course offerings focused on those in the “traditional” canon have been done away with in many English departments.

This is not without some warrant. The men clearly outnumbered the women. Writers of other cultures were non-existent as were those who were BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and LGBTQ. The perspectives of most represented ruling and affluent classes, and the dominant powers of the world.

Harold Bloom is less diplomatic than I am. He calls the critics the School of Resentment, who want to replace these works with representative modern authors. Bloom’s case is that the works we’ve called “canonical” have survived not because of some hegemonic dominance of white and mostly male proponents, but because of their compelling originality and what he would call their “strangeness.” Coming from a different time and social milieu, they nevertheless pose insights about the human condition that generations of readers, and other writers have wrestled with.

For Bloom, the works of William Shakespeare are at the center of the canon, with Dante and Milton close by. Under the categories of aristocratic, democratic, and chaotic ages, he considers 26 authors representative of those he would include in the canon. A theme running through his discussion of authors from Milton to Whitman to Beckett and Joyce is how they interacted with and defined themselves in relation to the Bard. Their “anxiety” about Shakespeare, Bloom contends, is part of what drives them to their own brand of greatness.

Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf manage to make it into the men’s club. Bloom seems to especially like Dickenson, praising her intellectual complexity, literary originality and own brand of strangeness. Borges, Neruda, and Pessoa also make his list.

Bloom plainly doesn’t care about critics or the academic guild where he spent so many years. What he does care about is the love of reading and the awareness all bibliophiles have of there being so many books and so little time. He wonders how many of the books replacing what once were canonical will be read in a generation or two. He also observes how great authors in later generations wrestled with the greatness of those who preceded them. The inference is, what great influences will our contemporaries have? What does this bode for literature.

Bloom also offers us an extensive list from the Greeks to the present (at least the 1990’s) of books he considers worth reading, going far beyond the works he focuses on. This list alone might keep most of us busy for a lifetime, and expands to include a variety of Latin American and African authors in the recent era.

If you have not read the works Bloom discusses, the book could be a hard, long slog. In that case, read the “Prelude and Preface,” “An Elegy for the Canon” and “Elegaic Conclusion” and you will have the gist of the argument. On the other hand, if you know many of the works, Bloom offers a fascinating intertextual commentary. Beware that Bloom is a curmudgeon who has little sympathy for contemporary authors seeking to develop voices unbeholden to the “dead white males.” Yet I think we must also consider what makes works sufficiently great that they are read long after the authors (and all our literary critics) are dead. Are not these the works we hope to read before we are dead?

3 thoughts on “Review: The Western Canon

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: April 2021 | Bob on Books

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