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The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages

Overview

Literary critic Harold Bloom's The Western Canon is more than a required reading list-it is a vision. Infused with a love of learning, compelling in its arguments for a unifying written culture, it argues brilliantly against the politicization of literature and presents a guide to the great works of the western literary tradition and essential writers of the ages. The Western Canon was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

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Overview

Literary critic Harold Bloom's The Western Canon is more than a required reading list-it is a vision. Infused with a love of learning, compelling in its arguments for a unifying written culture, it argues brilliantly against the politicization of literature and presents a guide to the great works of the western literary tradition and essential writers of the ages. The Western Canon was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

America's preeminent literary critic, who opened new fields of thought about literature in The Anxiety of Influence and The Book of J, takes on those books essential to our literary heritage. Bloom endeavors to isolate the qualities that make 26 chosen writers--including Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Freud, and Whitman--so essential to us today.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781573225144
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 9/28/1995
  • Edition description: 1st Riverhead ed
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 236,833
  • Product dimensions: 6.11 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Harold Bloom

Harold Bloom is a Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and a former Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard. As The Paris Review has pointed out, "no critic in the English language since Samuel Johnson has been more prolific." His more than thirty books include The Best Poems of the English Language, The Art of Reading Poetry, and The Book of J. He is a MacArthur Prize Fellow, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, including the Academy's Gold Medal for Belles Lettres and Criticism, the International Prize of Catalonia, and the Alfonso Reyes Prize of Mexico.

Alfred Kazin has said, "Bloom is all literature, (he) positively lives it," and The New York Times called him "the most original literary critic in America." He lives in New Haven and New York.

Biography

"Authentic literature doesn't divide us," the scholar and literary critic Harold Bloom once said. "It addresses itself to the solitary individual or consciousness." Revered and sometimes reviled as a champion of the Western canon, Bloom insists on the importance of reading authors such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer -- not because they transmit certain approved cultural values, but because they transcend the limits of culture, and thus enlarge rather than constrict our sense of what it means to be human. As Bloom explained in an interview, "Shakespeare is the true multicultural author. He exists in all languages. He is put on the stage everywhere. Everyone feels that they are represented by him on the stage."

Bloom began his career by tackling the formidable legacy of T.S. Eliot, who had dismissed the English Romantic poets as undisciplined nature-worshippers. Bloom construed the Romantic poets' visions of immortality as rebellions against nature, and argued that an essentially Romantic imagination was still at work in the best modernist poets.

Having restored the Romantics to critical respectability, Bloom advanced a more general theory of poetry. His now-famous The Anxiety of Influence argued that any strong poem is a creative "misreading" of the poet's predecessor. The book raised, as the poet John Hollander wrote, "profound questions about... how the prior visions of other poems are, for a true poet, as powerful as his own dreams and as formative as his domestic childhood." In addition to developing this theory, Bloom wrote several books on sacred texts. In The Book of J, he suggested that some of the oldest parts of the Bible were written by a woman.

The Book of J was a bestseller, but it was the 1994 publication of The Western Canon that made the critic-scholar a household name. In it, Bloom decried what he called the "School of Resentment" and the use of political correctness as a basis for judging works of literature. His defense of the threatened canon formed, according to The New York Times, a "passionate demonstration of why some writers have triumphantly escaped the oblivion in which time buries almost all human effort."

Bloom placed Shakespeare along with Dante at the center of the Western canon, and he made another defense of Shakespeare's centrality with Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, an illuminating study of Shakespeare's plays. How to Read and Why (2000) revisited Shakespeare and other writers in the Bloom pantheon, and described the act of reading as both a spiritual exercise and an aesthetic pleasure.

Recently, Bloom took up another controversial stance when he attacked Harry Potter in an essay for The Wall Street Journal. His 2001 book Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages advanced an alternative to contemporary children's lit, with a collection of classic works of literature "worthy of rereading" by people of all ages.

The poet and editor David Lehman said that "while there are some critics who are known for a certain subtlety and a certain judiciousness, there are other critics... who radiate ferocious passion." Harold Bloom is a ferociously passionate reader for whom literary criticism is, as he puts it, "the art of making what is implicit in the text as finely explicit as possible."

Good To Know

Bloom earned his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1955 and was hired as a Yale faculty member that same year. In 1965, at the age of 35, he became one of the youngest scholars in Yale history to be appointed full professor in the department of English. He is now Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale and Berg Visiting Professor of English at New York University.

Though some conservative commentators embraced Bloom's canon as a return to traditional moral values, Bloom, who once styled himself "a Truman Democrat," dismisses attempts by both left- and right-wingers to politicize literature. "To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all," he told a New York Times interviewer.

His great affinity for Shakespeare has put Bloom in the unlikely position of stage actor on occasion; he has played his "literary hero," port-loving raconteur Sir John Falstaff, in three productions.

Bloom is married to Jeanne, a retired school psychologist whom he met while a junior faculty member at Yale in the 1950s. They have two sons.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Harold Irving Bloom (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York and New Haven, Connecticut
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 11, 1930
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Cornell University, 1951; Ph.D., Yale University, 1955

Table of Contents

Preface and Prelude

I. On the Canon
1. An Elegy for the Canon

II. The Aristocratic Age
2. Shakespeare, Center of the Canon
3. The Strangeness of Dante: Ulysses and Beatrice
4. Chaucer: The Wife of Bath, the Pardoner, and Shakespearean Character
5. Cervantes: The Play of the World
6. Montaigne and Molière: The Canonical Elusiveness of the Truth
7. Milton's Satan and Shakespeare
8. Dr. Samuel Johnson, the Canonical Critic
9. Goethe's Faust, Part Two: The Countercanonical Poem

III. The Democratic Age
10. Canonical Memory in Early Wordsworth and Jane Austen's Persuasion
11. Walt Whitman as Center of the American Canon
12. Emily Dickinson: Blanks, Transports, the Dark
13. The Canonical Novel: Dickens's Bleak House, George Eliot's Middlemarch
14. Tolstoy and Heroism
15. Ibsen: Trolls and Peer Gynt

IV. The Chaotic Age
16. Freud: A Shakespearian Reading
17. Proust: The True Persuasion of Sexual Jealousy
18. Joyce's Agon with Shakespeare
19. Woolf's Orlando: Feminism as the Love of Reading
20. Kafka: Canonical Patience and "Indestructability"
21. Borges, Neruda, and Pessoa: Hispanic-Portuguese Whitman
22. Beckett...Joyce...Proust...Shakespeare

V. Cataloging the Canon
23. Elegiac Conclusion

Appendixes:
A. The Theocratic Age B. The Aristocratic Age C. The Democratic Age D. The Chaotic Age: A Canonical Prophecy Index

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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 26, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Most People Do Not Understand Bloom

    The last reviewer is obviously a rather dumb and semi-literate fellow. Bloom has said this over and over in interviews and of course here in the Western Canon, but I shall again repeat - in any book AESTHETIC QUALITY IS ALL HAROLD BLOOM IS INTERESTED IN - not the way a work affects western civilization, not any deeper moral code ingrained, or any philosophical innovation, he cares not about race or religion, so long as the work is aesthetically aware.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 20, 2008

    Not Sure What the Last Post Means!!!

    I am both saddened and slightly bemused by the previous 'Ph.D.' bearing reveiwer who gives us his own insightful take on literature. While the works of William Shakespeare and others may be 'saturated' with politics, it does mean it was the primary aim in the writing of the works, and certainly shouldn't be in the reading. As Bloom says, a Marxist or feminist reading of 'Hamlet' will us things of Marxism and feminism but nothing of Hamlet himself, and by default nothing of ourselves. Political, social, and historical goals can be written about and debated in nonfiction, so why bother with all of the trouble making said things part of the subtext and not the text itself. The truth is that the beauty of literature, and psychological/philosophical power it holds can only be communicated to us through this art, and as Leo Tolstoy said, (paraphrasing him here) art is the indirect communication between one soul and another'. Politics can't explain technical choices such as meter, rhyme, or poetic devices, and certainly cannot tell us things about ourselves. As these great works in 'The Western Canon' were written by indivduals and not by society, the goal is psychological and not 'social'. Even if an author deliberately attempts to distance himself from the aesthetics of literature, if he is in fact a decent writer than the attempts will be in vain, and said attempt will only inadvertently reveal the ultimate power of the poet.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 26, 2002

    A Sabbatical For All From Harold Bloom

    After I entered graduate school about eighteen years ago, I decided to acquire all thirty-eight of Shakespeare's plays. I had taken two courses on him at college and was no doubt inspired by what I had read. That impulse, aside from constituting my peculiar authority for this review, proves prophetic, uncannily so, in the light of Harold Bloom's The Western Canon. In illuminating the Western Canon, Bloom makes it abundantly clear that William Shakespeare centers the canon, indeed is the canon. Well, all of us students of literature have discerned Shakespeare's greatness at one time or another, but did we know that he occupied such a prominent place? After Shakespeare, I acquired all of Charles Dickens' novels, another distinguished member of the canon. Bloom isolates twenty-six particular canonical authors in order to explain the quality their work possesses. Having read literature for about fifty years, he is more than qualified to judge those writers' merits. Throughout the book, Bloom informs us of his personal reactions to the literary works he reads, a nice touch, which suggests that even the greatest literary works have to be simply read at one time. Life is too short to read all the good writers, so we require a canon to direct us to the best of the best. By giving his keen attention to these twenty-six writers, who include Dante, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Cervantes, Milton, Whitman, Wordsworth, Proust, and Borges, Bloom elucidates the qualities of the writing that wrest for each one a place in the canon. To provide a larger context for that analysis, Bloom adopts a framework from Giambattista Vico's New Science, which posits a cycle of three phases. Bloom adopts two of the phases, the Aristocratic and Democratic Ages and, rather than follow Vico exactly, he postulates a 'Chaotic' Age. The writers of the latter group reflect the fragmentation, chaos, and confusion of the contemporary era. But this framework remains a broad context for the writers, with an expanded list in the Appendixes. Lacking much exposition on the reasons for certain writers' belonging to their respective ages, we are left to infer the aspects that characterize one age as opposed to another. Appropriate to this last modification of his is the elegaic form that embraces his discussion. The irony of mournfulness imbuing such an erudite treatment of this grand subject, 'the books and school of the ages,' lends a sharp emphasis to Bloom's lament for the doom of the great books. We're not a nation of Western Canon lovers. 'Teachers now tell me of many schools where the play [Julius Caeser] can no longer be read through, since students find it beyond their attention spans.' Despite this melancholy, the book lucidly defines and describes the Western Canon. It will be a point of great interest to the educated reader to learn of Shakespeare's pre-eminence. Shakespeare's cognitive, linguistic, and imaginative brilliance simply makes him the nonpareil par excellence of western literature. 'No other writer has ever had anything like Shakespeare's resources of language,' Bloom declares. Shakespeare serves as a constant point of reference for the originality and universality of the other authors' works. The titles of two chapters point up this fact: on Freud, 'Freud: A Shakespearean Reading' and, on Joyce, 'Joyce's Agon With Shakespeare.' Try as they did, Freud and Joyce could not surpass the center himself. What are the qualities that make for a canonical work? If a work is in the canon, it has strangeness, weirdness, originality, uncanniness, and universality. Bloom insists, as those words imply, on the aesthetic value of literature. Therein resides the primary benefit of literature. Great works of literature are not political or social documents; they are fine aesthetic edifices. Great literature will not make us better persons necessarily, but it can humanize and broaden us. As Bloom upholds this

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2008

    Blooms Mistaken Ideology

    The books is horrible. First, Bloom is antiChristian. Bloom adopts the documentary hypothesis that basically says the biblical writers were frauds and the the Bible has been changed repeatedly over the years. Of course, there is not one shred of evidence to support such a view. Not one ancient document supports this view, it is adopted by non-Christians but has no evidence to support it. Blooms ideology, which he foolishly claims doesn't effect his views, determine not only how he views books but what books he includes in the list. Really, how can anyone justify having the Koran in the Western Canon. Bloom also makes philosophical judgemnts throughout the book and then dares to claims his views on literature are solely based on a books literary quality and that political, social, and philosophical views should not determine how we look at literature. This is unbelievable naive. In addition, Blooms list itself has problems. The Western Canons should include literature that has had a tremendous impact on Western civilization and books that have been widely read for centuries. Does the Egyptian Book of the Dead really qualify. Its simply on the list because one of the oldest pieces of literature. Who actuaaly still reads it and what impact has it really had on the West. Books left off the list are also problematic. Metaphysics is not on the list and many other important works. A good book on the canon should discuss objectively how each book has impacted the West. It should include information about how many copies of it have been sold, and what typwe of impact it has had on society and on other literature.. Of course, the Bible, not Shakespear, would be at the center of this discussion and instead of being criticized its monumental influence would be discussed and praised. Only an antiChristian writer would do any different.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 12, 2003

    Bloom misunderstands his own 'canon'

    While Bloom would like to uphold what he believes are choices based on pure aesthetics, how can anyone argue that this aim is possible? This book is too basic for even an introduction to literature. The works Bloom reviews and mentions (briefly and with a lack of detail) are books saturated with politics, emotion and bias, much as all of us are as humans. Several of these works, in fact, reject aesthetics for emotion and politics! Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes...all glowing examples of literature 'with a mission'. Bloom himself is on a mission; he may not call it 'feminism' or 'Marxism' - perhaps it is 'Bloomism'. Bloom only gives cursory mention to the many OTHER reasons why books become part of a 'canon'. If he were to believe as Wilhelm von Humboldt did, for example, Shakespeare, Dante and Cervantes would disappear in favor of Homer, Aeschylus and Aristophanes. We create the canon. We are the canon.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 28, 2000

    our dying aristocracy

    harold bloom is an aristocratic reader in an age of democratic reading. he upholds traditional values in literature. shakespeare is god; dante, the pope; and jane austen, the queen of england. he says the current trends in literary criticism are a fad and will fade away. i'm sure the same thing was said of the democracy we live in. the current trends will not fade away, but harold will. i don't always agree with harold, but like proust i'm facinated by old aristocrats. let's enjoy the old fellow while we have him.

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    Posted January 16, 2010

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    Posted October 28, 2008

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    Posted October 27, 2008

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