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The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life

The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life

by Harold Bloom

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"Literary criticism, as I attempt to practice it," writes Harold Bloom in The Anatomy of Influence, "is in the first place literary, that is to say, personal and passionate."

For more than half a century, Bloom has shared his profound knowledge of the written word with students and readers. In this, his most comprehensive and accessible study of influence


"Literary criticism, as I attempt to practice it," writes Harold Bloom in The Anatomy of Influence, "is in the first place literary, that is to say, personal and passionate."

For more than half a century, Bloom has shared his profound knowledge of the written word with students and readers. In this, his most comprehensive and accessible study of influence, Bloom leads us through the labyrinthine paths which link the writers and critics who have informed and inspired him for so many years. The result is "a critical self-portrait," a sustained meditation on a life lived with and through the great works of the Western canon: Why has influence been my lifelong obsessive concern? Why have certain writers found me and not others? What is the end of a literary life?

Featuring extended analyses of Bloom's most cherished poets—Shakespeare, Whitman, and Crane—as well as inspired appreciations of Emerson, Tennyson, Browning, Yeats, Ashbery, and others, The Anatomy of Influence adapts Bloom's classic work The Anxiety of Influence to show us what great literature is, how it comes to be, and why it matters. Each chapter maps startling new literary connections that suddenly seem inevitable once Bloom has shown us how to listen and to read. A fierce and intimate appreciation of the art of literature on a scale that the author will not again attempt, The Anatomy of Influence follows the sublime works it studies, inspiring the reader with a sense of something ever more about to be.

Editorial Reviews

Literary Review - Eric Ormsby

“Criticism, [Bloom] believes, should be ‘personal and passionate’ and, in fact, personal passion has always been his greatest strength… Like all Bloom’s finest work [The Anatomy of Influence] is a genial amalgam in which insight is inseparable from extravagance.”—Eric Ormsby, Literary Review
New Statesman - Jonathan Derbyshire

The Anatomy of Influence crackles with a rhetorical energy more suited to the public lecture theatre than the graduate seminar.” —Jonathan Derbyshire, New Statesman
The Daily Telegraph - Robert Douglas-Fairhurst
“…..wise, funny, maddening…… [Bloom is the] most irrepressible and irreplaceable of critics.”—Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, The Daily Telegraph
Sunday Business Post (Ireland) - Dr Graham Allen

“……the confessional and elegiac tonalities contained within Bloom’s narrative stay long within the memory.”—Dr Graham Allen, Sunday Business Post (Ireland)
The Times - Iain Finlayson

“Bloom reveals his own magisterial, sometimes mischievous self, in his meditations on the masters with whom he connects.”—Iain Finlayson, The Times
Irish Times - John Montague
“….. [A] treasure-trove of a book……This volume is a testimony to Bloom’s assertion that he is still ‘hopelessly passionate about the poets I loved best’. “—John Montague, Irish Times
The Guardian (Christmas Books 2011) - John Banville
“The breadth of thinking and the range of reference in The Anatomy of Influence are astonishing.”—John Banville, The Guardian
The Tablet - Bernard Manzo
“If the pronouncements of Bloom are sometimes cryptic, and wayward, his insights can be brilliant, as when he suggests that Shakespeare might be exploring his relationship to his mighty precursor Marlowe in the relationship between the half-brothers Edmund and Edgar in King Lear; or when he remarks that Milton could not have presented an unfallen Satan in Paradise Lost because he would have been too much like Hamlet; or when he explores the wide and varied influence of Walt Whitman, whom he considers the greatest of American poets.”—Bernard Manzo, The Tablet
Audio recording of Harold Bloom in conversation with Paul Holdengraber for the PEN World Voices Festival, recorded by LIVE from the New York Public Library.
Sam Tanenhaus
…Bloom, even in his late season of garrulity, still has many arresting things to say and says them, often, with exquisite precision. He is, by any reckoning, one of the most stimulating literary presences of the last half-century—and one of the most protean, a singular breed of scholar-teacher-critic-prose-poet-­pamphleteer, as deeply versed in the baroque aestheticism of Pater and Wilde as in the categorized intricacies of the kabbalah and Freud, and thoroughly steeped in several centuries' worth of English and American poetry…
—The New York Times
The New York Times Book Review

"Bloom...has many arresting things to say and says them, often, with exquisite precision.  He is, by any reckoning, one of the most stimulating literary presences of the last half-century—and one of the most protean, a singular breed of scholar-teacher-critic-prose poet-pamphleteer." — Sam Tanenhaus, New York Times Book Review

— Sam Tanenhaus

Washington Post

Praise for Harold Bloom:
“Harold Bloom is one of the greatest literary critics of his time . . . a man who like Tennyson’s Ulysses is a part of all that he has read.”—Washington Post

The Washington Post

"Bloom thinks in the sweep of millennia, of intellectual patterns that unfold over centuries, of a vast and intricate labyrinth of interconnections between artists from Plato to Pater."—Michael Lindgren, Washington Post

— Michael Lindgren

New York Times Book Review

Praise for Harold Bloom:
 “Arguably the most influential critic of the last quarter century. He elevates critical writing to the level of literature itself.”—New York Times Book Review

Boston Globe

Praise for Harold Bloom:
“Harold Bloom reminds us what matters. He is our most valuable critic.”—Boston Globe

The Observer

Praise for Harold Bloom:
“Bloom is fighting the good fight for literature.”—The Observer (U.K.)

The Times

Praise for Harold Bloom:“[Bloom] is the reader as human medium, an instrument through whom inspiration strikes: in turn he renders visible the lineament of other writers’ imaginations while articulating the generally inchoate and undeveloped responses of the average reader. . . . Magnificent. . . . He is never less than memorable.”—Peter Ackroyd, The Times (London)

The New York Times Book Review - Sam Tanenhaus

"Bloom . . . has many arresting things to say and says them, often, with exquisite precision. He is, by any reckoning, one of the most stimulating literary presences of the last half-century—and one of the most protean, a singular breed of scholar-teacher-critic-prose poet-pamphleteer."—Sam Tanenhaus, New York Times Book Review

Choice Outstanding Academic Title:Language and Literature - Choice Magazine

Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2011 in the Language and Literature category.

The Washington Post - Michael Lindgren

"Bloom thinks in the sweep of millennia, of intellectual patterns that unfold over centuries, of a vast and intricate labyrinth of interconnections between artists from Plato to Pater."—Michael Lindgren, Washington Post

New York Review of Books - Robert Pogue Harrison

“If Bloom is right—and I believe he is—that ‘literary criticism . . . ought to consist in acts of appreciation,’ he has fulfilled that mandate once again in The Anatomy of Influence.”—Robert Pogue Harrison, New York Review of Books

Choice - L. McMillan

"This finale to his illustrious career in literary criticism will not disappoint fans of Bloom . . . Essential."—L. McMillan, Choice

Ugarte - James Angelos

“Reading Bloom read the great writers of the canon is an immense pleasure; reading Bloom read Bloom is a revelation.  Like his ideal poets, Bloom brings us fire and light, apt tools for reading in the dark.”—James Angelos, Ugarte

Brainiac Blog, Boston Globe - Josh Rothman

Bloom “has been one of America's most fascinating literary critics for nearly half a century. In his newest book, The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life, Bloom revisits the ideas that made him a star—and explains, in a straightforward way, why he's spent his career trying ‘to build a hedge around the secular Western canon.’ ”—Josh Rothman, Brainiac Blog, Boston Globe

Library Journal
As defender of the Western canon, the controversial Bloom (Sterling Professor of the Humanities, Yale Univ.; How To Read and Why) has no equal. Here he continues his investigation into literary interconnectedness by revealing how writers struggle with the works of those who came before. He cites Shakespeare as the greatest writer in the English language. Moving forward chronologically from the 16th through the 20th centuries, Bloom analyzes the works of such giants as John Milton, Samuel Johnson, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, illustrating their connections to Shakespeare. Bloom examines Walt Whitman's poetry in depth then considers James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Stephen Crane, and Wallace Stevens, as well as contemporary poets, e.g., A.R. Ammons, John Ashbery, and Mark Strand. VERDICT Unfortunately, the book lacks much serious consideration of nonwhite and women poets. Bloom acknowledges Emily Dickinson, yet never accords her the status she deserves, although Amy Clampitt's "Beach Glass" rates a short analysis. Yet his commentaries penetrate the mysteries of influence and provide enough evidence to convince those skeptical of the "Western canon" approach. Bloom's elegant and accessible writing, punctuated here with his discussions of his own experiences with these works over time, will be welcomed by serious readers who don't mind his bias.—Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo
Kirkus Reviews

The distinguished critic again examines the interactions among writers that have been the main focus of his attention sinceThe Anxiety of Influence(1973).

As in that seminal work, Bloom (Humanities and English/Yale Univ.; Fallen Angels, 2007, etc.) takes a decidedly Freudian view of literature, depicting each generation of artists struggling withthe titans of the past to carve out their own place in the pantheon. Ranking matters to Bloom; it's not enough to proclaim Beckett, Joyce, Proust and Kafka "the masters of prose fiction in the twentieth century"—they must be judged as "transcending" Thomas Mann, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner. His audience is "those dissident readers who...instinctually reach out for quality in literature, disdaining the lemmings who devour J.K. Rowling and Stephen King as they race down the cliffs to intellectual suicide in the gray ocean of the internet." Looking beyond sentences like that, and beyond Bloom's trademark swipes at feminists and Marxists, readers (dissident or otherwise) will find his usual closely argued exegeses of the writers he loves—and that love goes a long way toward atoning for his aggressive contentiousness. He traces the poetic tradition stretching from Shakespeare through Shelley, Browning and Yeats to Walt Whitman, Bloom's "American Homer," whose epic presence shadows Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane and such contemporary poets as James Merrill and John Ashbery. Unsurprisingly, since Bloom prefers poetry "free of all history except literary biography," he stresses existential themes: the nature of self, the soul's quest for meaning, the omnipresence of death, our final destination. The octogenarian clearly has his legacy in mind as he strives to reject old charges of misogyny and exclusivity; he makes reference to his many Asian American students, and a few female names (Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop) have slipped into his references, if not his full-scale analyses. But we wouldn't want Bloom to be anyone but Bloom: an old-fashioned literary critic passionately committed to art for art's sake.

An autumnal summing-up, winding through "the labyrinth of literary influence" to conclude, "[t]hat labyrinth is life itself."

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Yale University Press
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Read an Excerpt

The Anatomy of Influence

Literature as a Way of Life
By Harold Bloom

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2011 Harold Bloom
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-16760-3

Chapter One

The Point of View for My Work as a Critic


When I was very young, freedom beckoned through the poets I first loved: Hart Crane, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, William Butler Yeats, John Milton, and above all William Shakespeare in Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. The sense of freedom they conferred liberated me into a primal exuberance. If women and men initially become poets by a second birth, my own sense of being twice-born made me an incipient critic.

I do not recall reading any literary criticism, as opposed to literary biography, until I was an undergraduate. At seventeen I purchased Northrop Frye's study of William Blake, Fearful Symmetry, soon after its publication. What Hart Crane was to me at ten, Frye became at seventeen: an overwhelming experience. Frye's influence on me lasted twenty years but came to an abrupt halt on my thirty- seventh birthday, July 11, 1967, when I awakened from a nightmare and then passed the entire day in composing a dithyramb, "The Covering Cherub; or, Poetic Influence." Six years later that had evolved into The Anxiety of Influence, a book Frye rightly rejected from his Christian Platonist stance. Now, in my eightieth year, I would not have the patience to reread anything by Frye, but I possess almost all of Hart Crane by memory, recite much of it daily, and continue to teach him. I came to value other contemporary critics—William Empson and Kenneth Burke particularly—but have now dispensed with reading them also. Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Walter Pater, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oscar Wilde I go on reading as I do the poets.

Literary criticism, as I attempt to practice it, is in the first place literary, which is to say personal and passionate. It is not philosophy, politics, or institutionalized religion. At its strongest—Johnson, Hazlitt, Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, and Paul Valéry, among others—it is a kind of wisdom literature, and so a meditation upon life. Yet any distinction between literature and life is misleading. Literature for me is not merely the best part of life; it is itself the form of life, which has no other form.

This book returns me to the question of influence. As a child, I was overcome by the immediacy of the poets I first loved. At ten to twelve years of age, I read for the lustres, in Emerson's phrase. These seemed to memorize themselves in me. Hosts of poets have followed, and the pleasures of possession by memory have sustained me for many decades.

If you carry the major British and American poets around with you by internalization, after some years their complex relations to one another begin to form enigmatic patterns. I was a graduate student writing a doctoral dissertation on Shelley before I began to realize that influence was the inevitable problem for me to solve if I could. Existing accounts of influence seemed to me mere source study, and I became puzzled that nearly every critic I encountered assumed idealistically that literary influence was a benign process. Possibly I overreacted to this, as I was a very emotional young man. It took me from 1953 until the summer of 1967 before my meditation clarified. It was then that I awoke in my state of metaphysical terror and after a dazed breakfast with my wife began to write the dithyramb that eventually became The Anxiety of Influence. It took about three days to complete, and it baffled me as I brooded. What was it? I could recognize that I had been thinking it a long time, not always consciously.

It is a banal truism that the cultural present both derives from and reacts against anteriority. Twenty- first- century America is in a state of decline. It is scary to reread the final volume of Gibbon these days because the fate of the Roman Empire seems an outline that the imperial presidency of George W. Bush retraced and that continues even now. We have approached bankruptcy, fought wars we cannot pay for, and defrauded our urban and rural poor. Our troops include felons, and mercenaries of many nations are among our "contractors," fighting on their own rules or none at all. Dark influences from the American past congregate among us still. If we are a democracy, what are we to make of the palpable elements of plutocracy, oligarchy, and mounting theocracy that rule our state? How do we address the self- inflicted catastrophes that devastate our natural environment? So large is our malaise that no single writer can encompass it. We have no Emerson or Whitman among us. An institutionalized counterculture condemns individuality as archaic and depreciates intellectual values, even in the universities.

These observations serve only as speculative foreground to the belated realization that my curious revelations about influence came in the summer of 1967 and then guided me in a stand against the great awakening of the late sixties and early seventies. The Anxiety of Influence, published in January 1973, is a brief, gnomic theory of poetry as poetry, free of all history except literary biography. It is a hard read, even for me, because it is tense with anxious expectations, prompted by signs of the times, which it avoids mentioning. Faith in the aesthetic, in the tradition of Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde, is the little book's credo, but there is an undersong of foreboding, informed by the influence of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Freud. I did not consciously realize this then, but my meditation upon poetic influence now seems to me also an attempt to forge a weapon against the gathering storm of ideology that soon would sweep away many of my students.

Yet The Anxiety of Influence was more than that for me, and evidently for many others worldwide these past forty-five years. Translated into languages I cannot read as well as those I can, it stays in print abroad and at home. This may be because it is a last- ditch defense of poetry, and a cry against being subsumed by any ideology. Opponents accuse me of espousing an "aesthetic ideology," but I follow Kant in believing that the aesthetic demands deep subjectivity and is beyond the reach of ideology.

Creative misreading was the prime subject of The Anxiety of Influence, and is no less the issue of The Anatomy of Influence. But more than forty years of wandering in the critical wilderness have tempered the anxious vision that descended upon me in 1967. The influence process always is at work in all the arts and sciences, as well as in the law, politics, popular culture, the media, and education. This book will be long enough without addressing the nonliterary arts, even if I were more versed in music, dance, and the visual arts than I am. Obsessed with imaginative literature, I trust my insights with regard to it, but know little of the law or of the public sphere. Even in the university I am isolated, except for my own students, since I am a department of one.

I have looked backward once already, in the preface to the second edition of The Anxiety of Influence, which centers upon Shakespeare and his relation to Marlowe. There I acknowledged Shakespeare's Sonnet 87, "Farewell, thou art too dear for my possession," for giving me what have become critical keywords: misprision, swerving, and mistaking. Sonnet 87 is an exquisitely modulated lament for the loss of homoerotic love but fits extraordinarily well the situation of our belatedness in culture.

The Anatomy of Influence offers a different look back. Spanning an abundance of authors, eras, and genres, it brings together my phase of thinking and writing about influence (mostly from 1967 through 1982) with my more public reflections of the first decade of the twenty-first century. I strive here for a subtler language that will construe my earlier commentary for the general reader and reflect changes in my thinking about influence. Some of these changes have been prompted by shifts in the general climate of criticism and some by the clarity that comes from a long life lived with and through the great works of the Western canon.

Influence anxiety, in literature, need not be an affect in the writer who arrives late in a tradition. It always is an anxiety achieved in a literary work, whether or not its author ever felt it. Richard Ellmann, the preeminent Joyce scholar and a dear friend I continue to miss, asserted that Joyce suffered no anxiety of influence, even in regard to Shakespeare and Dante, but I recall telling Ellmann that Joyce's personal lack of such anxiety was, to me, not the issue. Ulysses and Finnegans Wake manifest considerable belatedness, more in relation to Shakespeare than to Dante. Influence anxiety exists between poems and not between persons. Temperament and circumstances determine whether a later poet feels anxiety at whatever level of consciousness. All that matters for interpretation is the revisionary relationship between poems, as manifested in tropes, images, diction, syntax, grammar, metric, poetic stance.

Northrop Frye insisted that great literature emancipated us from anxiety. That idealization is untrue: greatness ensues from giving inevitable expression to a fresh anxiety. Longinus, critical formulator of the sublime, said that "beautiful words are in very truth the peculiar light of thought." But what is the origin of that light in a poem, play, story, novel? It is outside the writer, and stems from a precursor, who can be a composite figure. In regard to the precursor, creative freedom can be evasion but not flight. There must be agon, a struggle for supremacy, or at least for holding off imaginative death.

For many years before and after The Anxiety of Influence was first published, literary scholars and critics were reluctant to see art as a contest for the foremost place. They seemed to forget that competition is a central fact of our cultural tradition. Athletes and politicians, of course, know no other enterprise, yet our heritage, insofar as it is Greek, enforces this condition for all of culture and society. Jakob Burckhardt and Friedrich Nietzsche inaugurated the modern recovery of Greek agon, and it is now accepted by classical scholars as a guiding principle of Greek civilization. Norman Austin, commenting upon Sophocles in Arion (2006), observes that "ancient poetry was dominated by an agonistic spirit that has hardly ever seen its equal. Athlete competed with athlete; rhapsode with rhapsode; dramatist with dramatist, with all the competitions held as great public festivals." Western culture remains essentially Greek, since the rival Hebrew component has vanished into Christianity, itself indebted to the Greek genius. Plato and the Athenian dramatists had to confront Homer as their precursor, which is to take on the unvanquishable, even if you are Aeschylus. Our Homer is Shakespeare, who is unavoidable yet is better avoided by dramatists. George Bernard Shaw learned that wisdom rather slowly, and most dramatists attempt to evade the author of King Lear.

My emphasis on agon as a central feature of literary relationships nevertheless encountered considerable resistance. Much seemed to depend on the idea of literary influence as a seamless and friendly mode of transmission, a gift graciously bestowed and gratefully received. The Anxiety of Influence also inspired certain marginalized groups to assert their moral superiority. For decades, I was informed that women and homosexual writers entered no contest but cooperated in a community of love. Frequently I was assured that black, Hispanic, and Asian literary artists too rose above mere competition. Agon was apparently a pathology confined to white heterosexual males.

Yet now, in the first decade of the twenty- first century, the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. In the wake of French theorists of culture like the historian Michel Foucault and the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the world of letters is most often portrayed as a Hobbesian realm of pure strategy and strife. Bourdieu reduces Flaubert's literary achievement to the great novelist's almost martial ability to assess his literary competitors' weaknesses and strengths and position himself accordingly.

Bourdieu's now fashionable account of literary relationships, with its emphasis on conflict and competition, has an affinity with my theory of influence and its emphasis on agon. But there are fundamental differences as well. I do not believe that literary relationships can be reduced to a naked quest for worldly power, though they may in some cases include such ambitions. The stakes in these struggles, for strong poets, are always literary. Threatened by the prospect of imaginative death, of being entirely possessed by a precursor, they suffer a distinctively literary form of crisis. A strong poet seeks not simply to vanquish the rival but to assert the integrity of his or her own writing self.

The rise of what I shall call the New Cynicism (a cluster of critical tendencies which are rooted in French theories of culture and encompass the New Historicism and its ilk) causes me to revisit my previous account of influence. In this, my final statement on the subject, I define influence simply as literary love, tempered by defense. The defenses vary from poet to poet. But the overwhelming presence of love is vital to understanding how great literature works.

The Anatomy of Influence reflects on a wide range of influence relationships. Shakespeare is the Founder, and I start with him, moving from Marlowe's influence on Shakespeare to Shakespeare's influence on writers from John Milton to James Joyce. Poets writing in English after Milton tended to struggle with him, but the High Romantics always had to make a truce with Shakespeare as well. Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats in very different ways had to work out a relationship in their poetry between Shakespeare and Milton. As we shall see, Milton's defense against Shakespeare is highly selective repression while Joyce's is total appropriation.

I keep returning to Shakespeare in the chapters that follow not because I am a Bardolator (I am) but because he is inescapable for all who came after, in all nations of the world except France, where Stendhal and Victor Hugo went against their country's neoclassical rejection of what was regarded as dramatic "barbarism." Shakespeare is now the truly global writer, acclaimed, acted, and read in Bulgaria and Indonesia, China and Japan, Russia and where you will. The plays survive translation, paraphrase, and transmemberment because their characters are alive and universally relevant. That makes Shakespeare a special case for the study of influence: his effects are too large to be coherently analyzed. Emerson said that Shakespeare wrote the text of modern life, which prompted me to the widely misunderstood assertion that Shakespeare invented us. We would have been here anyway, of course, but without Shakespeare we would not have seen ourselves as what we are.

Throughout this book I frequently contrast Shakespeare's presence with that of Walt Whitman, the Evening Land's answer to Old Europe and Shakespeare. Whitman, except for the egregious Edgar Allan Poe, is the only American poet who has a worldwide influence. To have engendered the poetry of D. H. Lawrence and Pablo Neruda, of Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Mayakovsky is to be a figure of rare variety, quite unlike the one found in weak readings of our national bard. I identify strong influences on Whitman—Lucretius, Shakespeare, and Emerson among them. And I go on to chart Whitman's influence on later writers, beginning with Stevens, Lawrence, and Crane, and culminating in poets of my own generation: James Wright, Amy Clampitt, A. R. Ammons, Mark Strand, W. S. Merwin, Charles Wright, John Ashbery, and others.

The large contours of this book are chronological: its four sections proceed from the sixteenth to the twenty- first century. But there are multiple crossings over time and space as well. Shelley appears in several chapters as a strong in- fluence on Yeats, Browning, and Stevens, and as a somewhat reluctant skeptic too. Whitman, who appears in many chapters, comes in at least two key guises. He is the poet of the American Sublime, but he is an important representative of the Skeptical Sublime, and as such he appears alongside Shelley, Leopardi, Pater, Stevens, and the more covert Lucretians John Dryden, Samuel Johnson, Milton, and Tennyson. The structure of literary influence is labyrinthine, not linear. In the spirit of the passage from Tolstoy that serves as an epigraph to this book, I seek here to guide readers though some of the "endless labyrinth of linkages that makes up the stuff of art."


Excerpted from The Anatomy of Influence by Harold Bloom Copyright © 2011 by Harold Bloom. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Harold Bloom is Sterling Professor of the Humanities at Yale University. He lives in New Haven, CT.

Brief Biography

New York, New York and New Haven, Connecticut
Date of Birth:
July 11, 1930
Place of Birth:
New York, New York
B.A., Cornell University, 1951; Ph.D., Yale University, 1955

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