Monday, October 14, 2019

Harold Bloom

If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me - Alice Roosevelt Longworth

Harold Bloom, who died today, was an eminent critic who came to believe in his own eminence. That is, he behaved as if any random critical thought his brain farted out was the wisdom of the ages.

Bloom was prolific - according to the obit, he wrote over 20 books, which is quite impressive for heavy-duty criticism - but that's only a tiny fraction of the number of books with his name on them. He turned himself into a book factory, issuing hundreds of volumes of collections of critical essays (by various hands) on particular literary authors or specific works. How much Bloom was personally involved in choosing and vetting the essays, and how much he farmed the job out to then-junior flunkies like Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden, is questionable; but certainly the selection of essays had a sense of randomness to them, and their quality tended to decline over the years. But one thing he did write himself was the introduction to each volume, and it is here that his self-confident blowhard ignorance can be shown up.

And some of these books were on Tolkien.

Specifically, two of them were titled J.R.R. Tolkien and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, published by Chelsea House in 2000. Two new books under the same titles were published by Bloom's Literary Criticism in 2008. Nominally they're revised editions of their predecessors, but the selection of essays is in both cases entirely different, losing a lot of the particularly notable names from the first edition, like Paul H. Kocher, Tom Shippey, and Humphrey Carpenter.

What is the same, or nearly so, in both the revised volumes and their predecessors is Bloom’s very brief and superficial introductions, and it is my review of these in The Year's Work in Tolkien Studies 2008 that I'm relying on here.

In both introductions, Bloom refers nostalgically to Roger Sale as "Tolkien's best critic," probably because Sale's tone was negative, but Bloom undercuts this tribute by removing Sale from the revised contents. The introduction for the Lord of the Rings volume denigrates the novel that the book has been created to discuss, a judgment shared by few of the critics included. Bloom's primary beef is with Tolkien's style, to which he attributes a "heavy King James Bible influence," and he carefully selects a paragraph out of context from the peroration at the end of Book V, Chapter 8 to prove this. (He says he "opened [the book] pretty much at random," but he could have found less elevated language on the same two-page spread, so I don't believe his claim that he didn't go looking for this. But that would have undercut his claim that the novel consists of "about fifteen hundred pages of this quaint stuff.") Bloom acknowledges that Tolkien "met a need" in the 1960s, though he doesn't say what need he thinks 1500 pages of King James Biblical met; in the 2000 version of the introduction, he concludes, "Whether [Tolkien] is an author for the coming century seems to me open to some doubt." Aware that eight more years had passed and Tolkien had still not gone away - indeed, after the Jackson movies he became more popular than ever - in the revised edition Bloom altered "the coming century" to "the duration of the twenty-first century," thus illustrating Tom Shippey's observation that Tolkien's negative critics assume, with hope springing eternal, that the fad will pass any minute now if they can just outwait it.

Another decade having gone by, Bloom is now gone and The Lord of the Rings is still here.

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