Literary scholarship has lately suffered a heavy blow as Harold Bloom has passed away. Bloom served for decades as Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University. During his career, he had published over 40 books and countless articles and essays.
Bloom came to be regarded as a defender of the Western Canon in the 1990s culture war thanks to his best-selling book The Western Canon: The Books and Schools of the Ages. In his book he took up 26 authors and examined them, finding in them the greatest writers of the Western world.
Bloom wrote, “Nothing is so essential to the Western Canon as its principle of selectivity, which are elitist only to the extent that they are founded upon severely artistic criteria.”
These words are shocking to 21st century ears, and they were distasteful to many when they were written. The idea that the artistry of a writer implies that some objective standards exist by which authors must be judged. And those standards, we are told today, are inevitably enmeshed in social structures of inequality, racism, and sexism.
In the wake of Bloom’s death, it is apparent that many still fail to understand the Canon he defended in the first place. One opinion writer has it that other approaches have, “unmistakably opened the canon to new agendas and values.” What ‘new agenda’ is being served by casting aside Chaucer and placing writers who are solely chosen for their minority status? The agenda of equal representation in the Canon of all people by arbitrary grouping?
The good professor already responded to this years ago, “One breaks into the canon only by aesthetic strength, which is constituted primarily as an amalgam: mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction.”
Bloom didn’t defend the Canon out of pique or from obnoxious racism. He defended what he knew and loved. This proves the second law of historian Robert Conquest that, “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.” Bloom knew the Canon as few ever will and he defended with all the intellect and power at his disposal.
Canon wars aren’t over and Bloom’s defense of it serve as a reminder of what a great patrimony we in the America have been given. In the Canon of books and writers we hold ‘the bank and capital of ages and of nations’ and the more we are able to avail ourselves that wisdom the more we will know ourselves and our place in existence.