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  • American Literature in Bloom1
  • Jeffrey R. Di Leo (bio)

Emerson is the Ursuppe of American literature, or, so argues Harold Bloom in The American Canon, a collection of essays he wrote over a span of fifty years. Everything that is great about American literature stems back to Emerson—and everything that is not so great about it ignores or rejects Emerson. Thus, the "problems" of American literature for Bloom are always already Emersonian: "The problem of American poetry after Emerson might be defined as 'Is it possible to be un-Emersonian, rather than, at best, anti Emersonian?" (2019a, 350). However, in spite of the grand claims for Emerson's influence over American literature in The American Canon, collected and edited by David Mikics, he is nowhere to be found in Bloom's final book published during his lifetime, Possessed by Memory—and it is no small book.2

Five hundred and eight pages spaced over seventy-five chapters with discussions spanning the Hebrew Bible to twentieth-century American poetry with significant detours through Shakespeare and the British romantics, but no chapter in Possessed by Memory devoted to Emerson. Not even a few pages. In Part Four, "The Imperfect Is Our Paradise: Walt Whitman and Twentieth-Century American Poetry," there are three chapters on Wallace Stevens, two on Whitman, and individual chapters on Edwin Arlington Robinson, William Carlos Williams, Archie Randolph Ammons, Hart Crane, Conrad Aiken, Richard Eberhart, Weldon Kees, May Swenson, Delmore Schwartz, Alvin Feinman, John Ashberry, John Wheelwright, James Merrill, Jay Macpherson, and Amy Clampitt. Given the way Emerson becomes the measure of all literature in America in The American Canon, his significant lack of presence in Possessed by Memory is more than a little bit surprising. [End Page 423]

In Possessed by Memory, Bloom tells us that the lifelong model for his criticism is Samuel Johnson, who taught him "that criticism, as a literary art, belongs to the ancient genre of wisdom writing" (2019b, 170). "The deepest lesson," he learned from Johnson, "is that any authority of criticism as a literary genre must depend on the human wisdom of the critic, not upon the wrongness or rightness of either theory or praxis" (2019b, 170). In Possessed by Memory, Bloom also called upon Oscar Wilde's "The Critic as Artist" (1891), where he wrote, "the highest criticism really is, the record of one's own soul" (Bloom 2019b, epigram). For Bloom, just as for Wilde, this type of criticism is both "more fascinating than history, as it is concerned simply with oneself," and "more delightful than philosophy, as its subject is concrete and not abstract, real not vague." But, alas, by Wilde's own contention, the "highest criticism" is also merely "autobiography, as it deals not with events, but with the thoughts of one's life; not with life's physical accidents of deed or circumstance, but with the spiritual moods and imaginative passions of the mind" (Bloom 2019b, epigram). Mix Johnson and Wilde along with some William Hazlitt, John Ruskin, Walter Pater, William James, Kenneth Burke—and Ralph Waldo Emerson—and you have Bloom's self-professed form of criticism—criticism that ultimately is accountable only to him. So, while Emerson is acknowledged as vital to his critical approach to literature in Possessed by Memory, he is presented on a par with James and Burke in terms of significant critical influences from the American tradition (2019b, 12).

Given that the essays in The American Canon were written by Bloom, there is no denying that as a collection they present a consistent argument regarding the role of Emerson in American literature. Every author discussed in the volume is in one way or another measured against Emerson. These writings were selected primarily from among seven of Bloom's over fifty books of literary criticism: The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in the Romantic Tradition (1971), Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate (1976), Figures of Capable Imagination (1976), Poetics of Influence: New and Selected Criticism (1988), How to Read and Why (2000), Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (2002), and The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime (2015). Still, given the lack of emphasis...


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