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  • The Content of Culture:Matthew Arnold and Harold Bloom
  • Daniel Rosenberg Nutters (bio)

Read, reread, describe, evaluate, appreciate: that is the art of literary criticism at the present time.

—Harold Bloom (2011, 24)

The late phase of Harold Bloom's career—beginning with the 1994 publication of The Western Canon—may turn out to be his most important. This claim is not meant to slight the unparalleled (at least in academic circles) originality of The Anxiety of Influence. In fact, I would argue that Bloom's influence theory not only has a place reserved for it in the annals of critical history, it also transcends its immediate academic context and deserves to be read alongside theories of poetry, history, and human nature. While Bloom's early work on Romanticism will continue to remain significant as long as readers revere his visionary company of poets, others will surely find his writing on religion more than a collection of abstruse meditations. My focus, however, is on the final phase of his career. Books such as The Western Canon, Genius, How to Read and Why, and The Anatomy of Influence offer what I take to be the most significant defense of literature to emerge from the academy over the last four decades.1 This is the period that coincides with the frequently discussed crisis of the humanities and, by extension, crisis of the American university. As Bloom consistently reminds us, the academic study of literature has always been in crisis-mode, yet the rapid shrinking of university departments and graduate student cohorts seems evidence that his prophecy of the transformation of literary studies into "the much more modest scale of our current Classics departments" (1994, 484) has become a reality at many institutions. Nevertheless, Bloom's late work does not gain its value simply because it offers a panacea or because it transgresses the insularity of academic writing and appeals to a broad audience. What makes [End Page 461] Bloom's late work significant is the fact that during the period in question he presents a defense of literature that is simultaneously consistent, coherent, and humanistic.

The American Canon, edited by David Mikics, makes Bloom's defense even more accessible and draws attention to a specific national context otherwise defined by its incoherency. I will return to Bloom's relation to American literature toward the conclusion of this essay because I want to approach The American Canon and his late work by explaining what I have called Bloom's humanism. This label might appear out of place on two accounts. On the one hand, Bloom champions the sublime and transcendence or literature's ability to make us other than human. On the other hand, his theory of influence is anti-humanistic insofar as it theorizes the conditions that restrict human agency. Poetic precursors cast limits on the imaginative horizon for future poetic creation. If influence implies the struggle with the omnipotent presence of all-powerful writers from past, then Bloom's poets are far from autonomous. We thus find at the center of Bloom's thinking about literature two assumptions that undermine the autonomous, self-legislating subject inherited from the Enlightenment: poetic history restricts individuality while the goal of the creative individual is to transcend his mortal condition.2 More life, Bloom's Falstaffian cri de coeur, is a refutation of human finitude.

Bloom's humanism will be clarified by aligning him with Matthew Arnold. Such an association might seem even more outlandish than labelling Bloom a humanist. However, my argument is that Bloom's understanding of the canon and his agonistic theory of poetic history supplements, and in effect completes, Arnold's theory of culture. Arnold saw himself as a critic who wrote to "ke[ep] up our own communications with the future" (Arnold 1949, 491) and I believe his work offers an important and unacknowledged context for assessing Bloom's legacy.3 Some readers might think that my effort to align Bloom with Arnold is not a radical gesture. After all, given the transformations to literary studies that occurred at the end of the twentieth-century and the waning influence of Arnold and Bloom among academic minds, there is reason to...


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