Oft-called the most notorious literary critic in America, Harold Bloom was born in 1930 to a family of Yiddish-speaking Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Russia. He discovered the words of Hart Crane and William Blake as a boy, citing the “aesthetic experience” of their work as the spark behind his lifelong passion for poetry.
A Fulbright Scholar, MacArthur Fellow, National Book Award finalist and member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Bloom was a member of Yale’s English department for 64 years – teaching his final class just four days before his 2019 death. He wrote more than 50 books over the course of his career, including over 40 books of literary criticism, and edited hundreds of anthologies on literary and philosophical figures.
Bloom was a relentless champion of the Western canon, and one of his final books, 2015’s The Daemon Knows, celebrates 12 writers whose work shaped what he calls the ‘American Sublime.’ In a complementary reading list for The Week, he highlighted 6 benchmark books that define America’s national literary tradition. From Whitman to Melville, find his recommendations below.
Harold Bloom’s Reading List
“Whitman’s poetry defines what is American and not European in our national literary tradition. Its originality and humane stance have a healing function, which is what he so deeply desired. Whitman was more than our greatest poet. I would go so far as to nominate him as Abraham Lincoln’s only rival for greatest American.” -HB
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (also rec’d by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Hugh Laurie, John Irving, Morgan Freeman, Norman Mailer, Ocean Vuong, Patti Smith, Penn Jillette, Ray Bradbury, Steve Jobs, Susan Orlean & Tilda Swinton)
“Melville’s magnificent prose epic is at once a superb sea yarn and a profound critique of Yahweh, source of the unwarranted suffering of Job. I cannot think of any other American fictive prose as memorable and transfixing as that with which Melville constructs his tragic vision of Captain Ahab.” -HB
“The other crucial American epic. Huck is admirable, astonishingly wise, and always open to the suffering of others. Nothing in American literature has quite the majesty and serenity of the life Huck and Jim live on the raft carrying them down the Mississippi River.” -HB
“Hester Prynne remains the grandest, most poignant, and most enduring female character in American literature. She is our truest feminist in that she will not yield to the Puritan morality that condemns her and her heroic sexuality.” -HB
Collected Poetry and Prose by Wallace Stevens
“Stevens spoke for the voice that is great within us. His poetry, fecund and beautiful in its relation of sound to sense, was dedicated to our accepting things as they are — the enterprise of making friends with the necessity of dying. His poems have helped me to live my life.” -HB
Complete Poems and Selected Letters by Hart Crane
“My favorite American poet, Hart Crane, destroyed himself at 32. Despite his truncated career, Crane stands with Whitman and Stevens at the apex of our national poetry. I have loved Crane’s poetry for three-quarters of a century, since I received an immortal wound when I first read him at the age of 10.” -HB
(via The Week)