For decades, Harold Bloom, the most eminent literary critic of our time, has taught a seminar at Yale, titled "Shakespeare & Originality." The class might very well have been titled "Bloom & Originality," for it has focused almost as much on Professor Bloom, who turns 84 today, as it has on the Bard.
While 84 may not be a round number, I would like to wish a happy birthday and many more to Bloom, who is not only the guardian of the canon; he is one of its giants and as original as any Shakespearean character.
Bloom, who has battled health problems in recent years, possesses all of the strangeness, otherness and sublimity of the greatest writers and artists.
When I was an undergraduate at Yale, I heard a rumor that Professor Bloom read 1,000 pages a day. But that wasn't in fact accurate. Later on, I heard another rumor, perhaps equally apocryphal, that he read 1,000 pages an hour. When asked about that by a reporter, Bloom once replied that he could read a 500-page novel in an hour and retain whatever it was that he wished.
He may have been exaggerating slightly, but there is no doubt that Professor Bloom has honed, from all of his deep reading experiences, an exquisite auditory aesthetic.
It is Bloom's remarkable ear, attuned to the puns and rhythm of ancient Hebrew, that convinced him that the J writer, the most literary of the writers of the Bible, was a woman, a theory he posited in his best-seller, The Book of J.
Not only is he likely the most prolific reader of all time, Professor Bloom is one of the most prolific writers as well. One need only do an Amazon search to see that he has authored, written the introduction to and/or edited more than 2,000 texts, including the Bloom's Notes series for Chelsea House Press.
Bloom has famously been compared to Falstaff, due to the girth he sported for much of his adult life (he was once said to weigh a "svelte 300 pounds"), his well-known appetites, and, according to legend, his long-ago courage on the battlefield.
Like Falstaff in his banter with Prince Hal, Professor Bloom has historically loved to play, but unlike Falstaff, Professor Bloom has performed in a one-man show. He has always loved to speak aloud in class, but he has done so, for the most part, without interruption. And those of us who have been lucky enough to be his students have loved to hear that uninterrupted voice, as mellifluous and cultured as that of the great Shakespearean actors.
In some respects, Professor Bloom is more like Lear than Falstaff. A cantankerous fellow, Bloom is capable of lashing out at others. He has little time for platitudes, for small talk, or even, sometimes, for the arguments of those who disagree with him on literary matters.
Yet his cantankerousness has always been more than a little over-the-top, more than a little ironic. I suspect that, deep down, perhaps not even so far beneath the surface, Professor Bloom has yearned to connect and to form more lasting friendships with some of his multitudes of admirers.
When I was his student in the spring of 1987, I sat week after week to his immediate right in a cramped, low-ceilinged classroom at St. Anthony Hall, ensconced next to Silliman College, one of Yale's dormitories for undergraduates.
It was a rare pleasure for me to soak up his genius, to be enriched by his erudition and his voice. It was a respite from the difficulties that I was experiencing otherwise in my life.
In recent times, I have gotten back in touch with Professor Bloom and have corresponded with him on occasion by e-mail. I have found him to be cantankerous as always, yet not without tenderness. He thanked me for a piece I wrote earlier this year on Shakespeare's 450th birthday.
In that piece, I cited Professor Bloom for his brilliant theory that Shakespeare "invented the human." By that, Professor Bloom means that Shakespeare's characters hear themselves speak and then change their behavior. Bloom has argued that the Bard created a level of consciousness in his characters that is unmatched in the history of literature.
Bloom, who, including his days as a graduate student, has spent roughly 60 years at Yale, started out his literary career as a scholar of the Romantics, but he achieved his greatest fame when, to be reductive, he mapped the Oedipal complex onto Western literature in The Anxiety of Influence. In that book, he argued that the major poets try to usurp or kill their poetic father figure, John Milton.
He would later weigh in on Shakespeare and become arguably the foremost authority on the Bard.
Just as there will never be another Shakespeare, there will never be another Bloom.
At a time when children and teens engage in more than 7 ½ hours of electronic activity a day, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, the culture of the book and deep reading have started to change, perhaps irrevocably, a prospect that Professor Bloom has dreaded.
When I was an undergraduate, Yale offered a course on Samuel Johnson, the 18th century literary critic, titled "The Age of Johnson." One can only hope that Yale and other universities will someday honor Professor Bloom with "The Age of Bloom." That will be small recompense for the sublime wisdom he has imparted.