John Pistelli

writer

Sublimity Listed: Bloom’s 12 American Writers

Harold Bloom has a new book coming out—rather like my grandmother, he’s been falsely prophesying his imminent demise for almost my entire lifetime. Since the end will come for us all eventually, I’m always glad to see old Bloom fighting the good fight.* Now he lists his 12 authors who best exemplify “the American Sublime” (see the link for explanations):

Emerson

Dickinson

Hawthorne

Melville

Whitman

James

Twain

Frost

Stevens

Eliot

Faulkner

Crane

Where to begin the parlor game of contesting and correcting? From an identity politics perspective, we have one woman and no people of color (reactionary), though the list is also somewhere between 25% and 45% queer (progressive).

Bloom, castigating identity politics in every other creed and ethnos, does not practice it in favor of his own: there are no Jewish writers on the list. No Catholics either, unless Eliot counts. I suppose those are defensible choices, given Bloom’s selection criteria: “the American Sublime,” a dialectic of allegory and antinomianism more or less invented by Emerson**, is an agon with the Puritan inheritance, thus largely an affair of renegade Protestants (which Eliot also was, whatever else he was).

But even with those cultural strictures in place, Flannery O’Connor and Philip Roth should surely make the cut—O’Connor for the way her Catholic sense of order frames, ironizes, and redeems the ecstatic American religion; and Roth for his ferocious embrace of the antinomianism in our spiritual life, along with his realistic and rueful sense, informed by immigrant experience and Jewish tradition, of all the obligations that make antinomianism an impossible legacy, if a necessary irritant.

It seems to me that the list, terminating as it does with modernism, would come to a far more natural climax with Ralph Ellison: he was the one who put it all together, synthesizing the Emersonian creed and its Melvillean critique in the jazz-inflected mythic-method idiom of high modernism, as well as opening the American Sublime tradition to hitherto-excluded groups. Ellison assured for at least another two or three generations the continuity of the American novel, that allegorical and romantic odd national variant that is so at odds with its European counterpart.

Bloom hates Poe, to a comical degree, so of course he would not put him on such a list, regarding him no doubt as a French author anyway. But Bloom also dislikes Eliot, and Eliot courted the French tradition in ways Poe never did or could: here I think placing Eliot on the list rather than excluding him is Bloom’s aggressive act. He gathers the poet to a tradition he would not have wanted to join: The Waste Land, against all odds, is a great American poem. Eliot would make my list as well.

Hart Crane is Bloom’s sentimental favorite but means nothing to me. LikeBloom’s protege and fellow controversialist Camille Paglia, I find Mark Twain a minor author (in the old-fashioned, not the Deleuzean, sense) and his schtick obnoxious. I could be persuaded that Robert Frost is a more complex and troubling figure than we learned about in middle school, but he still does not speak to me in any great way. Is he not a verse Thoreau? And was Thoreau not a superior poet even in prose?

Note the eclipse of Hemingway and Fitzgerald: “Hemingway/Fitzgerald/Faulkner” was once a unit, but Faulkner has clearly outpaced his rivals, extending an influence in space and time, all the way to contemporary China, that the other two can’t match. I agree with their exclusion. The first six authors on the list would be hard to quarrel with. So, were I to make my own “canon of the American Sublime” according to Bloom’s criteria, it would look like this:

Emerson

Dickinson

Hawthorne

Melville

Whitman

James

Stevens

Eliot

Faulkner

Ellison

O’Connor

Roth

One could imagine still more writers to include: Jean Toomer, William Carlos Williams, Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy. Maybe even that old fascist, Pound. On the other hand, there are many fine American writers who fit very uneasily into this American Sublime category: Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, Frederick Douglass, Theodore Dreiser, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Richard Wright, Elizabeth Bishop, Saul Bellow, Guy Davenport, etc. These are the perils of a national canon. But I believe Bloom has identified a genuine and perhaps dominant strain in American writing, even if there are others equally valuable.

I always enjoy the provocation of a good list; it focuses the mind on the identification of values, and that is always needed—needed all the more, in fact, if we are good postmodernists and agree that values are highly contingent and permanently up for discussion.

*Speaking of “the good fight,” by which I mean that against precursors and against time, I highly recommend Daniel Green’s lucid explication and contextual endorsement of the literary theory that made Bloom’s name.

**The phrase comes, I believe, from the title of a poem by Wallace Stevens about how to reconcile visionary intensity with quotidian experience (if I am reading the rather cryptic poem correctly).

2 comments on “Sublimity Listed: Bloom’s 12 American Writers

  1. Mike Lindgren
    25 May 2015

    It is a strong and well-made argument. Upon consideration I would vote Crane off the island, keep Twain, and add Ellison.

    • johnpistelli
      25 May 2015

      Thank you, and thanks for reading! Yes, I was perhaps trying to be provocative in a Bloom-like way with my Twain declaration; I have read Huckleberry Finn and Pudd’nhead Wilson and was disappointed with the latter. But I want to read The Mysterious Stranger soon. And I should give Crane a mature reading! Definitely agree on Ellison.

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