Hart Crane, The Bridge

The BridgeThe Bridge by Hart Crane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Bridge (1930) is a long poem seven years in the making. It was written under several varieties of duress, alcoholism and despair chief among them, by a poet who would, within two years of his masterpiece’s composition, take his own life at the age of 32. All the more remarkable, then, that it was a brief epic intended as an affirmation—a rebuttal to T. S. Eliot’s epoch-making 1922 poem, The Waste Land, which adumbrated the modernist’s sense of his time as an “immense panorama of futility and anarchy” (Ulysses, Order, and Myth”). Crane was a follower of Whitman and Emerson, a latter-day Transcendentalist, and wished to write a poem that would be “a mystical synthesis of ‘America.'”

In a review of Crane’s 1926 volume, White Buildings, I noted the difficulties of reading this poet: it is not so much, as with Eliot or Pound or Joyce, a matter of recondite allusion as it is his commitment to a high style combining Elizabethan grandeur with modernist abstraction. Crane’s words seem to live a life of their own, decoupled not only from easily understood reference (as in, say, Gertrude Stein), but also sometimes from conventions of grammar or usage. This is no less true of The Bridge than of White Buildings, and I will confess before I begin a commentary that there are a number of lines and passages I do not claim to understand. I am confident, though, that Crane intended his work as much to be experienced as a roiling verbal sea as he did for it to be decrypted—he was a Late Romantic, meaning to move us, to entrance us, to overwhelm us, more than to involve us in linguistic puzzles. In any case, even a first reading is enough for a reader to get the drift (the “sea drift,” Whitman might have said) of The Bridge.

The epic begins with a proem, “To Brooklyn Bridge,” announcing the topic, tone, and theme. Crane imagines the eponymous structure, with its suspension wires like an instrument’s strings, as an Aeolian harp, that celebrated trope of the Romantics. Coleridge and Shelley saw a likeness between the poet’s service as a medium making ambient spiritual forces articulate, and the Aeolian harp’s transformation of the wind into eerie music.[1] The proem concludes by advising the bridge to “lend a myth to God”—in other words, and contra Eliot & Co., modernity is not a declension from an older spiritual wholeness, but a force capable of making its own spirit and forms of worship.

The first section, “Ave Maria,” is a fierce dramatic monologue spoken by Christopher Columbus on his return voyage, lauding God and the Virgin for guiding him to “Cathay” (i.e., China, the intended destination), before sounding blasphemously like Dante’s and Tennyson’s Ulysses: “still one shore beyond desire!”

The next division is named for Pocahontas, “Powhatan’s Daughter,” and offers a morning montage, from the poet’s waking with his lover, allegorically both the titular Algonquin princess and America itself, in “The Harbor Dawn” (“a forest shudders in your hair“) to a brilliant scene of Rip van Winkle walking modern New York streets:

And Rip forgot the office hours,
and he forgot the pay;
Van Winkle sweeps a tenement
way down on Avenue A,—

Next we follow “The River” and the laboring or lumpen life of America’s “ancient men—wifeless or runaway / Hobo-trekkers that forever search / An empire wilderness of freight and rails.” The section next envisions the poet’s (to me obscure) participation in a Native American dance and fusion of a Pocahontas-like figure with the “eternal feminine” for which America stands[2]:

High unto Labrador the sun strikes free
Her speechless dream of snow, and stirred again,
She is the torrent and the singing tree;
And she is virgin to the last of men…

Note that all these juxtapositions serve Crane to achieve his “synthesis” as different cultural elements come together: Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Native American culture, and Romantic literature. Finally, the division ends with “Indiana,” a pioneer woman’s moving monologue—generally judged mawkish and extraneous by critics for whom modern poetry is not supposed to tell a coherent story or share a legible emotion—to her peregrine son: “oh, I shall always wait / You Larry, traveller— / stranger, / son, / —my friend—”

The next division is “Cutty Sark,” a tribute to Melville wherein the speaker encounters an old salt in South Street Seaport speakeasy: “Murmurs of Leviathan he spoke, / and rum was Plato in our heads…” Another great American writer appears in the next division—my favorite and perhaps the most intricately organized; in “Cape Hatteras,” the speaker both encounters Walt Whitman and recounts the history of aviation, both the man and the science undergoing the same transformation from hope and promise (Song of Myself, the Wright Brothers) to violence, death, and despair (Whitman as wound dresser, aviation as Great War death from the air). Crane’s verse in this section goes from daring Futurism—

Thine eyes bicarbonated white by speed, O Skygak, see
How from thy path above the levin’s lance
Thou sowest doom thou has nor time nor chance
To reckon—as thy stilly eyes partake
What alcohol of space…!

—to moving tribute: “yes, Walt, / Afoot again, and onward without halt,— / Not soon, nor suddenly,—no, never let go / My hand / in yours, / Walt Whitman— / so—”

“Three Songs” gives three glimpses into different aspects of American life and desire, most notably a garish poem set in a burlesque theater (“Yet, to the empty trapeze of your flesh, / O Magdalene, each comes back to die alone”), and “Quaker Hill” provides an Eliotic (even unfortunately anti-Semitic) elegy over the decay from Quaker to commercial values in American life: “This was the Promised Land,” the speaker laments, before noting an “ancient” table purchased at a cut rate by “Powitzky” at “Adams’ auction.”

Penultimately is “The Tunnel,” a Homeric/Virgilian/Dantean subway katabasis where the poet, who had earlier soared with Whitman, now travels underground with Poe:

And why do I often meet your visage here,
Your eyes like agate lanterns—on and on
Below the toothpaste and the dandruff ads?
—And did their riding eyes right through your side,
And did their eyes like unwashed platters ride?
And Death, aloft,—gigantically down
Probing through you—toward me, O evermore!
And when they dragged your retching flesh,
Your trembling hands that night through Baltimore—
That last night on the ballot rounds, did you,
Shaking, did you deny the ticket, Poe?

Here the demographic and social shifts in American urban life are hymned, a new myth of fecundity, as Crane looks upon, let us say, my great-grandmother with a kindlier eye than Eliot (or Pound or James or Lovecraft or etc.) ever did:

And does the Daemon take you home, also,
Wop washerwoman, with the bandaged hair?
After the corridors are swept, the cuspidors—
The gaunt sky-barracks cleanly now, and bare,
O Genoese, do you bring mother eyes and hands
Back home to children and to golden hair?

Finally, the whole poem ends with “Atlantis,” reprising the theme of bridge as Aeolian harp, giving voice to all America:

And through that cordage, threading with its call
One arc synoptic of all tides below—
Their labyrinthine mouths of history
Pouring reply as though all ships at sea
Complighted in one vibrant breath made cry,—
“Make thy love sure—to weave whose song we ply!”
—From black embankments, moveless soundings hailed,
So seven oceans answer from their dream.

The Bridge has never had the prestige of either its admired precursor, Whitman’s Song of Myself, or its polemical target, Eliot’s Waste Land. Consider two data points: 1. Whitman’s and Eliot’s poems are printed whole in the canon-defining Norton Anthology textbook, while Crane’s is present only in brief excerpts; 2. a fully annotated scholarly edition of The Bridge was only published in the current decade, over eighty years after the poem’s first appearance.

Whitman’s greater accessibility is obvious: while his use of language was original in its context, it does not depend on extensive allusion. Similarly, while the earlier poet makes creative use of lexis and syntax, he rarely becomes so abstract as to be incomprehensible, as Crane’s does. Whitman is simply easier to read. Moreover, Whitman was writing in the nineteenth century, when it was still possible to take progress for granted, to see technological change as portending new wonders, to imagine that atrocities like slavery—often Gothicized by nineteenth-century American liberal writers (both white and black) as a feudal or even Catholic remainder—would be trampled in the march of progress and left in the dust. A progressive case in the aftermath of the Great War is less immediately creditable.

Eliot’s greater distinction is more of a mystery, except for the cynical explanation that he and his cohort (especially the impresario Pound) were much better publicists than Crane. For one thing, The Waste Land alludes to texts and ideas far more obscure, then and now, than anything in The Bridge: Eliot sends us, often in multiple languages, to Frazier’s anthropology, minor Jacobean drama, and ancient Sanskrit scriptures, while Crane’s primary allusions are to historical figures and classic writers that every American high-schooler knows: Columbus, Pocahontas, and the Wright Brothers; Poe, Melville, Dickinson, and Whitman. Moreover, doesn’t Crane’s ultimate celebration of American possibility and progressive modernity fit in better with our civic religion, our incorrigible patriotism?

But perhaps these last two points are actually the problem: Eliot’s greater obscurity—which he both called attention to and partially helped to dispel when he annotated his own poem—is appealing to readers who want to feel as if they are being let in on a great secret. (This was in part, if I may be so crass, half the sales pitch of modernism.) Eliot’s seemingly greater difficulty is less trouble to decode—a matter of looking up references and translations, most of them provided by the poet himself—whereas Crane’s verbal surface, allusions aside, is often unintelligible no matter what research you do, which make you feel less intelligent as a reader.

Politically, Eliot’s conservative lament over the ruins of modernity allows him perceptions of social damage that even—or especially—the left accepts today: consider his prescient depiction in “The Fire Sermon” of a female typist being date-raped by a clerk, the scene witnessed and narrated by a mythically non-binary seer mourning the wounds inflicted by gender. Crane, by contrast, and despite his own stigmatized queerness and the poem’s homoerotic subtext, strikes the old poetic pose, going back to Dante and Petrarch and the Troubadours, of a male speaker and agent seeking consummation with a mute, abstract bride, a quest object as inert as its vulvic counterpart, the Holy Grail. The reactionary Eliot is here the true feminist and postmodernist, while the progressive Crane masculinizes and medievalizes.[3]

Even taking into account all of the above, The Bridge is magnificent. More than magnificent, it might even be exemplary. Shelley, in his “Defence of Poetry,” tasks modern poets not with turning their backs on the rapid changes in a scientific and industrial or post-industrial culture but with aestheticizing these dizzying shifts so that the imagination, fully as much as the reasoning faculty, may have access to them:

We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest.

This is what Crane tries to do by articulating the “intrinsic Myth” that the Brooklyn Bridge is. He was writing, moreover, in the 1920s, which was in some spiritual sense the first decade of the twentieth century. As we approach our own century’s first decade—and these last few years are the first years that have felt like “the future” to me, something radically different both for worse and for better from the years in which I grew up—we could do worse than to emulate Hart Crane.

 [1] This, by the way, is what “Romantic genius” means—the poet as receptive vessel, not as commanding—still less a swaggering—intelligence. Most of today’s attacks on “Romantic genius” are assailing a straw man. 

[2] The sexual politics of the poem are mixed—or maybe even deliberately split along exoteric-esoteric lines. For the hoi polloi Crane provides a poetic speaker seeking union with the bridge as holy bride and moreover traversing an American landscape feminized since the English Renaissance poetry of Donne and Drayton (“whose is the flesh our feet have moved upon?”); but for the insider, the poet’s wanderings are a mythologized cruising near waterfronts and in speakeasies, a testament to occulted queer living.

[3] Perhaps a parable for the present: literary attempts to be politically up-to-the-minute, to be “on the right side of history,” not only fail to guarantee literary quality but cannot even promise permanent political value according to progressive standards themselves.


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Hart Crane, White Buildings

White BuildingsWhite Buildings by Hart Crane

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A friend of mine was once enamored of Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World; I think he found in it a literary refutation of an unsustainable idealism toward which he was then tempted—and he also thought that it illuminated the work of Guns N’Roses (on the title page he wrote G N’R and Their World in parentheses). Anyway, I asked him if he had ever read Rabelais (I had not, and I still haven’t), and I’ve always treasured his reply: “I’m not sure what it would even mean to read Rabelais.”

I am sometimes not sure what it even means to read poetry, or to say that one has read it. An Internet-based acquaintance once told me that I didn’t become obsessed with poetry at a young enough age, and that I was consequently stuck in “novel-world.” That’s one of those judgments with which I would concur provided it were expressed more affirmatively: modern lyric poetry is the expression of sensibility and is accordingly hermetic and of an exemplary difficulty—but come on, the novel is the bright book of life!

A novel—and I think this goes for plays too, even Shakespeare—is usually macroscopic, whatever microscopic pleasures it affords. It can be taken in in one reading; one reading is enough to grasp the central lines of conflict and the aesthetic mood that guides our reaction to said conflict. I usually feel free to say that I have “read” a novel (likewise a play) after I’ve read it, even if it is of the type that demands or rewards infinite re-readings. But lyric poetry seems to require something else, something akin to—if not simply, literally—memorization. How many poems have I “read”? Not nearly enough. These days, I do not feel that I’ve “read” a poem until I’ve taught it; only explication at the lectern or communal exegesis will do. And in fact I often prefer to teach poetry, even though I mostly prefer to read (and write) novels.

So have I now read Hart Crane’s poems? I have dipped into them many times over the years but was repelled by their surface, which struck me as verbose and overblown. There is only one reason I dipped then and plunged now: the advocacy of Harold Bloom, who loves Crane like no other, and who writes about him again in his new book, The Daemon Knows, which I intend to read very soon.

I applied myself to Crane’s first collection, White Buildings, published in 1926, when Crane himself was just 27. It has a marvelous epigraph from an even “younger” poet, Rimbaud: “Ce ne peut être que la fin du monde, en avançant” (“This cannot be anything but the end of the world, advancing”). But Crane’s poems seem less concerned with the end of the world, in the sense of a general conflagration/revelation like that which haunts the era’s master poem, The Waste Land. Rather, death is always near, but it is either personal or universal, above or below any particular world (I assume here that “the end of the world” is always implicitly, behind the religious rhetoric, a social concept—the end of this world, the one I live in, the Roman world, the Aztec world, etc.), while the poet has access to an energy that may resist the end, as here, from the last lines of “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen”:

Distinctly praise the years, whose volatile
Blamed bleeding hands extend and thresh the height
The imagination spans beyond despair,
Outpacing bargain, vocable and prayer.

The poems in general present themselves as high walls of language, impasto’d sound surfaces, with meanings not always clear. I have read the following lines from “Voyages,” for instance, over and over and still have no idea of what it means:

In signature of the incarnate word
The harbor shoulders to resign in mingling
Mutual blood, transpiring as foreknown
And widening noon within your breast for gathering
All bright insinuations that my years have caught
For islands where must lead inviolably
Blue latitudes and levels of your eyes,—

In this expectant, still exclaim receive
The secret oar and petals of all love.

As is typical of Crane, the syntax is hard to grasp (for one thing, what is the object of the verb “shoulders”?), the diction Latinate (signature, incarnate, transpiring, insinuations, inviolably, latitudes), and the topic only vaguely discernible (erotic love and the sea as holy instances of word made flesh?). All the pleasure is in the play of words, the language’s decoration of the high topic, words hung like garlands around sex and death and ocean.

This very slim volume has two introductions, one from 1926 by Allen Tate and one from 1972 by John Logan. In comparing them, we perhaps see a decline in literary criticism. Logan’s introduction is mind-numbingly biographical. It derives from Crane’s apparent bisexuality a schematic psychoanalytic reading of his poetry in which its subtext is revealed as the attempt to synthesize masculine and feminine sensibilities. All in all, it’s the kind of thing that gives psychoanalytic criticism a bad name:

There is a displacement, in Crane’s poetry, of the language of the body to the language of the landscape…Although such displacement (one kind of metaphor) is general in poetry, one might find a hint in the particular appearance of it in this “grandmother” poem that Hart Crane’s overt homosexuality is in part a defense against admitting the physical feeling for the grandmother or surrogate mother.

It takes a special kind of tastelessness to think that one of the volume’s most translucent and moving poems, “My Grandmother’s Love Letters,” would be clarified by some overt oedipal gesture in conformity to mid-century Freudian dogma. The poem itself beautifully warns us against all coarseness in reading and interpretation:

Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.

Allen Tate’s original introduction to the volume, however, is useful and concise, explaining Crane’s poetic and its historical context. Crane, Tate says, must write poetry in the modern world, which has lost the stability and coherence previously provided by Christianity and organic social forms. The modern poet, therefore, must “construct and assimilate his own subjects,” whereas a pre-modern poet such as Dante only had to “assimilate his,” since his society furnished him a subject of sufficient dignity and beauty for poetic treatment. Because Crane is not an Eliotic conservative but a Whitmanian affirmer of the American city, nostalgia or myth can provide him no recourse; the ship really has sailed, to invoke a nautical metaphor appropriate to Crane’s imagery, and the poet thus has to extrude his material from his own inner imaginative vision. Tate explains that this is why Crane’s poetry is so often obscure. Unlike Dante or even Eliot, whose apparently difficult poetry becomes clearer and clearer as you grasp the traditional meanings of their symbols, Crane’s symbols may have no traditional (or transpersonal) meaning at all:

[Crane’s] theme never appears in explicit statement. It is formulated through a series of complex metaphors which defy a paraphrasing of the sense into equivalent prose. The reader is plunged into a strangely unfamiliar milieu of sensation, and the principle of its organization is not immediately grasped. The logical meaning can never be derived (see Passage, Lachrymae Christi); but the poetical meaning is a direct intuition, realized prior to an explicit knowledge of the subject-matter of the poem. The poem does not convey; it presents; it is not topical, but expressive.

That is very well said. And it implies that the best way to read Crane is to let him wash over you (more sea images), let his words and pictures saturate (again!) your own sensibility. Drop the margin-poised pencil, forget the dictionary of myth and symbol, and plunge in. Here, for instance, is a stanza from one of the poems Frank judges to be without logical meaning, “Lachrymae Christi”:

(Let sphinxes from the ripe
Borage of death have cleared my tongue
Once again; vermin and rod
No longer bind. Some sentient cloud
Of tears flocks through the tendoned loam:
Betrayed stones slowly speak.)

This is both incoherent, even to the point of its being ungrammatical, and yet somehow emotionally intelligible: “vermin and rod / No longer bind,” “tendoned loam”—I do feel it.

But Crane’s is a hit-or-miss method, and I find, to vary the cliche, that a little of it goes a long way. The more extended poems continue to elude me, though I think I probably love “Voyages,” the collection’s triumphant conclusion. Mostly the shorter and earlier poems are my favorites, though.

“Black Tambourine,” for instance, is a misguided stab at racial solidarity, but nevertheless a dense statement of a genuine historical perspective, which is a useful thing to have:

The interests of a black man in a cellar
Mark tardy judgment on the world’s closed door.
Gnats toss in the shadow of a bottle,
And a roach spans a crevice in the floor.

I think the judgment is “tardy” because, in Crane’s view, the black man is only the latest or most explicit instance of the social exclusion to which the modern poet testifies. The problems with that self-serving notion hardly need elaboration—yet if one reverses the priority in the metonymy (from black man/poet to poet/black man) so that the text redefines racism as the abjection of the black man in the same terms in which the poet is also abjected (licentiousness, laziness, primitivism, etc.), then it makes a certain sense, and a more charitable reading is possible.

“At Melville’s Tomb” pays tribute to Crane’s precursor in death and seafaring and homoeroticism and imagination:

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides … High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

The first line and a half of this concluding stanza show how aphoristic Crane can be, demonstrate his love not only of Melville but of Dickinson. What better tribute to a writer who could navigate the sea but also what was beyond the farthest tide?

I don’t understand a word of the poem “Paraphrase,” and yet I feel it describes an experience I must have had, something to do with sleeping and waking, dreaming and trying to remember the dream, with maybe a hint of the masturbatory? I don’t know, here is the final stanza:

As, when stunned in that antarctic blaze,
Your head, unrocking to a pulse, already
Hallowed by air, posts a white paraphrase
Among bruised roses on the papered wall.

I have read every poem in the volume at least twice and some many more times than that, but I need to go on re-reading “For the Marriage of Faustus and Helen” and “Voyages,” not to mention “Wine Menagerie” and “Repose of Rivers.”

My two favorite poems are probably “Garden Abstract” and “Emblems of Conduct.” I want to discuss the latter poem at a later date, probably in connection with Bloom, so let’s end in the garden:

The apple on its bough is her desire,—
Shining suspension, mimic of the sun.
The bough has caught her breath up, and her voice,
Dumbly articulate in the slant and rise
Of branch on branch above her, blurs her eyes.
She is prisoner of the tree and its green fingers.

And so she comes to dream herself the tree,
The wind possessing her, weaving her young veins,
Holding her to the sky and its quick blue,
Drowning the fever of her hands in sunlight.
She has no memory, nor fear, nor hope
Beyond the grass and shadows at her feet.

This poem is a little guide (an “abstract”) to Crane’s poetry, counseling a refusal of the desire for knowledge that would make any poetry a matter of allegory. Don’t desire to consume the poem, but rather become the poem, chant the poem, let the poem possess you. Crane boldly re-writes Genesis to find the source of the Fall in the desire for knowledge, and he redeems Eve by turning her into Daphne, rebuke to the arrogant Apollonian poet, just as he had conflated Christ with Dionysus in “Lachrymae Christi.” But even to advance such an advocacy for non-meaning, Crane had to invoke tradition, which is to say meaning. And it is no wonder that a philistine like myself, lost in novel-world, would prefer such a poem with its foregrounded narrative and meta-narrative.

Have I read Hart Crane? I don’t know what it would mean to read Hart Crane. More to the point, Hart Crane doesn’t know what it would mean to read Hart Crane. And I will not deny that some part of me would rather read Dante or Eliot or a novel, but I suspect White Buildings will linger in my mind, or—Bakhtin might approve—my mouth.

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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):













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:













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).