Friendship Yields Bounty for St. Michael's College; a 30-Year Friendship Brings a Small Catholic College in Vermont the Library of Literary Maven Harold Bloom

By Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire | National Catholic Reporter, October 31, 2003 | Go to article overview

Friendship Yields Bounty for St. Michael's College; a 30-Year Friendship Brings a Small Catholic College in Vermont the Library of Literary Maven Harold Bloom


Schaeffer-Duffy, Claire, National Catholic Reporter


The announcement, made last spring, seemed surprising. Harold Bloom, the famous and prolific literary critic from New York and inveterate defender of the Western literary tradition, was donating his library and personal papers to St. Michael's, a small Catholic liberal arts college in Colchester, Vt.

"With rare exceptions," Bloom told The New York Times, "the universities and colleges in the English-speaking world that have sustained some sense of literature as a matter of powerful cognition and extraordinary aesthetic beauty tend to be Roman Catholic institutions."

The compliment, though significant, did not explain the particulars of Bloom's choice.

Why St. Michael's, a relatively unknown Catholic institution in upstate Vermont?

Much of the answer to that question has to do with John Reiss, soft-spoken Catholic father of seven, professor emeritus at St. Michael's and friend of Harold Bloom. In a letter to the college, Bloom wrote that his gift was to honor Reiss, his former student, and St. Michael's "continued upholding of humanistic study to which I have devoted my career as teacher, writer and editor."

Reiss said, "He likes me very much and he likes my family very much and he admires the way I have lived. I realize that Harold has many students who are far more brilliant than I am, but I have a tremendous appreciation for what he has done. One thing I have learned is that writers and artists can never be reassured enough. Harold has doubts and I think that is part of it."

Until his retirement last May, Reiss, a specialist in 19th-century American literature, taught English at St. Michael's for 34 years. Over the past three decades, he and Bloom have corresponded erratically and visited each other twice.

Their friendship has yielded an extraordinary bounty for St. Michael's College, which was founded in 1904 by the Society of St. Edmund, a religious order of priests and brothers. Bloom's immense personal library--25,000 volumes at latest estimate--encompasses most of British and American poetry, criticism and literary history, as well as the classics of the Western religious tradition and world literature. Many of the books contain his handwritten notes in the margins. Bloom's archives include his correspondence with writers Robert Penn Warren, Kenneth Burke, A.R. Ammons, Jay Right and others, and his personal papers, notebooks and manuscripts. He is also donating his art collection, which includes a sketch of the English poet and painter William Blake on his deathbed.

Joanne Schneider, director of St. Michael's Durick Library, said Bloom's gift will have a "transformative impact" on the college, doubling its collection of English literature and intellectual thought and significantly increasing its offerings in religion and theology.

Bloom, who is 73, has written 19 books on literary criticism, including three bestsellers. He penned introductions for more than 350 works, and edited scores of anthologies. He was a 1985 recipient of a MacArthur fellowship. He teaches at New York University where he is the Berg Professor of English and at Yale where he is the Sterling Professor of Humanities. He left the English department 26 years ago to become, as he puts it, "professor of absolutely nothing."

Brilliant and prolific, Bloom has been described as a lone warrior, a man often at odds with the literary trends of the day: Of late, he has railed against what he calls the "School of Resentment"--the Marxists, feminists and multiculturalist scholars who, he says, emphasize too much the ethnicity and gender of an author as a criterion for measuring literary value. He recently incensed thousands of Harry Potter fans with an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal criticizing the popular series.

The series is "rubbish," he told the Atlantic Monthly. "Like all rubbish, it will eventually be rubbed down. Time will obliterate it."

A formidable critic, Bloom is personally endearing and has many friends,

including those he disagrees with intellectually.

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