Newspaper article International New York Times

How Would "The Western Canon," by Harold Bloom, Be Received Today?

Newspaper article International New York Times

How Would "The Western Canon," by Harold Bloom, Be Received Today?

Article excerpt

Twenty years after the publication of "The Western Canon," Pankaj Mishra and Daniel Mendelsohn discuss how we would react to such a book in 2014.

Pankaj Mishra

In a 1915 sketch, the critic Randolph Bourne satirized the Ivy League professor who lives in his wood-paneled study the "literary life, grave, respected and serene," and regards "modern ideas a futile Babel." Bourne's target was John Erskine, later the founder of the "Great Books" curriculum at Columbia, whom he described as a "mournful relic of irrevocable days." Recoiling from oppressively Anglophile pedagogues, Bourne envisaged a "transnational America" that acknowledged its distinctive ethnic and cultural pluralism.

Three years later, Bourne was dead, and the United States emerged from the First World War as one of the most powerful and high- minded countries on earth, the true inheritor of the ostensibly Western values of reason, freedom and democracy that European countries, implicated in slaughter at home and imperial brutality abroad, could no longer convincingly claim for themselves.

Erskine's "Great Books" curriculum advanced what Bourne called a "carefully deodorized and idealized education." It may have been closing time in the gardens of Europe. But a new empire of sweetness and light arose after the war across the Atlantic, and its most formidable paladins were literary critics with their new canons. In the 1920s and '30s, the study of literature -- led by bow-tied men on East Coast campuses -- became central to the cultural self- definition of a budding superpower's elites.

Published in 1994, Harold Bloom's "The Western Canon" could barely suppress its nostalgia for a time when the English department was the jewel in the crown of the humanities, and the literary critic with his refined sensibilities seemed the model public intellectual. The long struggle against the totalitarian "East," which had helped make the "West" seem a coherent entity from Plato to NATO, had ended. Since the 1960s, feminists, left-leaning theorists, African-Americans and other minorities had challenged the entrenched verities of academia and journalism. …

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