Harold Bloom on the Western Canon Jr.

This interview originally appeared in HomeArts magazine, but their web site disappeared some years ago. I archived the interview so that I might link to it for discussion purposes only.

HomeArts: “Why should children read? And why should children read good books?”

Harold Bloom: “To be coldly pragmatic about it, reading good books will make them more interesting both to themselves and to others. And it is by becoming more interesting—and this sounds callous, but it’s true, I think—that by becoming more interesting both to oneself and to others, one develops a sense of one’s separate and distinct self.

“So if children are to individuate themselves, they will not do it by watching television, or by playing video games, or by listening to rock, or by watching rock videos. They will individuate themselves by being alone with a book, by being alone with the poetry of William Blake or A. E. Housman, or being alone with Norse mythology or The Wind in the Willows.”

HomeArts: “What books would you include in a Western Canon for Children?”

Bloom: “I will recommend again Kenneth Grahame’s surpassingly marvelous book The Wind in the Willows for everybody between the ages of zero and 100. I still remember my older sister reading me The Wind in the Willows, which broke my heart many times and certainly alerted me to literary values.

“My son, who’s 32, is often in our New York apartment these days without either my wife or myself. A few nights ago he spoke to me on the phone and he said that he felt very lonesome there. It’s one of those old, Edith Wharton kinds of buildings with extremely high ceilings. He said, ‘I feel like I’m Mr. Toad of Toad Hall,’ at which I broke into sympathetic laughter. I don’t think that anyone who read The Wind in the Willows when he was a child would ever forget it.

“All of Lewis Carroll’s works would have to be canonized. Lewis Carroll, I would think, more than any other author in English. And Through the Looking Glass more than his other works. I think it’s his masterpiece. It captivated me as a child.

“Edward Lear would have to be in the canon—all the Nonsense Books.

“Then there are the traditional tales. Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales and the Tales of the Brothers Grimm certainly qualify. They are both extraordinary—and scary—in the extreme.

“There is also a wonderful series of fairy tale books by the Victorian re-teller Andrew Lang, called The Green Fairy Book, The Red Fairy Book, and so on. They are remarkable.

“And Norse mythology, of course. I remember being thrilled by both The Elder Edda and The Younger Edda when I was a child; I was enthralled by mythology.

“I would want to include a book that retells stories from Shakespeare, as Shakespeare really is beyond children, Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb is a wonderful retelling of Shakespeare, wonderfully faithful to the ethos and spirit of the plays, and wonderfully well written.

“William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Children should read a great deal of poetry. It will intrigue and mystify them; they won’t understand it, but that’s fine. When I was a little bairn, I read all sorts of poets, including that marvelous poet, A.E. Housman, whom I couldn’t possibly understand but who nevertheless fascinated me. And I still remember every line I ever read of Housman. It was the sheer invocatory force of poetry, what Gerard Manley Hopkins calls ‘the roll, the rise, the carol, the creation,’ that first drew me to poetry, to Hart Crane and William Blake. And this was before I could possibly have understood a line of what they were writing. It was the sheer lilt of it. The glory of it all.

“Robert Louis Stevenson and that remarkable book, A Child’s Garden of Verses should be in the canon. And Stevenson’s romances remain in my head. Things that I read as a youngster, like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, hold up very well indeed.

“Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is an absolutely wonderful book. A fresh, intense, wonderfully vibrant piece of work, and marvelous for all ages. Terrific writing.

Winnie-the-Pooh is a charming and beautiful book. Indeed, you see the stuffed animals on the couch facing me? This is a little duck-billed platypus whom I’ve named Oscar, in honor of my hero, Oscar Wilde. And this baby gorilla, whom my wife gave me for my last birthday, we’ve named Gorilla Gorilla. And I’ve named this wonderful donkey Eeyore. That, I’m sure, will give you an idea of how I feel about Winnie-the-Pooh.

“There are some modern authors who are also remarkable. Maurice Sendak [Where the Wild Things Are] is astonishing, not just as a visual artist, but as a writer of prose.

Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is a remarkable work; there’s no question about the high quality of the writing. The social attitudes it embodies, however, are archaic, and belong to the age of High Imperialism. That doesn’t disturb me too much; it’s simply an episode in the history of the West and its hopeless attempt to dominate the East. But there’s no question about the lasting power of the book—for adults as well as children of all ages. It’s a work with universal appeal.

“There are some works of Mark Twain, like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which I read when I was a little one, which strike me as being permanently valuable.

“I read Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe and Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and its sequel Twenty Years After. And then his Count of Monte Cristo, when I was perhaps 15. And they certainly had a great impact upon me, and I haven’t lost them yet.

“And I read Jules Verne at the same age and that certainly worked on me to a considerable degree. I’m not sure I could reread any of that now. I also remember reading a lot of the science fiction romances of H. G. Wells, and I’m not sure I would want to reread those either, whereas there are certain things of G. K. Chesterton which I read when I was 14 or 15 which I’ve reread recently and which I still find absolutely splendid, particularly that wonderful romance, The Man Who Was Thursday.

“The Sherlock Holmes stories still work well with children, I think, especially with those who are interested in analytical things, in problems and reasoning. I must say, however, that I have great trouble re-reading Sherlock Holmes. I’m 65 now—but it isn’t that so much—it’s just that they are really not all that well-written, and sometimes the prose gets on my nerves.

“For older children, I like J.R.R. Tolkien’s original book about the hobbits (The Hobbit). I think the blown-up trilogy [The Lord of the Rings] may be a little overrated. It’s so heavily based in gratuitous moralizing. It’s top-heavy.

“And The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger is a genuinely moving book which holds up amazingly well. It’s a miniature version of Huckleberry Finn in a way. It’s authentic, touching and very poignant of course, because the narrator, Holden, is really on the verge of borderline schizophrenia and yet seems at the end to have just barely gotten to the other side of it. Of course we’re talking now about a book for children in middle to late adolescence. It would be a little disturbing I think before then. A wonderfully valid book, aesthetically speaking. Really a minor masterpiece.”

HomeArts: “What do you think parents need to do, or what can parents do, to help their children become enthusiastic and inveterate readers?”

Bloom: “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I can only despair about that. I mean about all that they can do is to be gentle and suggestive and say, ‘Look, my dears, let’s turn off the television this evening, let’s not play the CDs this evening. I will sit here and I will read to you from A Child’s Garden of Verses. Or, I will sit here and I will read to you from Norse mythology. Or I will sit here and I will read The Wind in the Willows to you, and maybe, maybe you will like it very much. So let’s be old-fashioned for a night.’ It’s sort of desperate, but that’s about all that I can suggest.

“But you know there must, at this moment as we sit talking to each other, there must be parents who are doing that throughout the United States. There has to be. I mean, we are so large a population that the sensitivity, and the infinite variety of people, would surely lead to that.

“I cannot believe that the ancient occurrence of sensitive young men and sensitive young women going apart, in great solitude, to read for themselves and by themselves—I cannot believe that that can come to an end.

“There will always be sensitive young men and women who will discover Jane Austen, who will discover Shakespeare. If there aren’t, then of course we are all doomed. But I can’t believe that something which is so powerfully resistant to merely social criteria will come to an end. These things cannot die.”

Copyright Hearst Publications and Home Arts Network

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