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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