In the summer of 2018, a friend who was until then still majoring in English literature alongside me at the Lahore University of Management Sciences wrote to Professor Harold Bloom asking for critique on a poem he had written.
It was a long shot. Professor Bloom was a giant, and we were college sophomores. The audacity of my friend to think an 88 year old Sterling Professor at Yale, one of the most eminent, prolific and infamous critics of our times, would read the email of a second year Pakistani literature student and critique his poem.
I laughed and told him he was absurd. I wasn’t laughing when Harold Bloom responded. And not only did he respond, he responded quicker than many of the professors at our own university would.
My friend in his email had waxed and waned in praise of Professor Bloom. As strange as it is to hear for outsiders, and it is strange to admit as well, but Harold Bloom was a hero to us. A New York City Jew who was born to immigrant Yiddish speaking parents that somehow rose to become the man we turned to first and foremost in our attempts to understand any text. He was the most easily accessible, even if we rarely understood him, and he was perhaps the only one that had commented on every piece of literature we were confronted with in the course of our studies. He was nothing if not prolific.
To this day my friend refuses to show me what he wrote to Professor Bloom, perhaps embarrassed at what I imagine was his excessive praise. He was, however, nice enough to show me the responses he received.
It was not an elaborate response, in fact, it was quite blunt. You have a long way to go, Professor Bloom informed my friend. But before he said this, he made sure to say that he had read the poem. This in itself was a matter of pride, the great Harold Bloom had read my friend’s poem. I felt giddy at the thought, I cannot imagine how he must have felt.
But Professor Bloom went beyond his short but valued observation, and did the most quintessentially professor thing possible – he attached a vast list of recommended readings on the study of poetry. Professor Bloom often said that they would have to carry him out of his last class in a body bag. He was true to his love for teaching, having taken his last class only three days before his passing on Monday. What his simple response showed us was that his love for teaching extended beyond the sanctity of the classroom he held so dear. It also displayed an unusual kindness one no longer expects of strangers.
I do not believe my friend has completed reading all the recommended books even now, but emboldened, he emailed Professor Bloom again, earlier this year in July. Since last year, my friend had changed his major at LUMS from English literature to History. The frustrations of a barrage of post-colonial theory, the exodus of faculty and the evolution of English literature into Comparative literature left those of us enamored with the aesthetic rather than the theory disappointed and embittered. He left English as his official discipline while I stayed, perhaps unwisely.
Professor Bloom had long been an advocate of the aesthetic power of literature, and has in his death been vociferously characterized as the “last defender of the Western Canon.” One of his contentions was that English would soon be over run by comparative literature, and accorded to the same stature as Greek and Latin or the classics – relegated to being taught by a few dying men at a few universities.
“What are now called ‘Departments of English’ will be renamed departments of ‘Cultural Studies,’” he wrote in his most famous work ‘The Western Canon,’ “where Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens.”
Facing such a dilemma, my now historian friend whose love for literature and poetry persists, despite the disappointment, asked Professor Bloom to recommend books on William Blake. Within a few hours, he had received his response.
“Start with the edition edited by Erdman, with commentary by me. It is too soon to judge your poetry” he wrote back.
Always outrageous, Harold Bloom once wrote “There is no God but God, and his name is William Shakespeare.” He was outrageous in his writing, and strong in his beliefs. Much was said and written about him, much that us who consider him a hero might have had trouble reconciling when it first came out. What we can know for sure was that this kindly old man shared a small bit of himself and his years of learning with a literature lover emailing him from Lahore. And that is a kindness not easily forgotten.
My friend, a more ardent lover of Bloom and Shakespeare than myself, captioned his social media tribute to the late Professor saying “Rest in Peace, Bloom Bardolator Brontosaurus. May you meet Shakespeare, your God, in the heavens!” May he indeed.