The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime by Harold Bloom, Spiegel and Grau, 524 pages ($35). Harold Bloom’s “The Daemon Knows” should be a pivotal work of contemporary literary criticism – a monstrously prolific and erudite 84-year-old critic and Yale professor who has, at least once before, propounded a transformative idea in literary thought (in “The Anxiety of Influence”), choosing 12 favorite examples of “literary greatness and the American sublime.”
But these matters are seldom so simple. There are, as is so often the case, matters of distancing language and esoterica that are, even if not expressly calculated to elevate literary studies over the “lower” vocabulary of those who might pass as “general readers,” have the inevitable effect of smudging the clarity of a very great critic full of startling notions (e.g. that what we need isn’t a Freudian reading of Shakespeare but a Shakespearean reading of Freud).
When, for instance, Bloom took a whack at the subject of genius in 2002, he was somehow inspired by “Kabbalstic Sefriot,” which required “general readers” to be stepping around enough puddles of esoteric terminology to send them to the nearest crime novel. So too here, are readers dodging ever-changing notions of “Daemons” and even “the American sublime” so often that all the semantic gymnastics exhaust you from attending to the wonderful simplicity of what he’s doing here, which is considering 12 American giants in the sort of pairings he prefers. In this case, that means Herman Melville and Walt Whitman, Nathanael Hawthorne and Henry James, Mark Twain and Robert Frost, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot and William Faulklner and Hart Crane.
He freely admits in his opening paragraph that he’s not presenting “an American canon.” That might necessitate “Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, Edward Arlington Robinson, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Ralph Ellison and Flannery O’Connor.” Emerson and Dickinson? Twain and Frost? Step over the puddles and read him.
– Jeff Simon