Dead White Men

A review of Harold Bloom’s ‘The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Frost’, in the Summer 2004 edition of The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, bemoans the fact that in the book, Bloom does not choose a single black poet. Indeed, much attention is paid to the fact that the professor did not choose a single poet who was born after 1900, which, according to the reviewer, saved him the trouble of having to include non-white poets. The article ends very dramatically with the reviewer asking, “why did Bloom fail to make the tough choices that would have included poets whose skin color was not white?” A more debased argument I have yet to find: the reviewer is merely attempting to bring politics into a discussion in which politics has no place; he is trying to stir up trouble where no trouble would arise on its own.

Harold Bloom, embattled literature professor and critic

First we must pay attention to the title: The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer through Frost. The goal of the book is to discuss the poetry of the English language, which we should recognize automatically rules out the discussion of the poetry of any non-English speaking nation, including other predominantly white countries such as France, Germany, Spain, Italy, etc. Next, let’s look at the subtitle: From Chaucer through Frost. Had the JBHE reviewer heeded this, he would have seen the inherent fallacy in his complaint that no poets were chosen who were born after 1900: Bloom made it a point to stop at Frost, who was born in 1874. That Bloom decided to stop here has nothing to do with race: after all, his book already tops out at 1008 pages, so how much more could Professor Bloom have discussed in a single volume? But the reviewer ignores this and, in fact, makes the argument that Bloom only chose poets born before 1900 because “in 1900 it had only been 35 years that the vast majority of blacks in this country were permitted to learn to read or write. It is of little wonder that not much in the way of canonic poetry had been produced by black writers in this short 35-year span.” Emancipation — and, by following the thread the JBHE reviewer wants us to follow, slavery — has nothing to do with Bloom’s selections of poets, for as Bloom clearly indicates in his preface to the book, he closed his selection with Frost because he wanted to avoid discussing poets who are still alive. It is astonishing that, in a review of a book that discusses poetry, not one iota of that discussion makes its way into the review. Thus, because the reviewer’s goal in writing his “review” contains nothing in the way of discussing Bloom’s book itself, we must recognize that his goal is not literary: it is political.

The JBHE reviewer is among what Bloom calls the “School of Resentment,” a force of so-called literary critics who, in order to be deemed politically correct, bring politics into the study of literature. Unless you’re discussing a writer like George Orwell, politics have little place in the discussion of literature, and even then it’s debatable. The discussion of a literary text should be based in–not surprisingly–the text; by applying an outside political focus, such as a Marxist reading, or a Feminist reading, or whatever political credo the critic subscribes to, he is in fact discussing his own political ideologies and how they work within culture; he is not, however, discussing the text. Instead of politics, a critic should discuss the aesthetic and, by extension, the intellectual value of a text: what beauty or insightful ideas does the work add to our public sphere? This, I think, was Bloom’s actual reasoning behind choosing the dead, white poets that he did: as he will continue to clarify until his death-day, he is concerned with aesthetics, not politics. He deems that works are great or even potentially “canonical” based on their textual consistency. The simple fact of the matter is that the mightiest works of Western literature throughout at least the past thousand years or so have been written by white people, the majority of those male. It was only recently that non-white writers have become mighty, though it should be noted that female writers have held prominence in the literary sphere for at least the past three hundred years now. But again, let us return to the heart of literary criticism: aesthetics.

Writers become widely-read and–more importantly–long-remembered when their works are aesthetically sound, when they utilize sentence structures that amaze, diction that astounds, and a voice that entrances. These are the traits of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Frost, and the rest of their canonical peers; these are not, however, the traits of other writers who may be popular, but are simply not aesthetically worthy. Compare, for instance, Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” with Angelou’s “Alone,” and you’ll find yourself comparing wine to water, braised beef to boiled fish: it’s textual consistency is simply not the same. Our sentimental attachments to various literary texts are as secondary to a discussion of literary value as politics. I, for instance, have a boundless love for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but I utterly deplore his unnecessarily archaic writing style; that I love his narratives has nothing to do with the work’s aesthetic value, and so I should not let my sentimental attachment to the work overshadow any aesthetic judgment I might make about the text. The same is true of the writing of a poet like Maya Angelou: we love her poetry because we love her as the grandmotherly figure she has rightfully become in our modern culture; but that does not make her texts aesthetically sound. I read a poem like “Alone,” and I wince at its grade-school syntax, at its word choices that I could predict before reading, and at its voice that I’ve heard so many times before by other writers of all racial backgrounds. There is simply nothing original in Angelou’s work, despite our sentimental attachment to it. I can make the same argument about J.K. Rowling’s work: her sentence structure is elementary, her word choices are silly, and her voice is not distinct–but I nevertheless love Harry Potter. Let me point out that the three authors I’ve just admitted sentimental attachment to but aesthetic contempt for–Tolkien, Angelou, and Rowling–are of a variety of races and genders. Thus, aesthetic literary criticism as Professor Bloom practices it has nothing to do with politics. We cannot point to his criticisms as being racist, gender-biased, socially-elitist, etc., because he deliberately leaves these elements out of his criticisms. Instead of focusing on non-literary ideologies, Bloom focuses on the texts themselves. It’s unfortunate that I have to point out that a literary critic like Bloom focuses on literature, but such is the age we live in: people are more interested in which political lenses they can view a text through than reading the text itself.

There is, to be sure, a very specific and ugly reason why it was only recently that non-white writers gained literary respect: racism. Simply put, African-Americans were not allowed to go to school and sharpen their aesthetic skills until recently–truly, it seems, not even until after the 1960s. White people, conversely, particularly white men, have been able to do this for centuries (apparently since the 11th century, when Oxford University was allegedly first founded). It should come as no surprise, then, that we hold dead white men to be the greatest writers of the past thousand years or so. Is this fair or just? Absolutely not. But does this despicable, embarrassing fact have anything to do with the aesthetic value of a text? Resoundingly, no.

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