harold bloom on the fading american dream and the deepening american nightmare


I might have thought the American Dream had ended, but the election of Barack Obama makes a difference. He invoked our national dream in his victory speech, an important citation though edged by the ill omens of financial and economic disaster both at home and abroad (I write on 20 November, 2008).


Like so many potent social myths, the American Dream is devoid of clear meanings, whether in journalistic accounts or in academic analyses. The major American writers who have engaged the dream—Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Mark Twain, Henry James, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Hart Crane—have been aware of this haziness and of attendant ironies. And yet they have affirmed, however ambivalently, that it must be possible to have a nation in which all of us are free to develop our singularities into health, prosperity, and some measure of happiness in self-development and personal achievement. Call this Emerson’s Party of Hope, whose current prophet and leader is the still untested President-Elect Obama.


Let us call the Other Side the American Nightmare, from Poe, Hawthorne, and Melville through T.S. Eliot and Faulkner onto our varied contemporaries such as Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth. Between Faulkner and these came Nathanael West, Flannery O’Connor, and Ralph Ellison. Dreamers of nightmare realities and irrealities, these superb writers are not altogether in Emerson’s opposing camp, the Party of Memory because, except for Poe, Eliot and O’Connor, they shared the American freedom from dogma.


But they dwelled on our addiction to violence, endemic from Moby-Dick’s Captain Ahab through Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden, and on our constant involuntary parodying of hopes for a more humane life.


What are we to believe about our nature and destiny in the sea of history that has engulfed so many other nations? We make terrible blunders, of which the Iraqi War and our current financial panic are merely the most recent, and only rarely can they be mitigated. Our American Dream always is likelier to bring forth another Jay Gatsby than a reborn Huck Finn. Our innocence is difficult to distinguish from ignorance, a problematical theme throughout the novels and stories of Henry James, our strongest novelist even as Walt Whitman remains our more-than-major poet. What Whitman discerned (in Emerson’s wake) was the American Adam, unfallen and dazzling as the sun. Is that national myth sustained by the extraordinary rise of Barack Obama?


Eight years from now we may be able to answer that question. A country without a monarch and a hereditary nobility must find its heroes in the American Presidency, an absurd ground for such a search ever since the murder of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, almost a century and a half ago. Emerson’s Party of Hope trusts for a reversal, in the name of the American Dream.


—from The American Dream, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (2009)

more elegiac feelings american: hart crane looks at a fading past he never knew

"My Grandmother’s Love Letters" was first published in the The Dial in 1920, and included in Crane’s first book of poems, White Buildings (1926).

My Grandmother’s Love Letters


There are no stars tonight
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.

There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.

Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.

And I ask myself:

"Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?"

Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.

—Hart Crane, 1899-1932

“even the most spiritual of autobiographies is necessarily a song of the self”: harold bloom

harold bloom on gnosticism, poetry, knowing the self and our contemporary religion:




I am to invite men drenched in Time to recover themselves and come out of time, and taste their native immortal air.




If you seek yourself outside yourself, then you will encounter disaster, whether erotic or ideological. That must be why Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his central essay, “Self-Reliance” (1840), remarked that “Traveling is a fool’s paradise.” I am sixty-five, and it is past time to write my own version of “Self-Reliance.” Spiritual autobiography in our era, I thought until now, is best when it is implicit. But the moment comes when you know pretty much what you are going to know, and when you realize that more living and reading and brooding will not greatly alter the self. I am in my fortieth consecutive year of teaching at Yale, and my seventh at NYU, and for the last decade I have taught Shakespeare almost exclusively. Shakespeare, aside from all his other preternatural strengths, gives me the constant impression that he knows more than anyone else ever has known. Most scholars would call that impression an illusion, but to me it seems the pragmatic truth. Knowing myself, knowing Shakespeare, and knowing God are three separate but closely related quests.


Why bring God into it?


Seeking God outside the self courts the disasters of dogma, institutional corruption, historical malfeasance, and cruelty. For at least two centuries now most Americans have sought the God within rather than the God of European Christianity. But why bring Shakespeare into all this, since to me he seems the archetype of the secular writer?


You know the self primarily by knowing yourself; knowing another human being is immensely difficult, perhaps impossible, though in our youth or even our middle years we deceive ourselves about this. Yet this is why we read and listen to Shakespeare: in order to encounter other selves; no other writer can do that for us. We never encounter Shakespeare himself, as we can encounter Dante or Tolstoy in their work. Whether you can encounter God himself or herself depends upon yourself; we differ greatly from one another in that vital regard. But to return to the self: we can know it primarily through our own solitude, or we can know representatives of it, most vividly in Shakespeare, or we can know God in it, but only when indeed it is our own self. Perhaps the greatest mystics, poets, and lovers have been able to know God in another self, but I am skeptical as to whether that possibility still holds at this late time, with the Millennium rushing upon us.


Even the most spiritual of autobiographies is necessarily a song of the self. At sixty-five, I find myself uncertain just when my self was born. I cannot locate it in my earliest memories of childhood, and yet I recall its presence in certain memories of reading, particularly of the poets William Blake and Hart Crane, when I was about nine or ten. In my instance at least, the self came to its belated birth (or second birth) by reading visionary poetry, a reading that implicitly was an act of knowing something previously unknown within me. Only later could that self-revelation become explicit; Blake and Hart Crane, like some other great poets, have the power to awaken their readers to an implicit answering power, to a previously unfelt sense of possibilities for the self. You can call it a sense of “possible sublimity,” of “something evermore about to be,” as the poet William Wordsworth named it. Emerson, advocating self-trust, asked: “What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?” His answer was a primal power, or “deep force,” that we discover within ourselves. In the eloquence of certain sermons, Emerson found his deep force; for me it came out of exalted passages in Blake and Crane that haunt me still:


God appears & God is Light

To those poor Souls who dwell in Night,

But does a Human Form Display

To those who Dwell in Realms of Day.



“Auguries of Innocence”


And so it was I entered the broken world

To trace the visionary company of love,

its voice

An instant in the wind (I know not whither


But not for long to hold each desperate choice.



“The Broken Tower”


These days, in our America, so many go about proclaiming “empowerment,” by which actually they mean “resentment,” or “catering to resentment.” To be empowered by eloquence and vision is what Emerson meant by self-reliance, and is the start of what I mean by “mere Gnosticism,” where “mere” takes its original meaning of “pure” or “unmixed.” To fall in love with great poetry when you are young is to be awakened to the self ’s potential, in a way that has little to do, initially, with overt knowing. The self ’s potential as power involves the self ’s immortality, not as duration but as the awakening to a knowledge of something in the self that cannot die, because it was never born. It is a curious sensation when a young person realizes that she or he is not altogether the child of that person’s natural parents. Freud reduced such a sensation to “the changeling fantasy,” in which you imagine you are a faery child, plucked away by adoptive parents who then masquerade as a natural mother and father. But is it only a fantasy to locate, in the self, a magical or occult element, older than any other component of the self? Deep reading in childhood was once the norm for many among us; visual and auditory overstimulation now makes such reading very rare, and I suspect that changeling fantasies are vanishing together with the experience of early, authentic reading. At more than half a century away from the deep force of first reading and loving poetry, I no longer remember precisely what I then felt, and yet can recall how it felt. It was an elevation, a mounting high on no intoxicants except incantatory language, but of a rather different sort than contemporary hip-hop. The language of Blake and Hart Crane, of Marlowe and Shakespeare and Milton, transcended its rush of glory, its high, excited verbal music, and gave the pleasures of excited thought, of a thinking that changed one’s outer nature, while opening up an inner identity, a self within the self, previously unknown…


We live now, more than ever, in an America where a great many people are Gnostics without knowing it, which is a peculiar irony…  


I recall that the ancient Gnostics denied both matter and energy, and opted instead for information above all else. Gnostic information has two primary awarenesses: first, the estrangement, even the alienation of God, who has abandoned this cosmos, and second, the location of a residuum of divinity in the Gnostic’s own inmost self. That deepest self is no part of nature, or of history: it is devoid of matter or energy, and so is not part of the Creation-Fall, which for a Gnostic constitutes one and the same event. . .


Our current angel worship in America is another debased parody of Gnosticism…


Gnosticism… in my judgment rises as a protest against apocalyptic faith, even when it rises within such a faith, as it did successively within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Prophetic religion becomes apocalyptic when prophecy fails, and apocalyptic religion becomes Gnosticism when apocalypse fails, as fortunately it always has and, as we must hope, will fail again. Gnosticism does not fail; it cannot fail, because its God is at once deep within the self and also estranged, infinitely far off, beyond our cosmos. Historically, Gnosticism has always been obliterated by persecution, ranging from the relatively benign rejections of normative Judaism through the horrible violence of Roman Catholicism against the Christian Gnostics throughout the ages, wherever and whenever the Church has been near allied to repressive secular authorities. The final organized Western Gnosticism was destroyed in the so-called Albigensian Crusades, which devastated southern France in the thirteenth century, exterminating not only the Cathar Gnostic heretics but also the Provençal language and its troubador culture, which has survived only in the prevalent Western myth and ideal of romantic love. It is yet another irony that our erotic lives, with their self-destructive reliance upon the psychic disease called “falling–or being–in love,” should be a final, unknowing heritage of the last organized Gnosticism to date…


Our rampantly flourishing industries of angel worship, “near-death experiences,” and astrology–dream divination networks–are the mass versions of an adulterated or travestied Gnosticism. I sometimes allow myself the fantasy of Saint Paul redescending upon a contemporary America where he still commands extraordinary honor, among religions as diverse as Roman Catholicism and Southern Baptism. He would be bewildered, not by change, but by sameness, and would believe he was back at Corinth and Colossae, confronted again by Gnostic myths of the angels who made this world. If you read Saint Paul, you discover that he was no friend of the angels.


There is his cryptic remark in 1 Corinthians 11:10 that “a woman ought to have a veil on her head, because of the angels,” which I suspect goes back to the Book of Enoch’s accounts of angelic lust for earthly women. In the Letter to the Colossians, the distinction between angels and demons seems to be voided, and Christians are warned against “worship of angels,” an admonition that the churches, at the moment, seem afraid to restate. The “near-death experience” is another pre-Millennium phenomenon that travesties Gnosticism; every account we are given of this curious matter culminates in being “embraced by the light,” by a figure of light known to Gnostic tradition variously as “the astral body,” “the Resurrection Body,” or Hermes, our guide in the land of the dead. Since all of life is, in a sense, a “near-death experience,” it does seem rather odd that actual cases of what appear to be maldiagnoses should become supposed intimations of immortality. The commercialization of angelology and of out-of-the-body shenanigans properly joins the age-old history of mercantilized astrology and dream divination.


As mass-audience omens of Millennium, all of these represent what may be the final debasement of a populist American Gnosticism. I am prompted by this to go back to the great texts of a purer Gnosticism and their best commentators.


The anarchistic Brethren of the Free Spirit in the fifteenth century, like the Provençal Cathars in the twelfth, join the Manichaeans as the three large instances of Gnostic movements that transcended an esoteric religion of the intellectuals. Ancient Gnosticism, like Romantic and modern varieties, was a religion of the elite only, almost a literary religion. A purified Gnosticism, then and now, is truly for a relative handful only, and perhaps is as much an aesthetic as it is a spiritual discipline.


—from Harold Bloom, Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams and Resurrection (1996), pp 13 – 33

“man is a crocodile who does not relish his goodness or his vices unless they are half rotten”

edward dahlberg on hart crane among the american expatriates in inter-war paris:

The lives of all these exiled saints of Billingsgate will always attract me enormously, because vice is more interesting than mediocre goodness, and I do not know of any other kind. These men I knew and loved were not bad persons, they simply were not bourgeois. Baudelaire had declared: "I prefer bad people who know what they are doing to these honest folk." I salute these men; for though now dead they cure my own life; only the deceased can save us.


After leaving Italy I returned to Paris — to the Dome, the Select, and the Coupole. There was no place else to go. One night I sat at the Coupole until three in the morning with Hart Crane and the quondam surgeon Djuna Barnes describes in Nightwood. The doctor told tales of underground sins on the Barbary Coast of San Francisco that were as fabulous as Ophir. He spoke of tars habited as women and with such names as Hazel Dawn and Eve Fig, Eve signifying the serpent and Fig being the symbol of the womb. When I left the Coupole the surgeon held my hand closely in his and, telling me what innocent teeth I had, made a proposal which I declined with punctilio.


Shortly afterwards I had occasion to talk again to Hart Crane at the Cafe de Deux Magots. He had sorrows buried twenty thousand fathoms deep. At twenty-nine he had marine gray hair, a face that was as harmonious as Pythagorean numbers, and the frosty eyes he had ascribed to that other mariner of American literature in the marvelous poem, "At Melville’s Tomb." Both Melville and Crane were boreal men seeking the mild trade winds. They were water poets. Melville sought to steep all the ills of his life in the gore of a warm-blooded mammal, the whale, and Hart Crane leaped from a ship, while returning from Mexico, to give himself to the sharks.


Let those who flee from bitter men consider this: Melville and Crane were gentle, cold men, wrapped in seven layers of gall, but with souls that are as tender eating as young pullets.


One afternoon Crane asked me to go with him to the atelier of a friend. There I found myself in the midst of an altercation, and I was startled when I heard Crane say: "Eugene, dear, you ought not to talk to me in that way." He wept, pushing me aside so that he could rush out into the dusk of Paris. His friend gave me his coat saying, "Follow him, or else he will catch cold." I pursued Crane through the twining streets of Montparnasse, his coat dangling from my arm. At one of the ponts on the Seine I reached him. He stooped to arrange one of his garters, and turning his suffering face toward me, said: "I guess you think I’m immoral because I am homosexual?" I had already read White Buildings, easily his best work, as well as The Bridge in manuscript, which he had asked me to do, and I felt that such a poet could not have faults.


Helping him get into his jacket as though I hoped this might be a carapace in which he could hide, I left him; he would always be naked, for only those who are in perpetual want can enter the kingdom of feeling. He returned to his hotel room, and I walked alone down the Boulevard Raspail, thinking that the greater part of our morality comes from a lack of self-knowledge; does not man love his own ordure though he is disgusted at the sight of another’s?


What a disorderly animal man is, and how wretched pleasure makes him. Many have died coughing, but not without having derived some marvelous sensation from it. Man is a species of crocodile who does not relish his goodness or his vices unless they are half rotten.


This was the time when the Parisians held every American responsible for the tragic execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. One evening at the Coupole Hart Crane was drank and began roaring: "Down with France." He was standing at the bar when the waiter behind the counter douched him with seltzer water. Had the waiter known that Hart Crane was the first poet of his country, he might have been even more savage.


Crane threw a lump of traveler’s checks on the counter and, after looking about him, picked up a chair to hurl at the bartender. Then three gendarmes arrived; the defender of the honor of France had called the police. When Crane turned toward the door and saw them with clubs in their hands he ran toward them swinging the chair. I stepped between Crane and the three police, knowing that these warped guardian angels of the state would take him to jail and there beat and mangle him, as was

done some months later.


Gathering together all of his traveler’s checks, I asked him to give me  all of his money too, which he meekly did; I feared they would be lost or stolen from him. The gendarmes stood by as I got him into a cab. The following day I returned everything to him.


What little I had done for him had mitigated some obscure pain in me, for that part of us we do not use for others clogs our fate. I had been an inmate of an orphanage hi Cleveland when Hart Crane was a soda fountain clerk in his father’s fancy ice cream parlor in that city. Crane’s establishment was on Euclid Avenue, Plutus’s boulevard in Cleveland where John D. Rockefeller and Charles M. Schwab had their great mansions. On the rare occasions when I walked down Euclid Avenue, which smelt of Lake Erie and the windswept money of Troy, I wondered whether I would ever be rich enough to buy one of Crane’s ice cream sodas.


Later, when I returned to America, I saw him a few times at his apartment on Columbia Heights which overlooked the Brooklyn Bridge, that stygian iron symbol Crane thought represented the energy of Terra Incognita. There was always a gallon of whiskey and a pile of Sophie Tucker records near his bed. By then he was a fissured Doctor Faustus, burning up in his own crucible of lusts. He ran mad for sailors on the wharves of Lethe at Red Hook, and was beaten to pieces many times in lurid Greenpoint saloons. He complained to me that a street Arab he had taken to his apartment had stolen most of his clothes.


There was a brief and hapless sojourn in Mexico, and one feeble attempt to recover some moiety of Aztec ritual, the old Quetzalcoatl rubbish, for more poems. His whole salt grief lay in those tedious calms between books. He was certain that his powers had ebbed and he feared more than anything else, as Melville had, that he would drown in shoals. A poet is dead when he is not writing, and only a spectre of another age and clime when he is. Writing is done in a moonlit sleep; Isis, Jacob, Joseph, Melville, and Hart Crane were fed by the moon, for of such ore are dreams made.


His life was tragical Dadaism; it was absurd superficially. After his riotous nights in Paris he spent a summer at his father’s resort: Crane’s Canary Cottage, Chagrin Falls, Ohio. He was so embarrassed when he gave this address to friends that he rented an anonymous post office box.


The last ironic days with his mother cannot be overlooked either. An epicene sister of science and health, she was not averse to flirtations with her son with whom she went dancing when they were together in California. With a mother who was a Christian Science Agrippina, no wonder that Hart Crane knelt before an iron leviathan, the Brooklyn Bridge.


The lives of all these exiled saints of Billingsgate will always attract me enormously, because vice is more interesting than mediocre goodness, and I do not know of any other kind. These men I knew and loved were not bad persons, they simply were not bourgeois. Baudelaire had declared: "I prefer bad people who know what they are doing to these honest folk." I salute these men; for though now dead they cure my own life; only the deceased can save us.



—from Edward Dahlberg, Alms for Oblivion, University of Minnesota, 1963


“archaic cooings: byzantine blue”… echoes of hart crane & wallace stevens in henri cole’s poetry

Cover Image

“The Suicide Hours”


Ignorant and unabashed, I sit in a tub of gas,

cherishing nothing and nobody.

My head, that well-fed lamb,

cannot even find you, O God, whom I loved.

My flesh is the flesh of a single man:

mutable, corrupt.

I do not believe in "like mother like son."

I do not believe life is art, undone.

I do not believe in the orange poppies,

odorless as wax. Cheated and sucked dry,

I believe in nothing, except the wooden match,

thrown like my blue daddy’s neck-cross,

into the bath where faith, hope, & charity

toss against spent-semen, saliva, & tears.


“Blue Grotto”

Curlyhead was bellowing Puccini
and making the boat rock.
The sun shone like a Majolica clock.
The sea boiled noisily.
I lay down like a child in a box.
It was my birthday.

     Above, on a cliff,
a mule pissed on us.
Then the dragging chain
as we lurched into the chasm.
Archaic cooings: Byzantine blue.
J removed her tortoiseshell glasses,
crossing her pretty legs.
C thoughtfully stroked his goatee.
I sat up, as in a coffin
after three hundred lovers.
Starboard, an oar-blade splashed
emeralds against valedictory black.
Once again, description,
unemotional shorthand
for sublimated wisdom,
fails to conjure what we felt;
the poem years for something more.
Like me: childless.
My love & I: gutted words.
My prick: like an instrument for an altar
or surgeon’s table,
shiny & maleficent.
like jaws, bedeviled us.
Sunlight struck the sandy bottom:
Giotto blue, the Tennessean said;
Florida blue, the tobacco queen said;
Cognitive blue, I, the unanalyzed, said.
Nothing from Curlyhead, who rowed vigorously.
Then a serpentine thing,
with five pairs of legs grasping at us,
appeared beside our little boat,
unidentifiably damaged,

     as the young man was,
who boarded our bus going home.
His arms flailed spasmodically.
His face was pinched like a retarded boy’s.
I dedicate this poem to him,
whose unneediness shamed me,
demanding I acknowledge the best in myself,
whose arms & legs
racked the blue lapidary air,
as if burdened by ropes, lantern, & pick,
while he bantered brilliantly to himself,
the mind struggling
to overcome the stick that is the body.

—from Henri Cole, The Visible Man

Praise for The Visible Man

"Henri Cole emerged as an authentic poet in his last book, The Look of Things, a volume worthy of its Stevensian title. His new book, The Visible Man, after many readings, persuades me that Cole will be a central poet of his generation. The tradition of Wallace Stevens and of Hart Crane is beautifully extended in The Visible Man, particularly in the magnificent sequence ‘Apollo.’ Keats and Hart Crane are presences here, and Henri Cole invokes them with true austhetic dignity, which is the mark of nearly every poem in The Visible Man."

—Harold Bloom

"First Loves"
Henri Cole

From the start, I was drawn to poems that resisted my intelligence. In the poems of Hart Crane I found this resistance especially exciting because they were by a homosexual often writing about love. I read them at a time in my life when love and poetry were the only things that mattered to me. Not surprisingly, one was the source of pain and the other was a kind of painkiller. In truth, nothing much has changed since then. Crane’s poems still send a bolt through me. Pain glitters on the edges of them; I expect it is often the pain of unsanctioned love. I like to think this love, despite its humiliations, was enabling to him as a poet, that an absence in life helped him to find a presence in art.

Perhaps, I sometimes rationalize, the ecstasy of sexual love is not so different from the near religious fervor of creating, or rather assembling language into poetry. "Permit me voyage, love, into your hands…." he writes in his lyric sequence "Voyages," a poem that seems to use the flux of tides as a trope for the coming and going of Crane’s own merchant marine-lover. I believe that as a young man I was "a terrible puppet of my dreams" when it came to love. I suppose we all are. Crane felt no different writing "And so it was I entered the broken world / To trace the visionary company of love… / But not for long to hold each desperate choice." It was the cryptic surfaces, the language of non self-exposure, much of it encoded with suffering, that interested me most in Crane. At a time when I could not bear what was minimal and plain in poetry, he gave the young homosexual I was a model, an inflected language, an ecstatic voice, to begin to write about the social and domestic life I wanted to reveal secretly in art. This evening, as I write, through my desk window, across the park, I see one man embrace another on a rooftop terrace. What I witness unexpectedly is the invisible, the true, which is what poems are, what mine strive to be. Some might say I have confused my own dreams and ambitions with Crane’s, projecting myself upon him. Nevertheless, it was this projection that illuminated, in my twenties, many solitary Manhattan nights, which, like the bottom of the sea (where Crane is) were cruel and desolate.

 —from “First Loves,” in Crossroads, Journal of the Poetry Society of America, at http://www.poetrysociety.org/journal/articles/firstloves.html