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)

my island adventure! or saved by sunlight from bella lugosi

it’s summer time and the living is… sleazy?
in which i reveal my regrettable propinquity for exemplifying h. l. mencken’s axiom that a puritan is someone who can’t stand the thought that somebody somewhere is having a good time! 
but if i can’t, why should they? 


Me? There? With you? Not in this lifetime, Bella!  

Yesterday afternoon was – excepting Christmas – the first time since April 2008 when for a four- or five-hour stretch I did not have to be at the beck and call of someone who can’t write or think but has of course acquired a degree or two in business administration and is therefore in a position of responsibility over those lesser-gifted people who can reason, can write, can execute… so I started wandering around the city’s downtown to enjoy a beautiful sunny summer afternoon.  


I decided to take a Friend up on the offer of coffee or alcohol if I stopped by his workplace towards the end of the week. After presenting my name & credentials to the apparently teenaged and mildly-retarded receptionist at Friend’s studio, I discovered that Friend’s Wife had just arrived moments before me. Well, some other time, I started to say, but together Friend & Friend’s Wife persuaded me to accompany them to Ward’s Island, where Friend’s Wife’s Friend has sequestered herself in a room to better throw paint on canvas or some similar retrograde exercise in self-expression. 


Having not seen this Friend for about six years until bumping into him a couple of weeks ago, I was slow to detect Friend’s further and apparently now irreversible descent into the depths of the local artistic demi-monde. Soon after arriving at this “Artist’s Colony,” as it was explained to me, Friend’s Wife and Friend’s Wife’s Friend suddenly expressed a keen interest in having Friend and me attend the beach – the clothing-optional beach – with them.  


“Ahem,” I started to extemporize, having just noticed with a sinking heart that Friend’s Wife’s Friend was now blocking the sole exit from this studio-boudoir, “I just remembered I’m about 100 pounds overweight and I hear the water is exceptionally freezing cold and let me just ask my wife is she thinks it’s okay if I …”  Luckily my Blackberry rang, and with soaring heart I said “that must be her now!”


Alas, it was some intern-type person (hired I think via our partnership with the Silly Twats Outreach Program) calling me from work with an “emergency.”


“Is this a bad time?” she asked. 


“Oh no, you’re quite right to call me on my vacation. I’m so glad you and the Human Resources department, who must have given you this number, feel comfortable in interrupting my day!… No, that’s not sarcasm, honestly, I am here to help 24/7…”


Meanwhile, I began moving with what I hoped was a not-too-contrived air of distraction towards the exit, now blockaded by Friend’s Wife’s Friend. 


Then Friend’s Wife’s Friend puts her hand on my shoulder.


Uh-oh, a Toucher!


Then the Muse of Memory, Mnemnosyne, decides to Play Dirty and She brings back to me the reasons why Friend’s Wife’s Friend, who was by now being overly-familiar herself, seemed so familiar in the first place. In an instant I realize I’ve met Friend’s Wife’s Friend before, several times in fact, while attending gallery openings involving the display and retailing of my brother’s, er, “Art.”  


With sinking spirits I recalled the weird conversation-openers she would toss at me when I’d find myself accosted by her on the street (“Hey, you’re just like your brother, but shorter… we could date?!”), the maniacal (matrimonial?) gleam in her eye as she would ask me if I am still married (if I say yes will she stab me with that hairpin?), et cetera.  


I ignore the nattering voice coming from my agitated colleague on the phone (what is her name? Something Spanish, I think…. Ignominia? Ignorania?)and turn to tell Friend I must depart posthaste due to an unexpected drop at the Mercantile Exchange, what with swine flu being found in sow’s bellies in Idaho, no, in fact, all across the greater mid-West!, only to see Friend’s Wife standing before me in a chaste and demure bathing costume constructed from dental floss and bits of cellophane, apparently designed by an enthusiast of publicly displayed (and somewhat greying) pubic hair.


“Well, tell Friend that I’ve got to go, no two ways about it, my Boss on the phone here is reminding me that Money Never Sleeps, the Market Never Rests and neither should I, and you know it was so very nice to see all of you again, and I do mean all, and good luck with your orgiastic revels at the beach, I’m sure with the garbage strike having just ended no one who goes in the water today will wind up pregnant tonight, or ever …” and then I shake off the pincer grip of Friend’s Wife’s Friend’s distressingly long fingers and even longer lacquered nails (blood red – what else?) on my shoulder and I am out the door, outside at last, safe in the sunlight from the vampiric Bella (her first name having come back to me at last, though her last name eludes me still, wait, I think it’s “Lugosi,” yeah, that sounds about right), so it’s bye-bye to Bella the blood-imbibing bohunk, and I am free! … but by this time Silly Twat has inexplicably decided to persevere with something for the first time in her life, so sadly she has not hung up on me and in fact is predictably enough thoroughly baffled by my parting comments to Friend et al. – “I’m not trying to get pregnant! And I’m not at the beach” she keeps insisting to me – and after about 10 minutes of detailed explanation I manage to have her understand that I was in fact speaking to someone else,  and not to her (why are people under 25 so hopelessly solipsistic? my fricking dogs known immediately when I’m talking to them and when I’m not!), and the “emergency” which has let me avoid once again the (literal?) shackles of Friend’s Wife’s Friend’s nefarious plans for me now comes to the fore… “No, the copy should say this fund will ‘complement’ your portfolio, not ‘compliment’ it…  think of it this way: funds don’t say nice things to portfolios, okay? Yes, I’m quite sure I’m right about this, don’t worry… okay, thanks for calling, Silly Twat, and you be sure to you have a nice weekend starting five seconds from now, since we all know you’ll be calling in sick on Friday.”  

After all this I wandered around for a while on the island by myself, but the spell was broken and my ambulatory reveries soon turned to the coposition of a letter to the mayor imploring him to cancel the 99-year-leases on the cottages occupied by these advocates of free love and medical marijuana… maybe some crypto-Mafioso “developers” could turn this little bit of Paradise into a Yuppies-only zone, meaning more tax revenues for you, Mr. Mayor! And how come there are no cars around? Just these little electric carts full of fading beatniks. Buy a car and drive to the gym, you saggy-fleshed fucks! 

As I was boarding the ferry back to real life I reflected that I had started out this afternoon mindful of Henry James’ famous dictum that the two most beautiful words in the English language are “summer afternoon”; I ended it with the recollection of Woody Allen’s observation that “the most beautiful words in the English language are not ‘I love you,’ but ‘it’s benign.'”


It’s benign?


No, it is not. The doctors just haven’t found it yet.






summer reading/guilty pleasures: “this house is playing parlour games with us, I think…”

sarah waters’ the little stranger:  as if written by a literary offspring of henry james and daphne du maurier . . .
with class consciousness supplied by l.p. hartley, and wallpaper courtesy of louisa may alcott.  
I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. It was the summer after the war, and the Ayreses still had most of their money then, were still big people in the district. The event was an Empire Day fête: I stood with a line of other village children making a Boy Scout salute while Mrs Ayres and the Colonel went past us, handing out commemorative medals; afterwards we sat to tea with our parents at long tables on what I suppose was the south lawn. Mrs Ayres would have been twenty-four or -five, her husband a few years older; their little girl, Susan, would have been about six. They must have made a very handsome family, but my memory of them is vague. I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain–like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.
—the opening paragraph of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger (2009)