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The Daemon Knows

Literary Greatness and the American Sublime


Harold Bloom (View Bio)
Hardcover: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

The Daemon Knows

Harold Bloom—Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University and the author of numerous international bestsellers including Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and How to Read and Why—writes about the dozen writers who have formed the American Sublime, those who represent an incessant effort to transcend the human without forsaking humanism: Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Mark Twain, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and Hart Crane. 

"Best of 2015 Nonfiction"—Kirkus Reviews

"At once valedictory and oracular, expansive and confessional, The Daemon Knows is an eccentrically compelling work. Rooted in the author's deep knowledge of the Western canon and buttressed by abundant quotations from the works under discussion, it sets out to explore its oscillating themes through six pairings of American writers. In its voice and temperament, authority and occasional thickets, this study could only have been written by Harold Bloom.... The Daemon Knows doesn't only reanimate a reader's appreciation of these American classics. It reminds us how literature can summon us to become our own better selves." — Steven Winn, San Francisco Chronicle

"The Yale professor is a controversial visionary, a polarizing seer who has been recycling and reformulating parallel theories of creativity and influence, with slightly different foci and inflections, for his entire career, never seeming tiresome or repetitive. He demonstrates what is manifestly true about the best literary critics: they are as much artists as the subjects they undertake. Bloom’s criticism is characterized by sonorous, cadenced, almost haunting prose, by an exacting judgment and expansive imagination, and by a painful, sagacious sensitivity to the complexities of human behavior and psychology. He is a discerning Romantic in an age of banality and distraction, in a culture of proud illiteracy and historical unawareness. Bloom reminds us that to be faithful to tradition is to rework it, to keep it alive, and that tradition and innovation are yoked pairs, necessarily dependent on one another. Bloom has been cultivating the image and reputation of a prophet or mystic for decades. His stalwart defense of the Western canon is well known but widely misunderstood. His descriptive account is that the canon is fluid, not fixed—open, not closed. It might be stable, but it’s not unchangeable. The literary canon is the product of evolution, a collection of the fittest works that have been selectively retained, surviving the onslaught of relentless competition. Bloom’s prescriptive position is that, because human agency is a controllable factor in this agnostic filtering process, serious readers can and should ensure that masterpieces, those stirring products of original, even genius minds, are retained, and that the latest works are held to the highest aesthetic standards, which are themselves established and proven by revisionary struggle. The merit of a work is not found in the identity of its author—his or her race, gender, or sexuality—but in the text proper, in the forms and qualities of the work itself." — Allen Mendenhall, The American Conservative  (Read the full review)

"Harold Bloom, who bestrides our literary world like a willfully idiosyncratic colossus, belongs to the party of rapture. He is himself no Whitman or Melville, no Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens, no Hart Crane or Emerson. And yet he seems at times almost as large as any of these, so vital and particularized is his presence. If, as Emerson claims, the true ship is the shipbuilder, then is the true poem the critic who maps and parses and inhabits it? Can poet and critic be equal seers? Read Bloom, and you may be led to suppose it so. The Daemon Knows, the enigmatic title of Bloom’s newest work of oracular criticism, is strangely intransitive. What is it that the daemon knows? We are meant to understand that the daemon is an incarnation of an intuition beyond ordinary apperception, and that this knowing lies in the halo of feeling that glows out of the language of poetry. ‘To ask the question concerning the daemon is to seek an origin of inspiration,’ Bloom asserts…. Well, never mind—at least while Bloom’s enrapturing book is radiant in your hand. The daemon knows, and Bloom knows too." — Cynthia Ozick, The New York Times Book Review  (Read the full review)

"The capstone to a lifetime of thinking, writing and teaching. Bloom's project is ostensibly to trace the idea of the daemonic sublime, defined as 'the god within who generates poetic power,' through the work of 12 canonical American writers. His real agenda, however, appears to be twofold: to enter into complex meditations on the literature he loves, and to delineate the subtle web of interconnected allusion and influence among the writers who matter to him…. The primary strength of The Daemon Knows is the brilliance and penetration of the connections Bloom makes among the great writers of the past, the shrewd sketching of intellectual feuds or oppositions that he calls agons…. Bloom's books are like a splendid map of literature, a majestic aerial view that clarifies what we cannot see from the ground." — Michael Lindgren, The Washington Post  (Read the full review)

"For five decades, eminent and contentious literary critic Bloom has energetically explicated the Bible, Shakespeare, and other giants in the Western canon, tracing the bond between spirituality and art. In his thirty-sixth book of erudite and passionate exegesis, Bloom illuminates the 'daemonic' or sublime aspect of American literature as expressed in the writing of twelve seminal American geniuses…. These Bloom analyzes at length with vigor and pleasure, quoting clarion passages and, moving forward in time, mapping influences and variations. His buoyancy and intrepidity as he navigates the grand river of myth, archetype, theology, and humanism; his unabashed gratitude for the beauty and power of the works he parses so meaningfully; and his unalloyed joy in the discipline and discovery of criticism charges his latest inquiry with inspiriting radiance." — Donna Seaman, Booklist

"Oh, what a lovely howling shitstorm Professor Bloom's latest slab of a tablet, The Daemon Knows, is going to stir up in Litworld this spring. And oh what fun it's going to be to watch. Teeth will gnash. Garments will rend. Loud will be the lamentations. What's all the fuss? Brace yourself: Bloom has the cheek to enumerate America's twelve greatest writers.... And now that you've braced, strap yourself in tight, because they're all (a) dead, (b) white, and (c) Anglo-Christian, and 11 out of 12 are male.... Harold Bloom, though he demurely calls himself 'a worn-out exegete,' is, lit-crit-wise, our resident Owl of Minerva.... There's enough in here to outrage the votaries and vestals of every ism and sensibility under the American sun and moon." — Christopher Buckley, Vanity Fair

"Elegiac, gracious literary ponderings that group and compare 12 giants of American literature. Pairing these seminal authors of the 'American Sublime' sometimes by influence (Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James) or because they are contemporaneous (Walt Whitman and Herman Melville) or populist and ironical (Mark Twain and Robert Frost), literary titan Bloom lends his enormous, shaggy erudition to their works. Now 84, the author examines the poems of Whitman or of Hart Crane (his avowed favorite), as well as such characters as Isabel Archer from James' novel The Portrait of a Lady, Candace Compson from William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and Hester Prynne from Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Wildness might be another way of characterizing the 'daemonic' elements in the works of these authors, a ferocious unbounded self-reliance, as espoused in Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was full of ambivalence, pageantry, and 'heroic erotic vitality.' With each author, Bloom carefully considers his or her specific work (Emily Dickinson is the only female), cited in fairly robust extracts, in terms of 'tricks, turns and tropes of poetic language,' which he delights in tossing up and playing with—e.g., Shakespearean influences and great American tropes such as the white blankness of Ahab's whale. Yet as gossamer as Bloom's pearls of literary wisdom are, his personal digressions seem most true, striking, and poignant.... Bloom conveys the intimate, urgent, compelling sense of why it matters that we read these canonical authors." — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"A distinctive, contentious voice in American letters for decades, offers a massive, discursive survey of six pairs of eminent American authors. Bloom defines ‘the daemonic impulse’ as transcending the human world ‘in feeling and in speech,’ and, except in Eliot’s writing, achieving the sublime in the absence of God and Christianity. In this personal book, which is in many ways a memoir, Bloom at 84 still relishes settling scores and dropping names. Most of the book reads like a lovefest with old canonical friends…. What Bloom’s instructive, entertaining abracadabra adds up to is uncertain. Many serious readers will thrill to his energetic take on post-Christian transcendence, American-style." — Publishers Weekly

"Bloom seems to have read everything and memorized most of it, which leads to...strange insights couched as offhand observations that often contain his acutest writing." — Michael Robbins, Chicago Tribune

"The sublime The Daemon Knows is a veritable feast for the general reader (me)." — John Ashbery

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