Published in 1994, Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages turns 30 this year. In his great book on the great books, Bloom, the Yale professor and eminent literary critic, waged a rearguard action against what he called the “School of Resentment”—the movement to replace the canon of Western works (books celebrated, by leading writers across time, for their aesthetic merit) with political “identity” works (books selected, by today’s activist professors and teachers, based on the race, sex, or other “victim” status of the author). Bloom did not expect to turn the cultural tide. He saw his book as an elegy.

No one can say for sure when the idea of the secular literary “Canon” entered the Western mind. It is probably not that old—Bloom traced its birth to the middle of the eighteenth century. Nor can anyone tell you precisely how the Canon formed. The process would seem to be Darwinian; Bloom referenced “texts struggling with one another for survival.” Except in the eyes of the most cynical critical theorists, this contest has something to do with originality, with an author’s capacity to stand out to later generations. Bloom believed that the Canon evolves as great authors influence other great authors. Today’s best writers feel the pull of “ancestral figures”—“greatness recognizes greatness”—and use those figures’ works as starting points for their own. The canonical status of past writers is cemented by the handful of living writers eligible for canonical status in the future, in what amounts to an ongoing conversation among the West’s literary geniuses.

No one can tell you exactly who’s in the Canon, though a few giants, such as Homer, Shakespeare, and Cervantes, would appear on any serious person’s list. Bloom safely claimed that Shakespeare is the Canon’s central voice. The Bard is a “mirror of nature”; he touches “the limits of human art”; he “refus[es] every mode of reduction.” His mastery of language, gift for metaphor, and insight into character remain unparalleled. He invented Western man’s very psychology—our sense of inner self. His “aesthetic supremacy has been confirmed by the universal judgment of four centuries.” He remains “the most original writer we will ever know.”

Shakespeare takes no political, theological, sociological, or ethical sides. This “freedom from doctrine,” in Bloom’s words, is one of his defining attributes. A “miracle of disinterestedness, Shakespeare neither believes nor disbelieves, neither moralizes nor endorses nihilism.” Bloom argued that this elevated attitude can be found throughout the Canon: “Those who can do canonical work invariably see their writings as larger forms than any social program.”

Not so the School of Resentment, which Bloom described as a “cult of gender and racial cheerleading.” The “Feminists, Afrocentrists, Marxists, Foucault-inspired New Historicists, [and] Deconstructors” may “decry overt religion,” but they “call for devotional verse (and devotional criticism!)” all the same. Their object of devotion is a set of favored victim groups, whose affirmation and advancement precede aesthetic considerations. “Attempting to read many of the works set forth as resentment’s alternative to the Canon,” Bloom groaned, “I reflect that these aspirants must believe . . . that their sincere passions are already poems, requiring only a little overwriting.”

Its self-conception notwithstanding, the School of Resentment is not new. It is not postmodern. As a matter of fact, it is premodern. The Canon-destroyers are as old as iconoclasm itself. Bloom placed them within “the endless history of Platonism”—the long line of zealots who suppress art that won’t bow to orthodoxy. The “New Puritans, like the old ones,” reject “the elusiveness of truth.” They are the harbingers, Bloom warned, of a new theocratic age.

Twenty years ago, I graduated from the College Preparatory School, a private high school in Oakland, California. The average College Prep student scores in the 97th percentile on the SAT. Something like 30 percent of the school’s graduates are admitted to Ivy League universities. The school makes quite a show of its belief in equity and inclusion, but it is not about to select its students by lot.

Always a liberal place, College Prep suffered a wave of panic during the racial unrest of 2020. Anonymous charges of racism flew, followed by lists of demands from self-styled student “unions” and “alliances.” I saw students, alumni, and even some teachers engage in tense conversations online. These looked to me like struggle sessions: the participants denounced the school’s supposed history of racism, called for drastic reform, and bullied the few commenters who offered even mild dissent. Observing this turmoil, I recall thinking that the head of school should resign. This white woman could prove her self-professed antiracism, it seemed to me, by handing her power and privilege to a nonwhite person.

Instead, she issued a series of groveling statements and simply caved to the shriekers. “The same pernicious racism that pervades our society is here, too,” she confessed. On her watch, the school has undergone “equity audits,” imposed antiracist training for all employees, appointed a new dean of “equity and belonging,” and held a slew of social-justice talks and events—the whole dreary and familiar litany. College Prep now “acknowledges the destructive . . . role of anti-Black racism and white supremacy within institutions, including [itself].” The school is committed to “decentering whiteness in [its] curriculum.”

In line with that commitment, College Prep overhauled its English curriculum, “making anti-racism central to the department’s learning goals.” The department’s chair has promised “to guard against complacency” as she continuously strives to “counter the dominance of the white narrative that has been the default of American culture.” She means business. The department ditched Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons for “a contemporary novel by a woman of color, text still to be decided”—other considerations being mere details next to an author’s sex and race. On the decision to stop “centering” works such as The Odyssey, the chair dryly remarked: “It has taken until now . . . to let go of some long-taught texts.”

The new curriculum is Bloom’s School of Resentment triumphant. Freshmen start out, the school’s website informs us, “by reading short stories and essays by authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Jhumpa Lahiri, Amy Tan, Ocean Vuong, and Claudia Rankine.” The sophomore reading list is much the same (the sole exception, according to the website, being Hamlet—“whiteness” salubriously reduced to the greatest play by the greatest white guy). Juniors and seniors move on to seminars such as “Environmental Literature,” in which they discover what “today’s environmental writers” think about “environmental racism and injustice” and “the human experience of the global climate crisis.” Other seminars include “Black Futures & Realities: Intro to Afrofuturism,” “Reframing Native American Literature,” and “Chicanx Literature’s First Wave and Beyond.”

There is, you can be sure, plenty of rubbish in here. The first sentence of Claudia Rankine’s website reads: “As everyday white supremacy becomes increasingly vocalized with no clear answers at hand, how best might we approach one another?” (Yes, how do you approach someone who introduces herself by calling you a racist?) I do not doubt that there is brilliance here as well. (Note Baldwin’s presence.) Regardless, you need not subscribe to a near-mystical aesthetic vision (as Bloom did—but I don’t), nor deny the aesthetic value of identity-centric works (as Bloom seemed to do—but I don’t), to see the problem.

This is not a “diverse” curriculum, desperately as some would like to call it that. On the contrary, it is a narrow, stunted, parochial one. You could say that College Prep has “decentered whiteness.” But all the school has really “centered” in its place is predictability and conformity. It is the Canon that questions, that controverts, that contradicts itself. As Bloom noted, “the West’s greatest writers are subversive of all values, both ours and their own.” By comparison, what “today’s environmental writers” have to say about “environmental racism and injustice” is the most staid, comfortable, unchallenging stuff in the world. At a place like College Prep, it is nothing more than the received wisdom and reigning dogma. It’s the same grievance-driven identity politics that saturate the institution and the rest of students’ experience there. If College Prep’s aim were to produce a crowd of unthinking squares, it could not do better.

College Prep is not decentering “whiteness” so much as it is banishing difference and strangeness, piety and skepticism, nobility and revolt. For Bloom, The Iliad is about “the surpassing glory of armed victory.” Others suggest that the poem depicts the high tide of the heroic code and the first inklings of humanism. Either way, Homer is a foreign country to us. For Bloom, Don Quixote “has cosmological scope and reverberation”—“no object seems beyond its reach.” At minimum, we puzzle over the insane knight errant, contemplate his portly squire’s wit and wisdom, and behold “the spiritual atmosphere of a Spain already in steep decline.” The School of Resentment asks that we hear “the other.” But who could be more “other,” to us, than Achilles and Hector, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza?

Whatever College Prep is teaching these students, it is ephemeral. Five of the showcased authors on the ninth-grade syllabus are alive; only one died before I was born. Most will not be read in the future. “In the long term, literature will resist levelling and revert to hierarchy,” Martin Amis explained. “This isn’t the decision of some snob or belletrist. It is the decision of Judge Time, who constantly separates those who last from those who don’t.” Here’s Bloom on the subject: “Canonical prophecy needs to be tested about two generations after a writer dies.”

Who lasts? Almost always, it’s a matter of breadth. The great books use exotic characters and situations to say something compelling about humanity as a whole. These works transcend the discrete concerns and fixations of a given society, adapting to new settings and appealing to new audiences. A related point is that they tend to be open: they do not reach for simple conclusions; they resist straightforward interpretation; they “accommodat[e] bewildering antinomies,” as Bloom put it. Only time can confirm that a work has these qualities. We know that Homer and Cervantes and Shakespeare can pass the test because they already have. Whether the writers now favored at College Prep can do so remains to be seen.

“Livelier than you are, whoever you are,” Bloom declared, the canonical authors “were indubitably male, and I suppose ‘white.’ But they are not dead, compared to any living author whomsoever.” Nonwhite, non-male authors are welcome to join the Canon. A few already have and, in time, more will do so. And that is all to the good. But literary immortality cannot be manufactured by force-feeding students books that wave “the banners of the new multiculturalism.”

Bloom, who died in 2019, believed that the battle was lost. Those of us who aspire to be “individual readers and writers” will still read the Canon, he concluded, while “the others, who are amenable to a politicized curriculum, can be abandoned to it.” Looking at the state of my alma mater, I can see why Bloom felt as he did. But is despair so warranted? Why should not the new Puritans eventually go the way of the old? We hear a lot these days about the (woke) moral arc of the universe. But Shakespeare is interesting, and scolds are not. For all we know, time is still on the Canon’s side.

Photo: Dougal Waters/Stone via Getty Images


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