A fter Harold Bloom died in October 2019, E. D. Hirsch told a story from the early 1960s, when they were assistant professors of English at Yale. They both had lived not far from campus, and Hirsch frequently spotted Bloom walking past his house and joined him for a stroll to the office. They had much to discuss about department matters, and they shared a specialty in Romantic poetry. Bloom had written two books, one of them on Shelley, before Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument (1963). Hirsch’s first book was Wordsworth and Schelling (1960), and afterwards he, too, produced a study of Blake, Innocence and Experience: An Introduction to Blake (1964). That was the problem.
Bloom was committed to Northrop Frye’s interpretation of Blake. In Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (1947), Frye had argued that Blake’s is a genuinely prophetic vision, one that demands a basic mental adjustment in those who wish to understand him. Bloom also favored Frye’s model of literature in general, outlined in Anatomy of Criticism (1957), the overarching theory of narrative archetypes that run through cultures and periods. Hirsch disliked that approach, as he made clear in his Blake book. It didn’t matter that Frye was a giant in literary studies at that time, whereas Hirsch was a junior professor but a few years out of graduate school. Hirsch believed in right and wrong interpretations; there really was a truth about Blake that could be determined, and Frye wasn’t it.
Bloom disagreed, and did so because he felt the same way about right and wrong criticism. To misconstrue Blake was for him an intellectual failing, perhaps a moral one as well. When Hirsch’s book came out, it changed things between them. From that time onward, Hirsch said, Bloom took another route to campus.