The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime

Spiegel & Grau. May 2015. 544p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780812997828. $35; ebk. ISBN 9780812997835. LIT
In his 36th book, Bloom (humanities, Yale Univ.; The Shadow of a Great Rock) returns to his early championship of the romantics, putting it in the context of the sweep of America's history. He argues, sometimes persuasively, other times overzealously, that writers don't emerge clear of influence: they borrow and deliberately misread the works of their predecessors. The influence may be buried, but it's there—just read the text closely, and Bloom is nothing if not a close reader. This book, at times perceptive, at others slapdash, argues that the great writers, possessed by their creative daemon, strive to achieve the American sublime, a truth of feeling and will that lies behind the mask. They experience epiphany not through God's grace but as new Adams, innocents in a new country. Bloom discusses his writers in pairs: Walt Whitman and Herman Melville; Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson; Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James; Mark Twain and Robert Frost; Wallace Stevens and T. S. Eliot; William Faulkner and Hart Crane. The best readings are of Melville and Whitman, Emerson and Hawthorne, and Frost. Interestingly, his appreciation of Crane, his self-confessed favorite among poets, reads like afterthought. Bloom calls himself "an experiential and personalizing literary critic." It's an apt characterization that points both to his strengths and his weaknesses.
VERDICT Bloom is the real thing so lots of people will read this book. But it's a perplexing mix of perceptive and self-indulgent. [See Prepub Alert, 11/3/14.]

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