Canon fire rocks campuses

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HAROLD BLOOM is not one for petty sniping. As occupant of endowed chairs at both Yale and New York universities and as one of America's foremost voices on literary criticism, the salvoes he fires are heard across the literary landscape of America. Now he has rocked the entire discipline and its fashionable ideologies.

Bloom's latest work, The Western Canon - the Books and School of the Ages, has just been published in the US by Harcourt Brace. The 578-page tome is ostensibly a celebration of what he suggests are history's greatest writers, but it is also contrived to stir maximum controversy. With the work already on the book-of-the-month lists here and with extracts in Esquire magazine, the strategy has evidently worked.

The brouhaha, which doubtless will quickly wash across the Atlantic, is one we can all enjoy, even beyond the walls of common rooms. Those who may be less delighted are the living writers omitted from the canonical compilations - to the book Bloom appends four lists of 3,000 works that may be regarded as deserving a place in the canon - as well as the brothers and sisters of his own discipline whom he brands as politically correct 'commissars' and 'resentniks'.

Bloom's core complaint is that the study and the enjoyment of English literature has been subverted by those determined to analyse it only through the lenses of political and social ideology - 'Feminists, Afro-centrists, Marxists, Foucault-inspired New Historicists and Deconstructors'.

It is no surprise, then, that Bloom should rise in defence of that body so long discarded from American university campuses: the Dwem (Dead White European Male). The core chapters of his book are a tour through the works of 26 writers Bloom considers to be the most important of them all.

They include Chaucer, Eliot, Woolf and Kafka, as well as Moliere and Milton. Shakespeare, for Bloom, is the 'centre of the canon'.

Most provocative was the decision to include the appended lists, especially the last of the four, which is an attempt at a top-of-the-pops chart of contemporary writing, rather like those compilations of all the best of the preceding year in the weekend magazines around Christmas.

Casting your eye down it, you see many works you have read already or know you should read. There are likely to be plenty you would not have expected or will never have heard of. Almost immediately, though, you will think of writers and works that Bloom has seen fit to exclude.

Among missing names that have been widely noted in America are Thomas Wolfe, Harper Lee, Umberto Eco, and even John Irving. Moreover, Bloom, in some passages, actually takes time to explain an exclusion. Sylvia Plath, for example, is dismissed as 'merely a hysteric'. Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Maya Angelou (who wrote a poem for the inauguration of President Bill Clinton) are all frozen out, Bloom says, because 'they are not good writers'.

Of Walker's book Meridian, he writes: 'I have read it twice, in shock, unable to believe that anything could be so badly written.'

In the book, Bloom worries that the 'commissars' of ideology have already wrecked English literature and doomed it as a university discipline. It is happening even in the elite schools: 'Only a handful of students now enter Yale with an authentic passion for reading,' he writes.

He warns that English departments will give way to cultural studies, where 'Batman comics, Mormon theme parks, television, movies and rock will replace Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens'.

Critics of Bloom may wonder whether by airing his grievances bluntly, by granting them so much attention, he is flattering those he attacks. As for the lists, he has hinted that they were the publisher's idea, not his own.

'I am very weary of the list,' Bloom said recently. 'Really, it was not intended to be a red flag, to be inflammatory. I am beginning to regret it. People ask what they should read. Here is a list. It is not possible to come up with a list with which every single person agrees.'

(Photograph omitted)