After a long day of teaching “too many classes,” professor Harold Bloom GRD ’56 was tired. “If someone can give me another Cognac I can say something,” he told the crowd on Thursday afternoon at a Jonathan Edwards College Master’s Tea.
Bloom, who has taught at Yale since 1955, spoke with the poet Mark Strand, the event’s surprise guest, in front of about 50 students and professors. As he responded to the audience’s questions about literature, the Sterling professor also digressed to discuss a range of topics, such as the professors who once taught him and Philip Roth.
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Before he began, Bloom singled out Marie Borroff, a Yale English professor emeritus sitting in the front row. “Do you remember when I asked you out to lunch?” Bloom said, with his wife in the audience. “I couldn’t get to first base.”
Bloom then shared stories about his most memorable professor, the late Frederick Pottle GRD ’25, recalling his first paper Pottle graded: He admonished “me to stop beating dead woodchucks,” Bloom said. Had he heeded this advice, Bloom said, he would not have written nearly as much over the past few decades.
When asked a question about Roth’s lasting contributions to the literary world, Bloom recalled the response he gave after reading the manuscript for Roth’s novel “Sabbath’s Theater.” Bloom praised the novel, and recalled telling Roth that it was an “amazing autobiographical work.”
The conversation then turned to American poets, and Bloom praised the esteemed Walt Whitman. As Bloom grew older, he said he found himself drawn to the literature of Walt Whitman and William Shakespeare.
“While it is not fair to put [Whitman] in that company … he is the answer to Europe insofar as we have an answer to Europe.”
After praising the great authors, Bloom shifted to discuss the academic interpretations of literary texts. He derided historicist English professors as “rugged opportunists,” but quickly corrected himself.
“That was a nasty comment,” he said. “I will blame it on the superior quality of the Cognac.”
Of the five audience members interviewed, they all remarked on Bloom’s unique personal traits and speaking style.
For one student, Gabriel Perlman ’12, the Master’s Tea transformed his world view.
“He likes his Hennesey and he was kind of mesmerizing,” Perlman said. “It changed my life.”
Although Andrew Squire ’12 enjoyed the event, he said he could not imagine enrolling in one of Bloom’s courses.
“I’m glad I went,” Squire said. “But he’s a really strange personality who would probably be too much to handle for a full term.” (Squire is a copy staffer at the News.)
When one audience member asked Bloom to interpret a poem by Strand, the poet interjected.
“People can make of my poems whatever they like,” Strand said.
Bloom responded: “Do you really mean that? Do you have no will to power over your text?”