Saint Michael’s College receives major literary gift

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(Host) Harold Bloom has been called a “colossus among critics.” He’s arguably the world’s best-known and most controversial literary scholar. At 72, Bloom has been holding forth from his perch at Yale University for half a century. Now Bloom has put Saint Michael’s College on the literary map with an extraordinary gift to the small catholic liberal arts school.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) As Saint Michael’s College approaches its centennial year, school officials have plenty to be pleased about. The college is celebrating two significant gifts. One is a five million dollar anonymous donation. It’s historic by Saint Michael’s standards – the largest cash gift the school has ever received.

The other is historic by any standards. It’s a massive collection of books, correspondence and papers. A literary treasure trove compiled over a lifetime by the renowned scholar Harold Bloom; in all, well over 20,000 volumes. Enough to quadruple the college’s English collection. It’s also a scholarly stamp of approval, signaling Bloom’s belief in Saint Michael’s College and the Catholic tradition of education. Marc vanderHeyden is president of Saint Michael’s:

(vanderHeyden) “To have someone of his caliber declare his confidence that this institution will last and will last in that tradition is, to me, incredible.”

(Zind) The story of how a small Catholic college in Vermont came to become the recipient of the largesse of a scholar and critic of Bloom’s stature is the story of a friendship. Saint Michael’s professor emeritus John Reiss met Bloom when Reiss enrolled in a Bloom seminar at Yale in the 1970s. In his books, Bloom writes rapturously. In person, he projects an aura of almost abject weariness. Reiss says Bloom is often consumed by worries and the weight of the world seems to rest on his shoulders.

(Reiss) “I remember the first class we had at Yale, in that seminar and he looked so tired and so sad and I thought, ‘There’s no way that man can teach today, we won’t have a class.’ Then we all got there and it got going and it was all gone.”

(Zind) Bloom’s theatrical writing has won him attention beyond the cloistered world of literary scholarship. He’s written more than two dozen books, including three best sellers. He’s been praised as an original thinker and dismissed as windy and pretentious.

Bloom has generated the greatest controversy with his head-on assault on political correctness – arguing that literature should be judged on aesthetic excellence, not the writer’s politics. Bloom says the so-called School of Resentment has devalued great literature.

(Bloom) We are in a hopeless time, it seems to me. Authors are taught, so far as I can tell, quite frequently primarily on the basis of gender, so-called race, so-called ethnic group, sexual orientation and so on. It’s too wearisome to go on polemicizing about this nonsense, but this nonsense is prevalent.”

(Zind) In the years that followed their first meeting, John Reiss and Bloom kept in touch. Bloom visited Saint Michael’s on two occasions, staying with Reiss and his family.

(Reiss) “He very much liked my family life, and I suppose I wasn’t in the same game as he was. He was in the big leagues and I very much responded to his writing and appreciated it and told him so and disagreed with him when I wanted to in my minor league way. I wasn’t trying to flatter him, I wasn’t trying to play up to him. I just liked him and he liked me, I guess.”

(Zind) Bloom is giving his collection to Saint Michael’s in Reiss’ honor. There are practical reasons as well. A larger university with a more extensive library probably wouldn’t be interested in his entire collection. Saint Michael’s plans to use it’s five million dollar gift to build a library to house the collection. Bloom says he also feels an affinity for Saint Michael’s approach to education. Marc VanderHeyden says the college shares Bloom’s belief that reading is key to learning.

(vanderHeyden) “We insist that reading is the key ingredient of being a well-educated woman or man. And I think that is somewhat in jeopardy. I do believe that we have come to the point where, instead of reading you can do as well by watching a movie.”

(Zind) Heart surgery last fall has slowed Bloom and he says its mellowed him. Despite his careworn demeanor and his anguished appraisal of the state of literary scholarship, Bloom says he’s not a fatalist.

(Bloom) “Even though, as you can see, I am the mildest and gentlest and most amiable of human beings, which is obviously a lie, I’m not fatalistic.”

(Zind) Bloom says he would like to return to Saint Michael’s someday, perhaps to teach a summer seminar like the one where he and John Reiss first met years ago.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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