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The Book That Drove Them Crazy

Allan Bloom’s ‘Closing of the American Mind’ 25 years later.

Apr 9, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 29 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Various attempts were made at the time to account for the runaway success. The nearest cause was a handful of spectacular early reviews. The daily reviewer in the New York Times compared the book to “electric-shock therapy”​—​a good thing among Times critics back then, apparently. “It commands one’s attention and concentrates one’s mind more effectively than any other book I can think of in the past five years.” (Cut, print, and blurb.) Similar praise, no less blurbable, came from Time and Newsweek and even the Chronicle of Higher Education. “A grand tour of the American mind,” said the Washington Post Book World.

But good reviews, even ecstatic reviews, aren’t sufficient to sell a book, as any number of highly praised authors you’ve never heard of would be happy to tell you. Something else was happening here, but no one knew what it was. James Atlas, in the New York Times Magazine, guessed that the book, with its readable summaries of Plato and Hegel, served as a kind of adult continuing education class: “Bloom appeals to the perennial student in so many of us.” Bloom’s editor at Simon & Schuster said the book tapped a large reservoir of underserved book buyers eager for intelligent discussion of profound issues. Louis Menand, then a literature professor at Princeton and CUNY, was rather more sardonic in the New Republic: “It gratifies our wish to think ill of our culture (a wish that is a permanent feature of modernity) without thinking ill of ourselves.”

Menand’s review was part of a second surge of notices, far more critical than the first. The Revenge of the Eggheads fell with a fury, and you couldn’t help but wonder what took them so long. In the Wall Street Journal’s review, a moonlighting Department of Education official named William Kristol noted how odd the early praise was, sociologically and politically, coming as it did from the “cultural establishment” that Bloom had fixed squarely in his crosshairs. “Many of the reviewers who have praised Mr. Bloom’s book,” Kristol wrote, “have not faced up to the consequences of Mr. Bloom’s ideas.” That delighted reviewer from the Washington Post, for example: He was president of Oberlin College, a model of the kind of liberal-arts institution that had been destroyed, according to Bloom’s thesis, by a left-wing nihilism descended from the decadent philosophes of Europe. The president’s rave for the book, Kristol went on, “shows no indication that the institution over which he presides stands fundamentally indicted by it.” And not only this or that institution: Bloom was charging an entire generation of humanities professors with academic dereliction.

When they took the book as a personal affront they reacted accordingly. “Bad reviews are one thing,” James Atlas wrote. “The responses to Bloom’s book have been charged with a hostility that transcends the usual mean-spiritedness of reviewers.” Tactics differed. There were attacks on Bloom’s scholarship, his philosophical skill, and the evidence for his empirical claims. There were also sarcasm, invective, caricature, shaming, and, no less inevitably then than now, accusations of elitism, racism, sexism, and homophobia. The most influential rebuttal to Closing, considered by many of Bloom’s critics to be definitive, was (not coincidentally) one of the calmest and most measured. Written by the classicist Martha Nussbaum, it was lengthy even by the standards of the venue in which it appeared, the New York Review of Books.

Nussbaum’s disputes with Bloom over the ancient texts were too obscure for a layman to adjudicate, though many of his friends, notably Werner Dannhauser, tried ardently to show her abusing the scholarship herself. To my untutored mind her characterization of Bloom’s general argument wasn’t quite accurate and in places discredited itself. She tells us, for example, that in Closing, “Bloom presents himself to us as a profoundly religious man.” You could have fooled me. His preeminent teacher, the philosopher Leo Strauss, liked to make the distinction between Athens and Jerusalem​—​a life of philosophy versus a life of faith. After a few approving nods toward the Bible, The Closing of the American Mind shows Bloom to have been an Athens man all the way (not to mention a Jew, a homosexual, and a Hoosier. Truly, they broke the mold .  .  . ).

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