Pen of Iron

Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible

Robert Alter
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Pen of Iron
    Book Description:

    The simple yet grand language of the King James Bible has pervaded American culture from the beginning--and its powerful eloquence continues to be felt even today. In this book, acclaimed biblical translator and literary critic Robert Alter traces some of the fascinating ways that American novelists--from Melville, Hemingway, and Faulkner to Bellow, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy--have drawn on the rich stylistic resources of the canonical English Bible to fashion their own strongly resonant styles and distinctive visions of reality. Showing the radically different manners in which the words, idioms, syntax, and cadences of this Bible are woven intoMoby-Dick, Absalom, Absalom!, The Sun Also Rises, Seize the Day, Gilead,andThe Road, Alter reveals the wide variety of stylistic and imaginative possibilities that American novelists have found in Scripture. At the same time, Alter demonstrates the importance of looking closely at the style of literary works, making the case that style is not merely an aesthetic phenomenon but is the very medium through which writers conceive their worlds.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3435-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Prelude America as a Scriptural Culture
    (pp. 1-8)

    The pervasiveness of the Bible in American culture from the colonial period onward has often been observed, but the fact of pervasiveness is worth recalling at the outset of this study and reframing in regard to its impact well beyond theology and creed. In England, the Protestant Reformation took an important step toward its consolidation in 1611 when the Bible was made fully accessible to the reading public in a translation that rapidly became canonical. The King James Version was famously eloquent and a beautiful instrument for conveying the vision of the biblical writers to the English- speaking populace. Its...

  5. Chapter 1 Style in America and the King James Version
    (pp. 9-41)

    As I assemble these reflections on the presence of the King James Version in American writing, the fourth centennial of the 1611 translation stands on the horizon. A great deal has changed in American culture since the third centennial was celebrated in 1911. At that juncture, the King James Version was extolled by leading public figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson as America’s national book and as the text that more than any other had affected the life of English-speaking peoples. My guess is that the 2011 milestone will be marked more in academic circles than in the...

  6. Chapter 2 Moby-Dick Polyphony
    (pp. 42-77)

    Nothing like the prose ofMoby-Dickhad been seen before in American fiction, which is one reason why it would take well over half a century for Melville’s masterpiece to receive the general appreciation it deserved. Indeed, very little like the prose ofMoby-Dickis visible in the first four novels Melville published in quick succession before 1851—novels in which the writing can be quite vivid but is also a little hampered by that self-conscious, slightly stiff literariness often detectible in American prose of the antebellum era. The astonishing stylistic achievement ofMoby-Dickis intimately bound up with Melville’s...

  7. Chapter 3 Absalom, Absalom! Lexicon
    (pp. 78-113)

    Faulkner’s deep engagement in the Bible, and, as he himself stressed, especially in the Hebrew Bible, is well known, but whether it impinged on the extravagantly idiosyncratic texture of his writing is not altogether clear. He claimed that he read all the way through the King James Version every ten or twelve years in the fourteen-volume edition that sat on his shelves. He listed the Old Testament together with Dickens, Conrad, Cervantes, Balzac, and a few others among the books he had loved as a young man and to which he returned as to old friends. In his 1956Paris...

  8. Chapter 4 Seize the Day American Amalgam
    (pp. 114-145)

    The opening words of Saul Bellow’sThe Adventures of Augie March(1953), “I am an American, Chicago-born,” are probably one of the most quoted sentences from a twentieth-century American novel. They are usually cited, justly, as an expression of a new cultural pluralism that was emerging in American literature in the period after World War II: Augie, the child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, with his very first words unapologetically flaunts his particular ethnic identity as a vividly authentic embodiment of the multifaceted American self. But it is equally worth observing that Augie’s initial affirmation has some bearing as well on the...

  9. Chapter 5 The World through Parataxis
    (pp. 146-184)

    WhenThe Sun Also Risesfirst appeared in 1926, it seemed to many American readers that in it Hemingway had achieved a definitive expression of the mood and mind-set of his generation. The unmoored wanderings of his central characters first from bar to bistro in Paris and then across the countryside of Spain were felt to capture the bleakness and the inner devastation that for combatants and observers alike were a consequence of the Great War, and a prevailing sense of aimless circling and a quest for excitements destined to frustrate were perfectly encapsulated in the book’s Ecclesiastean title. After...

  10. Index
    (pp. 185-198)