Robert Alter


On his book Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible

Cover Interview of May 30, 2010

In a nutshell

Pen of Iron traces the varying ways in which the language of the King James Version became an enriching element in the prose style of a line of American novelists from Melville to Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy.

The presence of biblical motifs and themes in American literature has often been studied, but not much attention has been given to how the once canonical translation made a difference on the level of style.  My book is based on the assumption that style is not merely ornamentation but the means through which a novelist constructs and understands the world.  Understanding style, then, is an indispensable means for getting a handle on the achievement of the major American novelists.

The King James Version opened new expressive possibilities for literary English, and those possibilities were most fully realized in America, where, at least till the earlier twentieth century, the 1611 translation of the Bible pervaded the culture.  The stylistic resources of the King James Version were tapped even by writers who stood at a great distance from the biblical worldview or wanted to quarrel with it.

I view the ongoing relation of imaginative writers to the King James Version as an unfolding story.  And so I would ideally like writers to follow this narrative in chronological order from beginning to end, from the middle of the nineteenth century to the two novels of the twenty-first century I discuss at the end of the book.