Robert Alter


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

Cover Interview of May 31, 2010

The wide angle

I suppose the professional path that led me to this book goes back to when I was twenty-two years old and read for the first time Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis.  Subtitled The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, I still consider this to be the greatest single work of literary criticism written in the twentieth century.

Auerbach, who was trained as a philologist, uses the strategy of close analysis of characteristic passages from the books he discusses.  He looks at formal features of the language such as syntax, verb-tenses, levels of diction, and from these technical details he is able to build a compelling account of how the different writers in different periods conceived and represented reality.

The model of Auerbach has stayed with me for half a century.  At least indirectly, it informs books I have written as different as a study of biblical narrative, a critical biography of Stendhal, an investigation of the self-conscious tradition in the European novel.

Over the years, the principal fashions of literary studies have moved far away from the sort of concerns and the method of analysis one finds in Mimesis.  For two decades or more, the dominant direction in American departments of literature was highly theoretical, sometimes abstrusely so.  More recently, the political contexts and implications of literary texts have come to be the favored focus of study.

Not all of this has been useless:  I myself am persuaded that contexts cannot be ignored and that literary style cannot be studied in test-tube isolation, and also that consideration of theory can make concepts sharper and more complex.

Nevertheless, there has been a swing away from attention to style in our classrooms and academic journals that in my view has led students and scholars away from one of the great joys of reading and from a crucial dimension of any literary work that complicates it and makes it more interesting.

In light of all this, I would say that there is an implicit polemic—but a constructive one, I hope—in Pen of Iron.  That polemic thrust is an argument, through the examples discussed, for the importance of style in the understanding, and the enjoyment, of literature.

The presence of the King James Version in the rhythms and syntax and images of American prose is a particular example—but I think a deeply instructive one—of the importance of style in fiction.