Robert Alter


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

Cover Interview of May 30, 2010

A close-up

If I could look over the shoulder of a reader browsing through my book in a bookstore and whisper advice about how best to spend fifteen minutes of sampling the book, I would direct him or her to my discussion of Lincoln’s speeches in the first chapter.

Though my book is about the American novel, not American oratory, I think the case of Lincoln, one of the great masters of style in nineteenth-century America, is illuminating.  Lincoln, as most of us recall, was a self-taught man, having had only a couple of years of formal schooling.  He was, of course, a genius, in writing as well as in political leadership.  Like most literate Americans of his era, he had read the Bible—along with many very different things—in the King James Version, and he seems to have known it backward and forward.

In my first chapter, I look at the astonishing things Lincoln does with the language of the Bible in his two greatest speeches, the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address.  Neither of these addresses is biblical through and through, but biblical elements play a crucial role in both—in the oratorical power and in the sense of historical and theological resonance.

I conduct a little thought experiment by picking up a couple of the biblical turns of phrase, rewording them in order to eliminate the biblical echoes, and then asking what the difference would be in feel and meaning.  It is, I think, an instructive illustration of how style makes a significant difference in what is said.  And, as such, it prepares the way for the reader to follow what I do in discussing style in the various novels from Melville onward.

Why, for example, does the Gettysburg Address begin with “Four score and seven years ago”?  Is that somehow different from “Eighty-seven years ago”?  The phrase, incidentally, is not an actual quotation from the King James Version but is patterned on the frequent occurrence of “two score” in the 1611 translation.

I invite readers to see that this biblicizing initial phrase of the Address creates a perspective for what is said that could not come into place without the Bible.