Robert Alter


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

Cover Interview of May 30, 2010


Much of what I regard as the book’s larger context, at least concerning the study of literature and of American literature in particular, is spelled out in The Wide Angle above.

To that I would add the following thoughts:  Literature, unlike technology, very rarely discards its earlier significant phases.  We no longer think about the abacus, except as a curiosity, when we have computers.  On the other hand, we are still living with Homer and Virgil and Shakespeare even though we are many centuries removed from their worlds.

For me, the presence of the Bible in American culture, in the very texture of the language written by some of our greatest writers, is something we still need to come to terms with.

Outside of evangelical circles, biblical illiteracy in contemporary America is notorious.  And we certainly are no longer the kind of Bible-suffused culture we once were.  Yet, the Bible remains with us.  And even in the twenty-first century, there are some American writers who still quarry from it the building-blocks of their prose.

Edmund Wilson once remarked that this is a book we have been living with all our lives and that we can never quite accommodate to our lives.  It is that dynamic and ambiguity in American culture that Pen of Iron seeks to address.

© 2010 Robert Alter