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.
“A swing away from attention to style has led students and scholars away from one of the great joys of reading.”
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.
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.
“Why does the Gettysburg Address begin with ‘Four score and seven years ago’? Is that somehow different from ‘Eighty-seven years ago’?”
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.
Robert Alter is Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, where he has taught since 1967. He is the author of 23 books on a range of topics from the Hebrew Bible to the European novel and modern Hebrew literature. Among his recent books are a translation of the Book of Psalms and a study of the representation of the modern city in the European novel, as well as Pen of Iron, featured in his Rorotoko interview. In 2009 Alter received the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime contribution to American letters given by the Los Angeles Times.