Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible by Robert Alter
Princeton University Press, 208 pp., $19.95
In Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, highly distinguished Hebrew scholar and translator Robert Alter delivers a wise, idiosyncratic, and unique exercise in close reading that should inform and delight anyone interested in literature. Alter combines the comprehensive knowledge of a Biblical specialist with vast reading in American literature to deliver eye-opening analyses of a diverse group of canonical or near-canonical texts, including The Gettysburg Address, Moby-Dick, Absalom, Absalom, The Sun Also Rises, Bellow’s Seize the Day, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, among others. Alter’s goal is to observe, in fine detail, the rhetorical (and in the case of Faulkner, thematic) influence of the 1611 rendering of the Bible on this important if (as shall be seen) incomplete and segregated collection of American writers.
In 1604, King James I of England commissioned a new English translation of the Bible to replace the official translations done under the Tudors. The result, a collaborative effort of 47 scholars, relying heavily on the nearly century-old work of the masterful William Tyndale, became, upon its completion, the canonical version for most English-speaking Protestants across the subsequent centuries. As Alter writes in this captivating study of the echoes and traces of the 1611 version in American prose, “Its distinctive style would . . . give literary English a new and memorable coloration.” Relying largely on the Anglo-Saxon (as opposed to the French/Latinate) register of English, the King James Version of the Bible exercised and continues to exercise an enormous influence on American writers. Alter does not really speculate as to why, but it is conceivable that in a frontier land, where people did not own many books, one book they did often own, or could borrow, or could hear readings from every Sunday, was the King James Bible. He writes that the book was “once justifiably thought of as the national book of the American people” for its influence on the Puritans, and that it “helped foster . . . a general responsiveness to the expressive, dignified use of language, to the ways in which the rhythms and diction of a certain kind of English could move readers.”
Such concerns are probably thought of by many academic experts in American literature as interesting but old-fashioned, not likely to impress the tenure committees. Pen of Iron is idiosyncratic, in part, because an academic Americanist would not have approached the subject the way Alter has. Even if such a professor could match Alter’s knowledge of the Bible in English (unlikely, but possible) and knowledge of American literature from Lincoln to the present (probable if not for certain), conventions of academic specialization would probably compel the potential author to ditch the idea of looking at Biblical influence on this historically vast grouping. If someone had gone ahead with the project, it would likely have been limited to a particular century or portion of a century. (The only other person I could imagine writing something like Pen of Iron is Gary Wills.) But there is an issue larger than periodization, and that is the widely accepted “transnational” approach to American culture, which seeks to contextualize American cultural productions against wider global trends in order to downplay or eliminate notions of American exceptionalism. Alter demonstrates that he is in no sense ignorant of this important academic trend, but he urges an acknowledgment of its limits:
[Melville’s] ambition to turn the language of the novel into prose-poetry is a distinctively American project; there is nothing quite like it in British fiction till the advent of modernism. In saying this, and, indeed, my general account of the presence of the King James Version in American prose, I do not mean to make any larger claim about the much debated issue of American exceptionalism. . . . It suffices for my argument that the phenomena I describe are particularly at home in the American setting and are not readily imaginable elsewhere. . . .
English-speaking culture has been marked with a certain difference from other Western cultures because it has inherited a strongly eloquent canonical translation of the Bible that has to a palpable degree reshaped the language. . . . [A]fter the seventeenth century the language and the specific texts of the Bible made themselves felt throughout American culture to an extent that visibly exceeded what was observable in the changing cultural situation in England. This ubiquity of the Bible set the context for the creation of one variety of American prose – there were, of course, others – that looked different from characteristic stylistic practice in its British counterpart.
Alter’s attitude toward transnationalism is also of the “yes, I know, but” approach. One of the very few nationally visible reviews that Pen of Iron has thus far received after nearly two months in print sought to co-opt the book for an art-is-not-political agenda, often favored by conservatives, presenting a startling and unnerving misreading of Alter’s stated aims. Alter is not opposed to literary or cultural theory as it has developed in the United States in the last forty years, influenced largely by French post-structuralism and British Marxism. He feels that it is important but not germane to every single interpretive investigation. At this stage of the game, I feel confident that few would disagree. A professor since 1967 at the University of California, Berkeley, Alter engages the question of theory to show that he knows and understands it but will not be dithering with it in this particular work, which seeks primarily to deal with literary style, the examination of which he hopes will be revived in academia. He acknowledges that style and ideology sometimes go hand in hand, but in the particular case of American prose influenced by the King James Version of the Bible, it is not at all easy (and perhaps impossible) to pinpoint exactly how. Alter explains his approach as follows:
The claim I make in this study for the importance of style is not an attempt to cut off literature from its moorings in history and politics but rather an argument that we will be better served by looking with a finer focus at the very linguistic medium writers use to engage with history and politics and perhaps in some instances to transform our vision of both those realms.
Alter is not urging a return to some pre-theoretical Eden before tenured radicals found dark agendas in wholesome, cheerful books, but is simply suggesting a slightly different trajectory, informed by theory but not encumbered by or beholden to it.
Furthermore, though Alter very occasionally under-explains a rhetorical term, Pen of Iron is essentially free from jargon. Chief among the rhetorical terms is parataxis, “the form of syntax that strings together parallel units joined by the connective ‘and’ . . .” Aside from the canonization or entrenchment of the Anglo-Saxon register (which, in Shakespeare, for instance, often plays off the Latinate register), parataxis is the great gift to English of the King James Version, and it became the foundation of a strategy that American writers found ideally suited to their purposes. According to Alter, parataxis is, in a sense, the legacy Hebrew has bestowed upon English. “[Parataxis] is not a kind of syntax that is at home in early modern or modern English, or, at any rate, it was not at home until the appearance of the King James Version, which generally, though not invariably, follows syntactic pattern of the Hebrew.”
Parataxis, Alter claims, is generally employed when a writer wishes to exhibit facts without presenting any aesthetic, ethical, political, or emotional commentary. In the case of Seize the Day, Alter writes that “Bellow, writing in a narrative more concerned with internal experience, uses parataxis to represent the gap between the registering of facts and the character’s capacity to respond to them appropriately.” In the case of Hemingway, Alter writes that his “basic stylistic strategy involves a principled avoidance of the hypnotic magic of language.” He cites this paragraph from The Sun Also Rises:
Then the road came over the crest, flattened out, and went into a forest. It was a forest of cork oaks, and the sun came through the trees in patches, and there were cattle grazing in the trees. We went through the forest and the road came out and turned along a rise of land, and out ahead of us was a rolling green plain, with dark mountains beyond it. These were not like the brown, heat-baked mountains we had left behind. These were wooded and there were clouds coming down from them. The green plain stretched off. It was cut by fences and the white of the road showed through the trunks of a double line of trees that crossed the plain toward the north.
Alter writes that this description of landscape, which metonymically stands for a central pillar of Hemingway’s achievement, “gains a certain strength through its very resistance to elaboration. . . .the plain language fending off any stylistic gestures that might presume to tell us what it all means or how we should feel about it.”
Between the Anglo-Saxon register and parataxis, American writers found in the King James Version a stylistic antecedent to help them guard against extravagant flourishes of thought and rhetoric. Of Faulkner, Alter writes “compact key-terms that he drew from the Bible were . . . a ballast . . . against the soaring abstractions that were also vitally important to him.” Of Melville: “The strong poetry of the speech from the Whirlwind [in Job] is quoted not merely to be refuted by but also to set up a resonance that at the end of the novel will, in Melville’s orchestration of voices, find an answering poetry in his description of the devastating power of the whale.” Of Bellow (who read the Bible in Hebrew as well as in the King James Version): “Against a trend in English prose from the Renaissance onward that cultivated lexical profusion, figurative ornamentation, and syntactic complication, the King James Version offered a model of spare diction and of a syntactic simplicity that amounted to a kind of studied reticence which generated its own distinctive eloquence. Bellow drew on this stylistic spareness as a fortifying counterweight to the exuberant side of his writing.” All of Alter’s claims are accompanied by astute readings of the texts in question.
Pen of Iron evolved from the 2008 Spencer Trask Lectures that Alter delivered at Princeton, and though the book bears traces of having originated as a spoken series, its oratorical flavor has been mostly edited out. But that origin, and its time constraints, may account for the book’s omissions. A chapter on Joan Didion, to name just one writer, would not have been out of place. Having developed a feel for Alter’s criteria, it becomes clear that a Didion essay such as “Many Mansions” (which takes its title from John 14:2) strongly exhibits King James Version-inspired cadence, as do many of her other works. (Didion also titled a novel after The Book of Common Prayer, a canonical text of the Church of England that emerged from the same milieu as the King James Bible.) Inspired by Alter, I turned to a book by Didion I was not familiar with, her 2003 meditation on California, Where I Was From, and found it full of sermon-like stylings, paratactic reiterations, rich in quiet measured gloom and foreboding like one of the books of the prophets. Pen of Iron II: Didion could be written. But it would not be as long as another book that could be written, African-American Pen of Iron.
Most curiously and egregiously, Alter declines to include any works by African-Americans. I bring this up not out of political correctness, but because there is a mountain of King James Version-influenced literature that was not considered. It’s as if Alter has hit a grand slam and declined to step on home plate. In such a great book, it’s perplexing that Alter should write something so myopic as, “African-American culture, for example, has been famously steeped in the Bible, and so I initially assumed that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, one of the major American novels of the mid-twentieth century, would be perfect for my inquiry, but unfortunately a renewed inspection of its prose revealed only oblique and episodic links with biblical style.” And that’s all he has to say about that, as if Invisible Man were the only African-American text written in the last 200 years. Invisible Man, so strongly influenced by so many other sources (the African-American folk tale, Malraux, Dostoevsky, Twain), was clearly the wrong book to consider. Book, singular.
Perhaps Alter can be forgiven for ignoring the richness of the pulpit tradition (clearly that would necessitate a separate study), but it’s hard to reconcile his ignoring Frederick Douglass, whose colossal prose achievements, so rhetorically influenced by and intertextually engaged with the King James Bible, are the equal of Lincoln and Melville. Moving beyond Douglass (and his contemporaries), Albert Murray’s memoir, South to a Very Old Place (1971), and first novel, Train Whistle Guitar (1974), are rich in a singular brand of parataxis. Leon Forrest’s novel There is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden (1973) bursts with King James-style rhetoric. And what about James Baldwin? August Wilson? Stanley Crouch? James Alan McPherson? Toni Morrison? All of their work would have been worth investigation. Ralph Ellison’s post-Invisible Man fiction, a portion of which was published in 1999 as Juneteenth (and in its entirety in 2010 as Three Days Before the Shooting…) may have furnished Alter with examples, considering that Juneteenth (the version available to Alter when he was writing Pen of Iron) features ministers that deliver sermons and the black church is a major, central concern of the work, as it is not in Invisible Man. Then, of course, there is James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), in which the Biblically-steeped protagonist, who lives as black for years until he chooses to pass for white (and proceeds to make a fortune in real estate) comes to the very famous conclusion: “I cannot repress the thought that, after all, I have chosen the lesser part, that I have sold my birthright for a mess of pottage.”
This is worth mentioning not to indict or accuse of insensitivity (in his discussions of Melville and Faulkner, Alter is quite sensitive to the plight of African-Americans) but simply to lament the absence of the consideration of African-American writers, since undoubtedly those readings would have been engrossing and instructive. But thanks to Alter’s instruction in what is really a new if informal method of reading for parataxis and for the King James sound and style, anyone can embark on a similar investigation. While picking up on the many thematic hints and echoes (as Alter often does in dazzling little asides) would require more careful study of the Bible than many have done, the prospect should inspire those inclined to read the Bible more deeply. Few people anywhere possess Alter’s authority in Biblical matters, but such authority is not needed to read for traces and whispers of, or unconscious or highly conscious riffing on that unlikely cornerstone of American literature.
Paul Devlin is a Ph.D. student in English at SUNY Stony Brook. His work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, the Antioch Review, Slate, The Root, and the New York Times Book Review.
Mentioned in this review:
Pen of Iron
King James Bible
The Sun Also Rises
Seize the Day
Where I Was From
Three Days Before the Shooting . . .
South to a Very Old Place
Train Whistle Guitar
There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden
The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man