Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible
Wood, Ralph C., Journal of Church and State
Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible. By Robert Alter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. 198pp. $19.95.
Robert Alter is one of our most astute readers of both sacred and secular texts. A professor of Comparative Literature and Hebrew at the University of California, Berkeley, since 1967, he has hugely influenced scriptural interpretation with his books The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981) and The Art of Biblical Poetry (1985) as weU as his translations of much of the non-prophetic literature of the Old Testament. His basic thesis is that the Bible should be read primarily as a Uterary construction whose theology Ues as much in its artistry as in its historicity. The canonical text itself is what matters, not the cultural and mythical substrata lying beneath it, much less its aUegedly hidden ideological agendas. In a lapidary sentence, Alter once suggested that "The Bible should be read as a sort of non-fiction novel"? i.e., as a sacred, peopleforming set of texts whose central question is not "Did this UteraUy happen?" but "Is this reaUy true?"
In these Spencer Trask Lectures given at Princeton in 2008, Alter is concerned to show that the King James Version (KJV; whose translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts he highly esteems) has had a tremendous influence on American literature? not only in its overarching themes of creation and faU and redemption, but also in its characteristic style. Against the popular assumption that style is primarily a matter of personal preference or historical influence, and against its almost total neglect in contemporary departments of English, Alter argues that style is primarily a mode of thinking. The Hebrew style of the Old Testament, he notes, is relentlessly paratactic rather than hypotactic. That is, it pues one independent clause on top of another, with only rare recourse to subordinate phrases and clauses and qualifiers. Thus is the diction of the KJV also unabashedly plain, concrete, and Anglo-Saxon rather than ornate, abstract, and Latinate. Such unadorned straightforwardness of style, especially in narrating events and describing characters, avoids deliberate complexity and ambiguity. Readers are thus left to draw the theological inferences and the moral implications for themselves, since the text does not do the work for them.
Alter app?es this basic premise to Lincoln's Gettysburg and Second Inaugural addresses, as well as to six novels: Herman MeIv?le's Moby-Dick, WiUiam Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, and Saul BeUow's Seize the Day are given primary attention, while Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, and Cormac McCarthy's The Road are treated more cursorily. The most notable quaUty of …
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Publication information: Article title: Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible. Contributors: Wood, Ralph C. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Church and State. Volume: 53. Issue: 1 Publication date: Winter 2011. Page number: 141+. © 1999 J.M. Dawson Studies in Church and State. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.