Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible
Princeton University Press, 2010
208 pp., $19.95
The KJV Effect
There are a still few phrases and words in common English usage that immediately call to mind the Bible, and, for a shrinking portion of the American populace, maybe even the exact place in the King James Version (KJV) from which these locutions entered the common speech. So it is with "the valley of the shadow" (Ps. 23:4), "casting pearls before swine" (Matt. 7:6), "no respecter of persons" (Acts 10:34), and a few individual words like "covenant" (with 292 uses in the KJV). A much larger word-hoard also came from this same source, or at least became common because of the KJV, but now passes with no recognition of a biblical origin. So it is with a few phrases like "from time to time" (1 Chron. 9:25, Ezek. 4:10 and 4:11) and "clear as crystal" (Rev. 21:11 and 22:1) along with hundreds of individual words like "arguments" (Job 23:4), "city" (868 times), "conflict" (Phil. 1:30 and Col. 2:1), "network" (Exod. 27:4 and six others), and many more.
Robert Alter's careful examination of the ways in which the KJV informed the novels of six significant American authors aims to record how "the resonant language and the arresting vision of the canonical text" continue to echo in American cultural memory. His title is itself taken from the KJV's rendering of Jeremiah 17:1—"The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is graven upon the table of their heart." Without stating his intention in so many words, Alter is recording a specific indebtedness before awareness of its presence fades, as the biblical origin of so much common English has faded into a mere recognition of something old-fashioned, quaint, or musty in the prose of Herman Melville, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Ernest Hemingway, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy.
Alter's short book spins off enough sparkling asides to inspire a shelf of very long volumes. On, for example, why England's canonical novelists seem less indebted to the language of the KJV than the United States' (because American fiction has always exhibited a heteroglossia, to use Bakhtin's term, where writers deliberately mix levels of diction that English deference to decorum did not permit). Or how academic literary study now treats works written in English as if they were translations originally composed in another language (because translated fiction can capably communicate the power relationships in novels, but hardly ever what is communicated by an author's style, and American English departments have been obsessed with questions of power instead of "reading the untranslatable text"). Or why in Alter's view the KJV remains the best of all English Bible translations (because it comes closest to the direct, concrete, and parallel style that marks the Hebrew and much of the Greek in Scripture).
Despite a wealth of telling general commentary, Alter's main business is to show through close readings how much his six novelists drew upon biblical style in creating their own works. Along the way, he also raises an overarching issue of great importance about the relationship of biblical style to biblical content, but that he leaves as an open-ended question for another day.
Alter's treatment of Melville's Moby Dick is particularly impressive. In the jumble of Melville's style (echoes of Shakespeare and Milton, encyclopedic swaths of whaling lore, and much more), biblical allusions were prominent from the novel's opening line ("Call me Ishmael"). But Moby Dick also includes a full sermon (Father Maple on the Book of Jonah) along with many other homily-like passages, including several that subvert rather than support traditional Christianity. In addition to much direct quoting of the KJV, Alter finds many instances where Melville's text reads like a biblical Psalm, for example one passage that he parses as biblical parallelism: "he was bid strike in with angels, / and beat his tambourine in glory; // called a coward here, / hailed a hero there."
In Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom! Alter finds a consistent use of biblical themes rather than the more direct biblical quotations and allusions in Melville. Faulkner's self-conscious, polysyllabic, flamboyant, convoluted, recondite, rococo writing is itself "antithetical to biblical prose or poetry as it is found in the King James Version." Yet a deep strand of biblicism is nevertheless present in his persistent return to images of dust and clay; flesh and blood; land and curse; son, seed, and birthright; and house—all themes etched strongly in the Hebrew Scriptures. And tying the novel's many voices together is the story of King David's often tragic efforts to perpetuate his house through male offspring.