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.
Biblical elements are not as obvious in Saul Bellow's short novel from 1956, Seize the Day, in which over the course of a few hours in a single day a much put-upon New Yorker collapses into psychological defeat. Yet through telling quotation Alter can still indicate where Bellow "had internalized something of [the KJV's] dignified, even stark, simplicity of diction" and where Bellow's prose imitates Scripture with "an unblinking gaze at life's end that excludes all melodramatic flourishes."
Briefer treatment of Hemingway, Robinson, and McCarthy comes in a chapter entitled "The World through Parataxis." The reference is to the style so prominent throughout the Old Testament, as well as in some of the New, featuring short, unadorned sentences placed side-by-side. Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises begins with an epigraph from Ecclesiastes 1:4-7 ( "the sun also ariseth" is in verse 5), but Alter sees the strongest KJV influence in Hemingway's famously direct prose, with "figurative elaboration studiously avoided." Alter makes this point through comparisons with passages from other modern novelists, where analysis, complication, qualification, and evaluation are built into the prose. Hemingway, by contrast, "showed how unadorned sequences of parallel utterances, as in the basic pattern of ancient Hebrew prose reproduced in the King James Version, could intimate strong feelings and fraught relationships."
Turning to Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, Alter recognizes that much of narrator John Ames' prose is American colloquial rather than directly biblical. But Alter shows that the narrator's consistent use of biblical images and allusions depends on immersion in the KJV. An example is a passage that Alter convincingly likens in style and tone to Jacob's first meeting with Rachel at the well in Genesis 24:
We were up before daylight to milk and cut kindling and draw her a bucket of water, and she met us at the door with a breakfast of fried mush with blackberry preserves melted over it and a spoonful of top milk on it, and we ate standing there at the stoop in the chill and the dark, and it was perfectly wonderful.
Cormac McCarthy's apocalyptic The Road tells of a father and young son who travel to what they hope might be safety in a world almost completed destroyed by a great conflagration. In this work Alter finds "a simplicity and phonetic compactness of diction, again with the King James Version as the great precedent."
The great success of Pen of Iron is to spell out the elements of biblical style that shape these books, but then also to indicate how the emotional force of these novels comes in large part from evocations conveyed by effective biblical style. The larger issue that Alter mentions at several points, yet without fully addressing it, is the awareness that when novelists invest so intensely in the language or images of Scripture, their work "is never entirely separable from an engagement with the ideas and imperative values of the Bible …. [I]nseparable from the stylistic traits [of the KJV] is a whole world of values with which both writers and readers have to contend."
This carefully posed relationship prompts questions of great moment. For Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Bellow, the biblical usage that Alter details has been put to use for a vision of the world that might be called nihilistic humanism. The novelists certainly have created narratives that are in different ways driven, freighted, and empowered by biblical style. Yet the novels end in hubristic catastrophe (Moby Dick), literal and metaphorical self-immolation (Absalom! Absalom!), exhausted ennui (The Sun Also Rises), and psychological collapse (Seize the Day). They evoke with unusual power the tree being felled, but never a shoot on the stump.
A reader who is drawn into these works but who also affirms what Alter calls the Bible's own "ringing promise of redeemed history … a penetrating sense of the unfathomability of human nature … the belief in a benevolent, providential deity" might go two ways. One would be to condemn such authors for employing biblical style to subvert biblical values. In this perspective, the better these novels are at using biblical style to sweep readers along, the worse they are for denying the resolution to which the Bible's own narratives point. But the other perspective would be to welcome the intense moral wrestling of novels that, though they lack a biblical dénouement, nonetheless testify to the inescapable power of the Bible's moral universe. From this angle, we are viewing not something aflame for God, but nonetheless a flax smoldering with the spark of divinity.
For McCarthy's The Road and especially Robinson's Gilead, the ultimate questions are different. At the end of McCarthy's novel, the wandering boy—who has finally lost his father—ends up in the protection of a believing family. The boy, disillusioned by the terrors he has witnessed, cannot respond when he is asked to pray. But the mother of the family reassures him by saying that "the breath of God was his breath" nevertheless. As Alter notes, "here at the very end, the background of biblical language for the first time strikes an affirmative note."
In Gilead this affirmation, however challenged, is constant throughout the whole novel. Alter could have made more of his observation that "in Gilead there is an obvious concordance between style and subject, because the narrator, John Ames, is a preacher steeped in the Bible" who cherishes its picture of a providential deity. Surely the triumph of the novel is that Robinson both used biblical style skillfully (when so many aspiring "biblical novelists" have used it badly) and succeeded in shaping a compelling modern novel (when so few contemporary novelists would dare embrace the biblical values of John Ames).
Alter, thus, might have said more about the dialectic of style and substance in these works. If he chose not to do so, the result is still a treasure of insight and a welcome stimulus to Christian reflection.
1. For more such words and phrases, see Stanley Malles and Jeffrey McQuain, Coined by God: Words and Phrases that First Appear in the English Translations of the Bible (Norton, 2003).
Mark Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author most recently of The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (InterVarsity Press).
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.