Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible
By Robert Alter
Princeton University Press, 208 pages, $19.95
We are truly in a “biblical” era. The sheer volume of contemporary work translating, commenting on, interpreting and exegeting the Bible is astounding for what one would think would be a well-worked mine.
But for Robert Alter, author of many works on Hebrew and comparative literature, studying the Tanach itself is a no-brainer. What is truly fascinating is the influence of the King James Version of the Bible, the late-Elizabethan-era literary masterpiece. Even those of us who, from earliest childhood learned the Tanach, grew up with the KJV. This version was — and remains — the “canonical” translation of the Bible. Indeed, it is so embedded in our consciousness that the KJV is, to many, as much of an “original” text as the Tanach itself.
The KJV is the vehicle used by Alter in his book “Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible” to take a fresh look at masterpieces of American literature. Alter, who is responsible for some of the best writing about modern Hebrew literature to be found anywhere (and for trailblazing works on literary analysis of biblical texts), proves again, in this slim volume, that he is a master of analysis of literary form and genre, exegesis of text, and criticism of content and style. He now returns to both American literature and the Bible itself, specifically to the KJV, which became the standard for Christians — and for Jews — for centuries.
Alter’s title, “Pen of Iron,” tells us much about the book itself. The eponymous “pen of iron,” used by both Jeremiah (“The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron”) and Job (“Oh that my words were now written! Oh that they were printed in a book! That they were graven with an iron pen in the rock forever!”), is the literary “pen” of the KJV, which (Alter maintains) played a key role in the crafting of American prose fiction throughout American literary history. Forget ideology, Alter entreats; look at style and literary voice. And this is precisely what Alter does in lining up classics of American literature with this version.
What are the salient characteristics of the KJV? First, it was the pioneer in English literature, using words of Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin origin. More interesting to Alter, however, is what is known in Classical rhetoric as “parataxis” — the juxtaposition in a sentence of short elements, joining them together with a simple conjunction, usually “and.” “… And she hasted, and emptied her pitcher, and ran again to draw water, and drew for all his camels” (Genesis 24:20). This is not the kind of syntax that is natural for modern English; indeed, it was not at home in any kind of English until the KJV, which made an effort to follow the syntactic patterns of the Hebrew. Alter develops the notion that the use of parataxis is pervasive in a number of the classics of American literature and that it is a key example of how the KJV informed American English style.
Using the prose fiction of Herman Melville, William Faulkner and Saul Bellow, plus some works of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ernest Hemingway (and Abraham Lincoln’s short masterpiece, the Gettysburg Address), as examples, Alter artfully makes his case. Novels that offer a range of styles — “Moby Dick,” “Absalom, Absalom!” (Faulkner’s singular masterpiece, in my view) and Bellow’s “Seize the Day” — are influenced not only by the Bible, but specifically by the KJV. “Moby Dick,” especially, is both thematically and stylistically indebted to the KJV: the names (Ahab, Ishmael), the apocalyptic war with Moby Dick, the frequent biblical allusions (Ahab as king of Israel, Ahab as Job, “forty years [in the wilderness] of whaling”) in the narrative. All these things derive from the Bible. But the core of Alter’s argument is borne out in Melville’s use of parataxis, again and again: “ … and ever anon, as the old craft dived deep in the green seas, and sent the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled, and the cordage rang….” Sentences such as this are pure KJV.
Alter’s treatment of Faulkner’s 1936 “Absalom, Absalom!” is equally cogent, precisely because the novel is less style driven than “Moby Dick.” Faulkner’s prose in “Absalom, Absalom!” is not especially biblical in style, but focuses on biblical themes and on diction that comes from the KJV. It is not only that the novel is a retelling of David’s story; it is more: The KJV provides what Alter calls a “thematic lexicon” for Faulkner, with key locutions giving “Absalom, Absalom!” the scriptural quality that literary critics have noted for decades. And the scripture that gave it that quality was the KJV.
A minor issue with “Pen of Iron” derives from a basic question with respect to translation. Alter, who knows Hebrew very well, trips over a small paper clip when it comes to biblical Hebrew. For example, Alter persists (as do most other modern translators) in insisting that the “ vav consecutive” — the formulaic beginning of countless biblical sentences (“ Va-y’daber Moshe, leimor…, ”) — always signifies “and”: “And Moses spoke, thus….” Sometimes this “ vav ” does indeed mean “and”; most often it does not. The letter vav almost always signifies the past tense, a peculiarity of biblical Hebrew, and ought not automatically be translated as “and” unless the context demands it.
The “and” at the beginning of the verse is, of course, central to the KJV, which taught countless generations of readers how to read the biblical text — usually incorrectly. This would not be a problem were it not for the fact that Alter hangs much of his analysis precisely on the paratactic structure of the text, in which “and… and… and” is what the KJV style is all about.
Having said this, Alter is talking about the stylistic legacy of the KJV, so inaccurate though “and” may be in translation, he is clearly justified in including it as a stylistic element of the Tanach and the KJV.
Interesting as well is the question (not addressed by Alter) of whether the KJV is yet playing out in literature composed by a younger generation of writers who have grown up in an era of biblical illiteracy. The KJV’s canonical language and vision may indeed have been a passing canticle in American literature, lost to a new generation of authors and readers.
Alter, in his earlier translations and commentaries of biblical works, rescued the Bible from the KJV. In “Pen of Iron” he rescues, for American literature, the KJV. But, I suspect, we have not heard the end of the KJV’s trope.
Jerome Chanes is the editor of the forthcoming “The Future of American Judaism” (Trinity/Columbia University Press) and teaches American Jewish history, sociology and literature.