Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible

Editor’s note: This review was originally published on July 29, 2010. It is re-posted now to supplement the Living Word exhibition of Biblical manuscripts, artifacts, and early printed Bibles taking place at the Regent University Library from March 20th to March 23rd.

Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, by Robert Alter
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010

Reviewed by Dr. Carrie White

Directly or indirectly, the thoughts, actions, and lives of generations of Americans have been influenced by the Bible. Many of the laws, customs, and traditions of American society are based on Scriptural tenets. Robert Alter, in Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, suggests that the Bible, specifically the 1611 King James translation, has also affected the literary styles of American authors. Alter examines “how the language of the King James Version is worked into the texture of the writing, making possible a kind of strong prose that would not have existed otherwise.”

Alter believes, and I agree, that emphasis on style is lost in today’s world for several reasons: first, because we read less, watch television more, and write primarily in texts and to-do lists; second, because the line between popular and literary prose has become blurred; third, because today’s critics do not have the language or the experience to argue convincingly about style; fourth, because literary criticism focuses on discourse and ideology; and finally, because novels are comprised of many different aspects, including “events, individual character, relationships, institutions, social forces, historical movements, [and] material culture,” all of which marginalize discussions of style. Alter says that today, “the practice of reading the Bible aloud, of reading the Bible at all, and of memorizing passages from the Bible has drastically diminished.” Nevertheless, because of its omnipresence and overreaching influence in early American society, not only have the stylistic particularities of the KJV lived on, but novelists, wittingly or unwittingly, have used its resources “to fashion different versions of a distinctive American style for prose fiction.”

Alter primarily uses Melville’s Moby Dick, Faulkner’s Absalom Absalom, Bellow’s Seize the Day, and Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises to prove his thesis. Melville begins the American tradition “of violating linguistic decorum with the greatest gusto” by creating “a language for the novel out of violently heterogeneous elements,” namely Milton, Shakespeare, colloquial Yankee diction, and the KJV. Alter sees the KJV’s influence in Melville’s use both of monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon words and of parataxis, the stringing together of parallel phrases with the word “and.” Alter gives the language used to describe Rebekah at the well as an example of both stylistic expressions: “And she hasted, and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again unto the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels” (Genesis 24:20). Next, although the study concerns style and not content, Alter discusses the Biblical allusions and parallels in Absalom, Absalom. His argument about style boils down to a list of words and phrases, for instance, “dust and clay” and “flesh and blood, flesh and bones,” that Faulkner uses in ways reminiscent of the KJV. Finally, Alter says that Bellow’s and Hemingway’s habit of presenting “narrative data in ways that allow them to speak for themselves, without a sense of elaborate literary mediation, without an obtrusive feeling of language calling attention to itself” also derives from the KJV. Both Hemingway and Bellow use parataxis, with its “refusal to spell out causal connections, to interpret the reported narrative data” and with its avoidance of characters’ feelings in ways similar to the KJV. He finishes the book with briefer discussions of Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy.

Alter’s study shows an impressive facility with the material. His analyses of individual passages in all the texts are quite detailed. However, at times the text seems to apologize for its thesis: “Perhaps Hemingway would have devised this kind of style without having read a word of the Bible”; and “I do not mean to claim that [Bellow] was consciously imitating the Bible in this project but simply that he had internalized something of its dignified, even stark, simplicity of diction”; and “Faulkner’s deep engagement in the Bible . . . is well known, but whether it impinged on the extravagantly idiosyncratic texture of his writing is not altogether clear.” Also, in several sections, Alter appears to conflate the Bible in general with the KJV in particular; some of his points are not specific to the KJV and could apply to any translation of the Bible, although he specifically sets out to prove the influence of the KJV.

Despite these reservations, the study is interesting, and leaves the reader with much to ponder about stylistic influence—indeed, about influence in general. For instance, although most of the authors discussed in Pen of Iron use the language of the Bible to subvert the lessons of the Bible, the Bible nevertheless shaped their “distinctly American constructions of reality” because of its prominence in early American society. In other words, these writers absorbed the Bible’s worldview, even if they did not adopt it. Extrapolating from this conclusion makes contemporary society’s ignorance of and apathy towards Scripture all the more frightening: People can’t absorb something—whether to accept or reject—if it’s not a part of their lives.

Dr. Carrie White is Associate Professor of English in the School of Undergraduate Studies.