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Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible

Overview

The simple yet grand language of the King James Bible has pervaded American culture from the beginning—and its powerful eloquence continues to be felt even today. In this book, acclaimed biblical translator and literary critic Robert Alter traces some of the fascinating ways that American novelists—from Melville, Hemingway, and Faulkner to Bellow, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy—have drawn on the rich stylistic resources of the canonical English Bible to fashion their own strongly resonant styles and ...

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Overview

The simple yet grand language of the King James Bible has pervaded American culture from the beginning—and its powerful eloquence continues to be felt even today. In this book, acclaimed biblical translator and literary critic Robert Alter traces some of the fascinating ways that American novelists—from Melville, Hemingway, and Faulkner to Bellow, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy—have drawn on the rich stylistic resources of the canonical English Bible to fashion their own strongly resonant styles and distinctive visions of reality. Showing the radically different manners in which the words, idioms, syntax, and cadences of this Bible are woven into Moby-Dick, Absalom, Absalom!, The Sun Also Rises, Seize the Day, Gilead, and The Road, Alter reveals the wide variety of stylistic and imaginative possibilities that American novelists have found in Scripture. At the same time, Alter demonstrates the importance of looking closely at the style of literary works, making the case that style is not merely an aesthetic phenomenon but is the very medium through which writers conceive their worlds.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Review of Books
In Pen of Iron, the eminent Bible scholar and translator Robert Alter recounts a small yet telling part of the story of American literature's attunement to the King James Bible. Exploring the way the KJB has impacted both the prose and worldviews of select American authors—mainly Lincoln, Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, Bellow, and Cormac McCarthy—Alter shows that, even when they parody it or contend with its legacies (as Melville and Faulkner did), the King James Bible remains an enduring point of reference, if not a moral center of gravity, in their work.
— Robert Pogue Harris
Christian Century
This well-written, thought-provoking book doesn't take too long to read.
Anglican And Episcopal History
Pen of Iron, which reads like a collection of essays, expands our understanding of how the King James Version of the Old Testament has influenced American fiction. Even more, Alter demonstrates the power the style of the translation had on the work of many of our most important writers.
— Nancy Coffey Hefferman
Journal of Church and State
Robert Alter is one of our most astute readers of both sacred and secular texts.
— Ralph C. Wood
New Republic - Adam Kirsch
As a leading scholar and translator of the Bible, who is also deeply knowledgeably about American literature, Robert Alter is ideally suited to study this complicated inheritance. . . . Pen of Iron makes a convincing case that it is impossible to fully appreciate American literature without knowing the King James Bible—indeed, without knowing it almost instinctively, the way generations of Americans used to know it.
New York Review of Books - Robert Pogue Harris
In Pen of Iron, the eminent Bible scholar and translator Robert Alter recounts a small yet telling part of the story of American literature's attunement to the King James Bible. Exploring the way the KJB has impacted both the prose and worldviews of select American authors—mainly Lincoln, Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, Bellow, and Cormac McCarthy—Alter shows that, even when they parody it or contend with its legacies (as Melville and Faulkner did), the King James Bible remains an enduring point of reference, if not a moral center of gravity, in their work.
Books & Culture - Mark Noll
Alter's short book spins off enough sparkling asides to inspire a shelf of very long volumes. . . . [T]he result is a treasure of insight and a welcome stimulus to Christian reflection.
Religion and Ethics Newsweekly - David E. Anderson
Alter's book is tightly focused and sweeping in the specificity of its claims. He takes a commonplace of conventional wisdom—the ubiquity the Bible once had in American elite culture—to argue that the King James translation created 'the foundational language and symbolic imagery' of the whole of American culture, especially its prose fiction.
Jewish Journal - Jonathan Kirsch
Pen of Iron is a work of lofty literary scholarship, and Alter is addressing a readership that already speaks his language and is ready to receive his wisdom. Indeed, the book is based on a series of lectures that Alter delivered at Princeton University in 2008. But it is also true to say that he is not unlike a biblical prophet, speaking truth to the power of the popular culture and exhorting us to be better and more discerning reader.
New Criterion - Barton Swaim
Alter's intelligent treatments of several major works—principally Moby-Dick, Absalom, Absalom!, Seize the Day, and Marilynne Robinson's justly applauded novel Gilead (2004)—does more than simply explain allusions to biblical texts. He is interested in the ways in which American writers incorporate the stylistic traits of the King James Version for their own purposes, even when they are not themselves rooted in a Christian or biblical world view.
Anglican And Episcopal History - Nancy Coffey Hefferman
Pen of Iron, which reads like a collection of essays, expands our understanding of how the King James Version of the Old Testament has influenced American fiction. Even more, Alter demonstrates the power the style of the translation had on the work of many of our most important writers.
Journal of Church and State - Ralph C. Wood
Robert Alter is one of our most astute readers of both sacred and secular texts.
From the Publisher
"As a leading scholar and translator of the Bible, who is also deeply knowledgeably about American literature, Robert Alter is ideally suited to study this complicated inheritance. . . . Pen of Iron makes a convincing case that it is impossible to fully appreciate American literature without knowing the King James Bible—indeed, without knowing it almost instinctively, the way generations of Americans used to know it."—Adam Kirsch, New Republic

"In Pen of Iron, the eminent Bible scholar and translator Robert Alter recounts a small yet telling part of the story of American literature's attunement to the King James Bible. Exploring the way the KJB has impacted both the prose and worldviews of select American authors—mainly Lincoln, Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, Bellow, and Cormac McCarthy—Alter shows that, even when they parody it or contend with its legacies (as Melville and Faulkner did), the King James Bible remains an enduring point of reference, if not a moral center of gravity, in their work."—Robert Pogue Harris, New York Review of Books

"Alter's short book spins off enough sparkling asides to inspire a shelf of very long volumes. . . . [T]he result is a treasure of insight and a welcome stimulus to Christian reflection."—Mark Noll, Books & Culture

"Alter's book is tightly focused and sweeping in the specificity of its claims. He takes a commonplace of conventional wisdom—the ubiquity the Bible once had in American elite culture—to argue that the King James translation created 'the foundational language and symbolic imagery' of the whole of American culture, especially its prose fiction."—David E. Anderson, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly

"Pen of Iron is a work of lofty literary scholarship, and Alter is addressing a readership that already speaks his language and is ready to receive his wisdom. Indeed, the book is based on a series of lectures that Alter delivered at Princeton University in 2008. But it is also true to say that he is not unlike a biblical prophet, speaking truth to the power of the popular culture and exhorting us to be better and more discerning reader."—Jonathan Kirsch, Jewish Journal

"Alter's intelligent treatments of several major works—principally Moby-Dick, Absalom, Absalom!, Seize the Day, and Marilynne Robinson's justly applauded novel Gilead (2004)—does more than simply explain allusions to biblical texts. He is interested in the ways in which American writers incorporate the stylistic traits of the King James Version for their own purposes, even when they are not themselves rooted in a Christian or biblical world view."—Barton Swaim, New Criterion

"This well-written, thought-provoking book doesn't take too long to read."Christian Century

"Pen of Iron, which reads like a collection of essays, expands our understanding of how the King James Version of the Old Testament has influenced American fiction. Even more, Alter demonstrates the power the style of the translation had on the work of many of our most important writers."—Nancy Coffey Hefferman, Anglican And Episcopal History

"Robert Alter is one of our most astute readers of both sacred and secular texts."—Ralph C. Wood, Journal of Church and State

Jewish Journal
Pen of Iron is a work of lofty literary scholarship, and Alter is addressing a readership that already speaks his language and is ready to receive his wisdom. Indeed, the book is based on a series of lectures that Alter delivered at Princeton University in 2008. But it is also true to say that he is not unlike a biblical prophet, speaking truth to the power of the popular culture and exhorting us to be better and more discerning reader.
— Jonathan Kirsch
New Republic
As a leading scholar and translator of the Bible, who is also deeply knowledgeably about American literature, Robert Alter is ideally suited to study this complicated inheritance. . . . Pen of Iron makes a convincing case that it is impossible to fully appreciate American literature without knowing the King James Bible—indeed, without knowing it almost instinctively, the way generations of Americans used to know it.
— Adam Kirsch
Books & Culture
Alter's short book spins off enough sparkling asides to inspire a shelf of very long volumes. . . . [T]he result is a treasure of insight and a welcome stimulus to Christian reflection.
— Mark Noll
Religion and Ethics Newsweekly
Alter's book is tightly focused and sweeping in the specificity of its claims. He takes a commonplace of conventional wisdom—the ubiquity the Bible once had in American elite culture—to argue that the King James translation created 'the foundational language and symbolic imagery' of the whole of American culture, especially its prose fiction.
— David E. Anderson
New Criterion
Alter's intelligent treatments of several major works—principally Moby-Dick, Absalom, Absalom!, Seize the Day, and Marilynne Robinson's justly applauded novel Gilead (2004)—does more than simply explain allusions to biblical texts. He is interested in the ways in which American writers incorporate the stylistic traits of the King James Version for their own purposes, even when they are not themselves rooted in a Christian or biblical world view.
— Barton Swaim
Publishers Weekly
Among the many English translations of the Bible, a single one is responsible for the shape of some of the most iconic works of American literature, argues Alter, a comparative literature professor at University of California, Berkeley. Focusing not on the application of specific content but rather on the more elusive matter of style, Alter, author of more than 20 books, shows how the King James Version (especially its Old Testament) informed the work of Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, Bellow, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy. Alter's knowledge of Hebrew and its translation in the KJV combined with his sensitivity to the sound and form of the distinctly American Moby-Dick, Absalom, Absalom! and The Road, among others, yield rich insights. By his own admission, Alter may be accused of occasionally overreaching associations. However, even if readers are unconvinced by some of the author's claims, they will find in this book a compelling case for style. Alter masterfully demonstrates how style itself affects and even conveys the meaning and power of great literature. (Apr.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691128818
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2010
  • Pages: 198
  • Sales rank: 726,129
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author


Robert Alter has taught Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, since 1967. The author of more than twenty books, he has also published four volumes of Bible translation, most recently "The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary" (Norton). In 2009, Alter received the Robert Kirsch Award from the "Los Angeles Times" for lifetime contribution to American letters.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Prelude: America as a Scriptural Culture 1
Chapter 1: Style in America and the King James Version 9
Chapter 2: Moby- Dick Polyphony 42
Chapter 3: Absalom, Absalom! Lexicon 78
Chapter 4: Seize the Day American Amalgam 114
Chapter 5: The World through Parataxis 146
Index 185

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