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Fiction, Literature

Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible epub ebook

by Robert Alter

Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible epub ebook

Author: Robert Alter
Category: History & Criticism
Language: English
Publisher: Princeton University Press (February 28, 2010)
Pages: 208 pages
ISBN: 0691128812
ISBN13: 978-0691128818
Rating: 4.1
Votes: 309
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The book is certainly about the King James Bible and its impact on the style of several American prose masters - Melville (Moby-Dick), Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises), Cormac McCarthy (The Road), Bellow (Seize the Day), and it succeeds marvelously as a study of the KJV's influence. But it is also a study of style in general, and as a study it is filled with marvelous insights about style that I think deserve attention.

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.

Robert Alter earned his bachelor's degree in English (Columbia University, 1957), and . Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, 2010, Princeton University Press, ISBN 0-691-12881-2.

Robert Alter earned his bachelor's degree in English (Columbia University, 1957), and his master's degree (1958) and doctorate (1962) from Harvard University in comparative literature. He has written twenty-three books, and is noted most recently for his translations of sections of the Bible. The Book of Genesis, translation by Robert Alter, illustrated by R. Crumb, 2009, .

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

January 1993 · Interpretation- Journal of Bible and Theology. Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-Day Saints in American Religion.

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.

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A historically biblically-literate people, the King James Version Bible has woven its way into American literature . Please Note: While this book deals with the KJV 1611 version in literature, it does not always reflect current conservative opinions on issues such as a literal creation.

A historically biblically-literate people, the King James Version Bible has woven its way into American literature not only through direct biblical allusions and quotes, but also through its poetic style. ▲. Title: Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible By: Robert Alter Format: Hardcover Number of Pages: 208 Vendor: Princeton University Press. Publication Date: 2010 Dimensions: . 0 X . 0 (inches) ISBN: 0691128812 ISBN-13: 9780691128818 Stock No: WW128818.

King James in America. Most of our critics and scholars have hardly any idea what’s actually in the Bible. By itself, this little mistake wouldn’t amount to much. But it happens all the time.

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.

Reviews (7)
Kagaramar
My favorite scholar is the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and polymath Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955). Your guess is as good as mine as the whether Robert Alter (born in 1935; Ph.D. in comparative literature, Harvard University, 1962) in comparative literature at UC-Berkeley is familiar with Ong’s most widely known book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Methuen, 1982). But my guess is that he is. However, Alter does not refer explicitly to Ong’s book – or to any of his other 400 or so publications – in his book Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton University Press, 2010) – or in any of his other books, as far as I know.

Ong’s mature scholarly writings and his Sisyphean labors to share his exciting breakthrough insight about visual v. aural cognitive processing – an insight that was prompted in large measure by the French philosopher Louis Lavelle’s exploration of the visual-aural contrast in his 1942 book, as Ong himself gratefully acknowledges explicitly in his book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (Harvard University Press, 1958, page 338, note 54) began in the early 1950s when he was working on his massively researched doctoral dissertation..

After the Gutenberg printing press emerged in the mid-1450s, printed books emerged to accentuate the visual. In the English-speaking world, the most influential book was the King James Bible of 1611. However, in the English-speaking world, Shakespeare and other playwrights emerged to accentuate the aural.

From the moment of his breakthrough insight in the early 1950s, Ong was filled with excitement about his insight, and he immediately set to work to tell others about his insight. Ong labored mightily through one iteration after another to share his exciting insight with others. However, for the most part, most other scholars did not grasp the import of his breakthrough insight. Consequently, Ong’s efforts to share his exciting insight can aptly be described as Sisyphean.

But the one other scholar who did grasp the import of Ong’s breakthrough insight was his former teacher the Canadian Renaissance specialist and English teacher at St. Mike’s at the University of Toronto, Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980; Ph.D. in English, Cambridge University, 1943), whose book The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press, 1962) extends Ong’s breakthrough insight. In it, McLuhan refers to Ong’s 1958 book and certain other publications.

Ong reviewed McLuhan’s 1962 book favorably in the Jesuit-sponsored magazine America, volume 107 (September 15, 1962): pages 743 and 747; reprinted in An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry (Hampton Press, 2002, pages 307-308). In his review, Ong says that certain readers will be “overjoyed” by McLuhan’s book while other readers will “be unable to make head or tail of what he is saying or will reject it with some show of hostility” (page 308).

Indeed, the “show of hostility” showed up when the British literary critic Frank Kermode (1919-1935) took aim at both Ong and McLuhan in his lengthy 1968 review of Ong’s 1967 book The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (Yale University Press, 1967), the expanded version of Ong’s 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University. Kermode’s review was published in the New York Review of Books dated March 14, 1968, pages 22-26. Kermode subsequently reprinted his review with a different title in a collection of his essays.

Among other things, Kermode criticizes Ong’s writing style in The Presence of the Word as “demotic.” In general, I would characterize Ong’s writing style in that book and in most of his publications as conversational. By this, I mean that his style of expression in his publications resembles the conversational style of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his famous 31 radio addresses between 1933 and 1944 that are known as fireside chats. Clearly FDR’s conversational style in those radio addresses differed significantly from his style of public oratory on the campaign trail.

Now, regarding American prose style, Ong was deeply impressed with the characterizations of American prose styles that Walker Gibson (1919-2009) offers in his book Tough, Sweet & Stuffy: An Essay on Modern American Prose Style (Indiana University Press, 1966). But Ong’s conversational style in his publications and in his classroom teaching and in his pulpit preaching and in his live speaking was not stuffy-talk, as Gibson styles most academic writing and the writing in the New York Times. But Kermode’s style was stuffy-talk. Nor was Ong’s style of expression tough-talk, as Gibson styles Ernest Hemingway’s prose and the prose in Time at the time. Thus, Ong’s conversational style of expression in his 1967 book and other publications is sweet-talk, as Gibson styles the verbal statements in advertising.

We should recall here that Ong’s former teacher Marshall McLuhan published a book about various forms of advertising, The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man (Vanguard, 1951), about which Ong published a review essay in 1952.

Not surprisingly, Ong discusses Gibson’s characterization of Hemingway as a tough-talker in his frequently cited essay “The Writer’s Audience Is Always a Fiction” in PMLA, volume 90, number 1 (January 1975): pages 9-22; reprinted in Ong’s book Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Cornell University Press, 1977, pages 53-81); also reprinted in An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry (Hampton Press, 2002, pages 405-427).

Unfortunately, in my estimate, Ong did not reply in any of his publications to Kermode’s negative review. Instead, in the Sisyphean spirit, Ong continued to publish iteration after iteration of his excitement about the visual-aural contrast in his books Rhetoric, Romance, and Technology: Studies in the Interaction of Expression and Culture (Cornell University Press, 1971), Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Cornell University Press, 1977), and Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (Methuen, 1982). As Ong describes primary oral thought and expression, the Hebrew Bible is an anthology of primary oral thought and expression that got written down – and so is the New Testament.

Now, in 1983, the German-born-and-educated Lutheran New Testament scholar Werner H. Kelber (born in 1935) of Rice University published his book The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q (Fortress Press, 1983) – with a foreword by Ong. Kelber’s book was subsequently reissued by Indiana University Press in 1997 with a new introduction by Kelber. Over the years, Kelber and a few other New Testament scholars have further explored Ong’s thought and Ong-related scholarly work. For example, Kelber’s essays have been gathered together in the book Imprints, Voiceprints, and Footprints of Memory: Collected Essays of Werner H. Kelber (Society of Biblical Literature, 2013).

Now, in 1981, the Jewish literary scholar and expert on the Hebrew Bible Robert Alter in comparative literature at UC-Berkeley published his book The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 1981). To his surprise, his accessible book became widely used as a textbook. However, he does not mention Ong or any Ong-related scholarly works in his book.

In 1987, Alter and Kermode teamed up as the co-editors of the influential book The Literary Guide to the Bible (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987) – in which Ong is not mentioned, nor are any Ong-related scholarly books.
In 2004, after Ong had died in August 2003, the University of Chicago Press reissued his all-important 1958 book in a new paperback edition with a new foreword by Adrian Johns of the University of Chicago, the distinguished author of The Nature of the Book: Print and Knowledge in the Making (University of Chicago Press, 1998). In his foreword (pages v-xiii), Johns says, “It is hard to imagine how different our sense of the ‘printing revolution’ of early modern Europe would be without Ong’s pioneering researches. And in consequence, it is hard to imagine how different our sense of ourselves might be” (page xii).

In 2010, Alter paid homage to the enormous influence of the King James Bible on American Protestants, and ex-Protestants, in his densely packed and elegantly written short book Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton University Press, 2010). In Alter’s 2010 book, he says, “The pattern [of paratactic structures in Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises that he is discussing] resembles a characteristic pattern of biblical prose, though in the Bible the object of paratactic report is generally A SEQUENCE OF EVENTS rather anything like a landscape” (page 151; my capitalization).

In Ong’s 1982 book Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (pages 36-77), he describes certain characteristics of primary oral thought and expression, one of which is “Additive rather than subordinative” (pages 37-38). In Ong’s terminology, what Alter describes as paratactic structures are additive.

In Ong’s 1969 article “World as View and World as Event” in the American Anthropologist, volume 71, number 4 (August 1969): pages 634-647, he describes the world-as event sense of life. What Alter describes as a sequence of events in the Hebrew Bible involves what Ong describes as the world-as-event sense of life.

Elsewhere in Alter’s 2010 book, he says, “Novels, one must concede, are urgently about a whole variety of things that are not made up of words: EVENTS, individual character, relationships, institutions, social forces, historical movements, material culture, and much more” (page 25; my capitalization).

Alter mentions in passing “Cervantes’ paradigm of a delusional sense of reality imbibed through reading” (page 24). Ong was known for his tact. Consequently, he would not say in a straightforward way that imbibing the paradigm of world-as-view sense of life from early childhood onward in life would result in a delusional sense of reality – no. no, no, that would be too tactless for Ong to say in so many words.

However, Ong is keenly aware of what Alter means when he says that real lived human experience is made up of “a whole variety of things that are not made up of words.” In Ong’s 1967 book The Presence of the Word, mentioned above, he says, “Words are symbols, and all symbolization proceeds by indirection and to this extent demands a lack of contact with reality. . . . We shall not enter into the question of conceptual symbolization here, but consider only the sensible word” (page 137).

In any event, the title of Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises is taken from the book of Ecclesiastes as rendered in the King James Bible, as Alter notes (pages 147-149). He also notes that William Faulkner at times in his 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! also draw on expressions from Ecclesiastes in the King James Bible (pages 109-112).

Alter suggests that “Hemingway’s adaptation of biblical parataxis to express a disillusioned and unsentimental sense of a harsh twentieth-century world opened up certain possibilities for fashioning prose that spoke to some later writers” (pages 161-162). Alter says that Hemingway “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 fought relationships” (page 162).

In the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, Alter says, “Ambivalence, the irreducible murkiness of feelings and motive and relationships, in one of the prime subjects to which the capacious and flexible form of the novel has proven itself admirably suited” (page 166).
In the Hebrew Bible, the book of Ecclesiastes arguably surpasses even the book of Job in “express[ing] a disillusioned and unsentimental sense” of life. Arguably Faulkner’s 1936 novel Absalom, Absalom! surpasses Hemingway’s 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises in “express[ing] a disillusioned and unsentimental sense of a harsh twentieth-century world” – before World War II broke out!

Alter does not mince his words about the book of Ecclesiastes and the “disillusioned and unsentimental sense” of life expressed in it. Alter says, “The Bible, after all, is an anthology spanning many centuries and disparate points of view, but its dominant consensus is a hopeful and trusting belief that through divine guidance history is progressing by stages, however difficult, toward a grand fulfillment” (page 110).

Alter says, “This late biblical text [the book of Ecclesiastes] is a probing argument against the mainline assumptions of the Hebrew Bible regarding time, history, and value. In Ecclesiastes, things do not move forward purposefully and progressively, as, paradigmatically, creation moves forward from the first day to the seventh [in Genesis], but instead [in Ecclesiastes] they go round and round” (page 110).

Alter says, “The resolution that Ecclesiastes proposes in the face of these cycles of futility is a kind of zero-degree unillusioned hedonism – to enjoy the sensual pleasures of what is here and now before they vanish” (page 111). Alter’s use here of the word “hedonism” may not be inaccurate. But I prefer to see the speaker in Ecclesiastes as urging young people to enjoy the small things in life. I would also argue with Alter a bit by pointing out that not all people are capable of enjoying the small things in life. Consequently, I would argue that being able to enjoy the small things in life may be a blessing from God.

Alter says, “No scriptural text is more hypnotically incantatory than this one [the book of Ecclesiastes], deploying as it does insistent cadenced repetition to convey in poetic prose the sense of a world where everything keeps going round and round, bringing no profit, getting nowhere” (page 112).

Now, I would add that Alter’s characterization of everything “going round and round” suggests the kind of mandala symbolism that C. G. Jung discusses. Moreover, I would further suggest that both Hemingway and Faulkner in their respective novels were drawn to the language of Ecclesiastes precisely because it evokes the deep appeal of mandala symbolism.

For further discussion of the deep sense of everything “going round and round,” see Mircea Eliade’s book The Myth of Eternal Return, translated from the French by Willard Trask (Pantheon Books, 1954; orig. French ed., 1949).

It strikes me that that the Greek myth of Sisyphus also expresses a kind of futility and can therefore be related to the sense of futility involved in feeling that everything is “going round and round.” In any event, the dismal experience of futility that Hemingway expresses in his 1926 novel and that Faulkner expresses in his 1936 novel did not overwhelm them to the point where they stopped writing novels. Similarly, if Ong felt a Sisyphean sense of futility in trying to communicate his insight about visual v. aural cognitive processing, his sense of futility did not stop him from trying to communicate his insight.

Now, in 2011, Alter published a revised and updated edition of his book The Art of Biblical Narrative (Basic Books, 2011). So let’s look at what Alter does say about his revised and updated book.

Alter says, “All in all, however, this revised version remains basically the same book as the one that appeared in 1981, but at least in some regards I think it is now tighter and more precise” (page xi).

Alter says, “In light of my recent experience as a translator [of every book in the Hebrew Bible], I am rather aghast at the versions I did for the first edition of this book, in which Hebrew sentences that begin with ‘and’ are made to start with ‘when,’ ‘now,’ ‘since,’ and the like, and the lovely eloquence of coordinate clauses in the Hebrew is recast in modernizing subordinate clauses that sound like the daily newspaper” (page xii). No doubt Alter’s point about the daily-newspaper style as blending coordinate and subordinate clauses is apt and accurate. Nevertheless, in Gibson’s terminology, the daily-newspaper style tends to involve tough-talk, whereas the style of writing in the New York Times tends to involve stuffy-talk.

In December 2018, Norton will publish Alter’s translations and commentaries in a three-volume set. I imagine that some marketing genius at Norton will sooner or later come up with the idea of publishing Alter’s translations in one volume – without his learned commentaries – so that readers of Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible can read, as Alter himself puts it, “the lovely eloquence of coordinate clauses in Hebrew” translated accurately into English.

No doubt Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible is deeply informed and elegant. Nevertheless, his impressive translation is not likely to have the influence in American culture that the King James Bible of 1611 has had.

As I say, your guess is as good as mine as to whether Ong’s Sisyphean reiterations influenced Alter’s translations of the books of the Hebrew Bible.

Funny duck
Robert Alter's "Pen of Iron" is an expanded, book-length version of the Spencer Trask Lectures given by the author at Princeton University in April 2008. The subject: the pervasive influence of the King James Bible in American literature from its 1611 publication in England to the present day.

Alter defines the influence of the King James Bible in two ways: As a rich source of ideas, images, and metaphors about God and man, and as a manual of style for a distinctive, classical way of writing. Alter pursues his thesis through a series of examples spanning American literature: Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick", William Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!, Saul Bellow's "Seize the Day", Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises", Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead", and Cormac McCarthy's "The Road."

In each example, Alter traces elements of plot, language and style back to the bedrock of the King James Bible. As American culture has become more secular, these associations have become less distinct, but Alter argues the King James Bible continues to have an influence as part of our common literary heritage.

Alter writes for the well-informed student of American Literature; the general reader may find this short volume a dry read. However, "Pen of Iron" is highly recommended to its intended audience.

Onaxan
Five chapters and a prelude bring forth American voices in a new way; a way that draws out from the diction and rhythm and word choice of that Good Book, the King James Bible, and, in particular, its rendition of the Old Testament, the unusual mixture of the literary and colloquial that defines American literature over the last two centuries. This book is a history of linguistic dynamics, from Moby Dick and Lincoln's speach through to The Road and Gilead, and I can think of nothing like it out there in the reading world. Do not believe those who would limit it to a scholarly audience. If you read Faulkner and Melville and Hemingway, you should read Alter. You must read Alter. Really.

Alter's chapter on Moby Dick is truly and particularly brilliant, and one of the best things written on The Whale in the last half-century. Alter gets Melville's voice, he truly digs it, and he lets his light shine in a way that will deepen every reader's experience. His chapter on Faulkner is merely wonderful, but the chapter on Bellow and the discussion of Lincoln in the preface each challenge those Melvillian peaks.

If you are going to read contemporary literary criticism, put Alter on top of your list. I can think of only one other living American critic I would put on his level, and her focus is not the American corpus.

Foiuost
Pen of Iron is a scholarly but very readable book. Dr. Alter takes a challenging subject- the influence of the King James Version of the Bible on American prose- and explicates Moby Dick and Faulkner's Absalm, Absalum in an erudite but accessible way. I enjoyed the book immensely. One caveat is that one would need to be familiar with the novels to get the full appreciation od Alter's anayses.

LivingCross
Brilliant author, with a great deal to say, all of it worth reading. Found Moby Dick even more fascinating after reading his commentary.

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