Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, by Robert Alter

Facing west from California’s shores,
Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound,
I, a child, very old, over waves, towards the house of maternity, the land of migrations, look afar . . .


This book is based on lectures given by the author at Princeton in 2008. It is not an encyclopedia. It limits its study to fiction, though Lincoln’s speeches get some attention and there is a brief mention of Whitman. So, much is left out–Jonathan Edwards and his Shining City on a Hill (in the original and as recalled by Reagan/Noonan); Whitman’s long, scriptural verses; Emily Dickinson’s short verses based on Scriptural diction as recalled in Wesleyan hymns.

The first chapter, “Style in America,” is the most valuable and interesting. The author shows that the King James Bible really was the Bible, with no competitor to speak of, through the turn of the twentieth century. It had its influence on the rhythm of prose, on vocabulary, and simply as the reference point of a largely Bible-based culture. An entire book in this manner would have been exciting and useful.

The scope of the book turns to close reading of several fictional works. The argument for biblical influence is most persuasive in the chapter on Moby-Dick. Alter highlights this passage from Chapter 81, “The Pequod meets the Virgin“:

“As the three boats lay there on that gently rolling sea, gazing down into its eternal blue noon; and as not a single groan or cry of any sort, nay, not so much as a ripple or a bubble came up from its depths; what landsman would have thought, that beneath all that silence and placidity, the utmost monster of the seas was writhing and wrenching in agony! Not eight inches of perpendicular rope were visible at the bows. Seems it credible that by three such thin threads the great Leviathan was suspended like the big weight to an eight day clock. Suspended? and to what? To three bits of board. Is this the creature of whom it was once so triumphantly said – ‘Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish-spears? The sword of him that layeth at him cannot hold, the spear, the dart, nor the habergeon: he esteemeth iron as straw; the arrow cannot make him flee; darts are counted as stubble; he laugheth at the shaking of a spear!’ This the creature? this he? Oh! that unfulfilments should follow the prophets. For with the strength of a thousand thighs in his tail, Leviathan had run his head under the mountains of the sea, to hide him from the Pequod’s fish-spears!”

Here, the style of the passage is entirely biblical–not only the rhythm, but the content itself is a struggle and argument with the Bible itself in applying it to the great green world out there. As Alter observes, the book of Job brought out the leviathan as the justification for God’s power over man–God created the leviathan, and so who is a man to argue with the justice of God?

Alter’s next examples, though, are not nearly so close to the Bible, and the stretch to make a connection becomes unconvincing and tiresome. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! has the advantage of a biblical quotation or near-quotation as the title, but Faulkner’s prose has its source not in the Bible, but the bottle. For Bellow (Seize the Day), Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises), and Cormac McCarthy (The Road), the Bible is a ghost, and they don’t believe in ghosts.

Alter limits his use of the King James Bible to the Old Testament. This means that events in the life of Jesus as source for allusion, parody, and rhyme get no attention. Alter is certainly right to say that the Bible doesn’t get the attention any more that it once had; but the life of Jesus, it seems, is still somewhat familiar to most Americans, especially the stories of birth, death, and resurrection. Even on the level of style alone, this could justify a detailed study. Also absent is the influence of the letters of St. Paul and the Book of Revelation. Why Hawthorne gets no mention is unexplained.

Not everyone likes to read encyclopedias, or to write them, so Alter shouldn’t be blamed that he didn’t write one. Still, only Moby-Dick shows much closeness in style to the KJV; the rest is padding. “In the multitude of words there wanteth not sin: but he that refraineth his lips [is] wise.” (Prov. 10:19 KJV)

Explore posts in the same categories: Book reviews, Criticism

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