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Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible

af Robert Alter

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704291,220 (3.86)14
In this book, 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. --from publisher description… (mere)

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Viser 4 af 4
return to read this more in depth when I make the time to read some of the classics I missed on the first go round including the King James! ( )
  lindap69 | Apr 5, 2013 |
This was more narrowly academic than I expected (I now know more than I ever expected to about biblical syntax), but interesting enough. The best part was that it got me to read Faulkner. ( )
  kgib | Mar 31, 2013 |
Robert Alter has written here one of the best books on literary style that I have ever read. I wish I had read this decades ago, but of course it was only published in 2010, so that would not have been possible.

Both readers of literature and aspiring writers of fiction in particular will find much that is helpful in analyzing the style of a few selected authors and, if one chooses to do so, to apply it in shaping one's own fictional writing style.

Alter points out that "style is not merely a constellation of aesthetic properties but is the vehicle of a particular vision of reality." His thesis is that the King James Bible is an integral part of the American literary psyche and has influenced American writing since the beginning. His goal is "to understand how this prose serves as the vehicle for certain distinctively American constructions of reality." This would seem to be a tall order, but what he accomplishes here is just astonishing.

When Alter talks about style he does not merely mean what seem to the modern ear to be the baroque flourishes of seventeenth century English as seen in the King James version. He drills down into the syntax and diction of the Bible which have influenced the work of writers from Melville and Abraham Lincoln to Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy.

Pen of Iron consists of five chapters which focus on distinctive writers whose prose reflects the pervasive influence of the Bible in ways one might not have thought of. There is a chapter on Melville, which alone is worth the price of admission if one cares to get to the bottom of Moby Dick:

. . . we would do well to think of Melville as a post-theistic writer. That is to say, he comes after the highly charged theistic tradition, and though he no longer believes in the personal and providential God of Christian faith, he manifestly still carries the weight of theistic ideas, struggling with it, imagining a more savage god, or sometimes none at all.

In addition to Melville and Lincoln, Alter discusses and dissects style in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom, Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The reader is informed about these writers in unexpected and very rewarding ways. In fact, each chapter builds on the previous so that by the end one has a new grasp on how to read and how style — diction, vocabulary and syntax — shape narrative and contribute to or may even detract from the writer's ability to convey a sense of reality in a work of fiction where "space and time are intricately intertwined." For example, in discussing McCarthy's The Road, Alter states:

The basic challenge for the book is this: how do you use language to represent an order of reality fundamentally alien to the reality in which and for which our shared language has been framed?

This is a question that anyone who has attempted to write fiction has asked. Alter has taken a giant step in the direction of showing us a variety of answers to that question. ( )
16 stem Poquette | Mar 30, 2012 |
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 speeches through to The Road and Gilead, and I can think of nothing like it out there in the reading world. I have read reviews suggesting this is an academic book of interest to specialists; do not believe those who would so limit it. 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. He writes with the insights of a translator, yet writes of his own language and the subtle structures imported into it from the Hebrew in Elizabethan times and then again from the Elizabethan to the American, and traces the millenia for us in Melville's taut and oppositional prose. He finds Biblical poetry nestled among the many voices of the Great Whale, and carefully teases it out, comparing it to the other strands in Melville's voice, and highlighting its interaction with Melville's always deeper meanings.

Alter gets Melville's voice, he truly digs it, and he lets its light shine in a way that will enrich every reader's experience. His chapter on Faulkner is merely very good, 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. ( )
13 stem A_musing | Mar 8, 2012 |
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tilføjet af Christa_Josh | RedigerJournal of Church and State, Ralph C. Wood (Dec 1, 2011)
 
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In this book, 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. --from publisher description

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