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

Hardcover | 2010 | $19.95 | £14.95 | ISBN: 9780691128818
208 pp. | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400834358 |
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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.


"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

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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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