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Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible Hardcover – February 28, 2010


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (February 28, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691128812
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691128818
  • Product Dimensions: 1 x 5.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #537,117 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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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Review

"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

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 18 people found the following review helpful By D.S.Thurlow TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 3, 2010
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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.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By wh48 on November 24, 2010
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Reviewer D. S. Thurlow (above) is right on target in saying that this book is appropriate for its intended audience, i.e., scholars. The book is the only one I've found that examines the effects of the KJV on American literature, a valuable resource for readers interested in various aspects of the English language and anyone who wants to be better educated on the subject. Yet I found the author's vocabulary to be so exclusive that many readers with less extensive vocabularies might give up reading or think the author only a high-brow show-off. Nevertheless, the book reveals some important aspects of famous writers' use of the KJV, illustrating again the Bible's vast influence on the English language and thought, no matter what one believes about it. In addition, the prospective reader should know that Alter deals only with Old Testament texts in American literature, an interesting point for understanding the Bible's literary character. Alter points out that the OT subject matter and historical setting--justice, mercy, national sin, and other subjects of "biblical" proportions (my term, not Alter's)--is far different from that of the New Testament and, therefore, more ripe for use in great literature such as he examines in this book.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By sandra on November 15, 2010
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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.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Sam A. Mawn-Mahlau on March 3, 2012
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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.
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Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible
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