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Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible Hardcover – February 28, 2010
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From Publishers Weekly
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"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
Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
Brilliant author, with a great deal to say, all of it worth reading. Found Moby Dick even more fascinating after reading his commentary.Published on January 28, 2014 by Jaycee
Robert Alter's Pen of Iron is a serious investigation of the influence of the King James translation of the Bible in American fiction. Alter focuses on Moby Dick, Absalom! Read morePublished on July 5, 2012 by Eric Maroney
"Pen of Iron" is on the ROROTOKO list of cutting-edge intellectual nonfiction. Professor Alter's book interview ran here as the cover feature on May 31, 2010.Published on May 31, 2010 by ROROTOKO