Robert Alter is the 2009 recipient of the Robert Kirsch Award, a lifetime achievement award named after my late father and given each year by the Los Angeles Times. It will be my honor to hand the award to Alter, a role I have been asked to perform on a few memorable occasions over the years. But never before have I discharged my duties with a greater sense of pleasure, admiration and enthusiasm. Alter is, as I once wrote in a review of his work in the L.A. Times, “one of the living masters of biblical criticism and translation.”
Born in New York City in 1935 and educated at Columbia and Harvard, Alter has long served as Class of 1937 Professor of Comparative Literature at the Berkeley campus of the University of California. To fix Robert Alter in the firmament of literary scholarship, however, let me cite both my earliest and the most recent encounters with his printed prose. I first began to read Alter’s writings on the Bible in the pages of Commentary magazine when I was a college student in the late 1960s. And, only a few months ago, I read his latest essay in The New Republic, a knowing (and, for that reason, brutal) critique of a book about the great Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai in which he displays his mastery of both ancient and modern poetics.
I suspect that most readers know Robert Alter through the books that are required reading in “Bible as literature” classes on campuses across America, including “The Art of Biblical Narrative,” “The Art of Biblical Poetry” and (with Frank Kermode) “The Literary Guide to the Bible.” For several generations of freshmen, it was Alter who allowed them to see — for the first time — the fingerprints of the human authors of the Tanakh, a crucial if also unsettling experience for anyone who had been taught since early childhood that the Bible is the revealed word of God.
More recently, Alter has composed a series of translations and commentaries that approach the ancient texts with the full arsenal of his literary scholarship and his critical sensibility, his poet’s ear for language and his mastery of biblical Hebrew. It is a measure of his chutzpah that Alter, after retranslating the book of Genesis in 1996 and the book of Samuel in 1999, went on to produce a fresh new translation of the Torah in its entirety in 2004, and capped it off with his rendering of the Psalms in 2007. To his credit, these undertakings have earned the praise not only of his fellow Bible scholars but also his fellow literary critics, a tribute to the quality of his work but also his ability to transcend the confines of academic scholarship.
“The poets will rejoice,” enthused Cynthia Ozick, and she was right — Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney insisted that “Alter’s translation can be fairly described as a godsend.”
Alter may be grounded in the very earliest examples of our literature, but he is certainly not stuck there. He is just as comfortable — and just as commanding — in his consideration of authors as diverse as Stendhal and Kafka, James Joyce and Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gershom Scholem and Walter Benjamin. But the Bible remains the touchstone of his work: “The Bible in part seizes the imagination of the modern writer,” he explains in “Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture” (Yale University Press, 2000), “because of his acute consciousness of it as a body of founding texts, marking out one of the primary possibilities of representing the human condition….”
Many recipients of lifetime-achievement awards are uncomfortable about the honor because it is regarded as a capstone rather than a milestone. Perhaps the most important thing that readers need to know about Robert Alter is that he continues to deploy new examples of his scholarship with the same powerful curiosity that has characterized his work from the outset, and his newest book — “American Prose and the King James Version” — is scheduled for publication later this year.
Robert Alter will be in conversation with Jonathan Kirsch at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on the UCLA campus on Saturday, April 25, at 12:00 p.m. in Humanities A51. For ticket information, visit latimes.com/extras/festivalofbooks.
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