June 20, 2010 | 3:08 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
A story I’ve told more than once over the years begins with a bedtime reading project that I undertook when my son was five years old. I chose the Book of Genesis as our text, and I used a Jewish translation derived from the King James Version in an effort to acquaint him with one of the foundational texts of Western civilization. When I bumped into the first of many shocking passages to be found in the Bible — the story of the naked and drunken Noah — I did what rabbis, priests and ministers have been doing for a couple of thousand years, that is, I censored the Holy Writ.
Adam caught the momentary pause before I moved on to safer stuff, and his little voice peeped out from under the covers: “Daddy, what are you leaving out?”
I am proud to say that my project was apparently successful because that perceptive young boy, Adam Kirsch, is today a gifted author, poet and literary critic. But my high regard for the KJV is also validated by the latest book from Robert Alter, “Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible” (Princeton University Press; $19.95). Alter focuses on what he calls the “American biblicizing impulse” and traces it through the fabric of American literature, ranging from Melville to Hemingway and Faulkner and all the way down to Marilynne Robinson (“Gilead”) and Cormac McCarthy (“The Road”).
Alter’s literary output is itself faintly miraculous. He wrote himself into the canon with “The Art of Biblical Narrative,” first published in book form in 1981, but he continues to produce new and provocative work as a critic, translator, and scholar. His latest book is yet another example of his stock in trade as a public intellectual — the reading of the ancient text of the Bible in fresh and illuminating ways.
In “Pen of Iron,” for example, he points out that “the language of the Old Testament in its 1611 English version continued to suffuse the culture even when the fervid faith in Scripture as revelation had begun to fade.” And he argues that the biblical habit of mind is more than just a matter of high-sounding rhetoric. “[T]his language articulates a set of values, or perhaps one should say, a set of demands, and a way of imagining man, God and history, with which we must wrestle,” writes Alter in summing up the insights of Edmund Wilson.
To be sure, the examples diminish in number as Alter works his way forward in time. “The decline of the role of the King James Version in American culture has taken place more or less simultaneously with a general erosion of a sense of literary language,” he concedes. “Obviously, there are still people in the culture, including young people, who have a rich and subtle sense of language, but they are an embattled minority in a society where tone-deafness to style is increasingly prevalent.”
“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 readers.
The title of Alter’s book refers to a passage in Jeremiah: “The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond.” (Jer. 17:1) Fittingly, “Pen of Iron” is something of a lament for the passing of “a culture pervaded by Scripture where . . . the active memories of ordinary people are stocked with many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of phrases and verses from the canonical text.” But, like the author of the first jeremiad, he holds out the hope of redemption.
“The essential point for the history of our literature is that the resonant language and the arresting vision of the canonical text, however oldentime they may be, continue to ring in our cultural memory,” Alter concludes. “We may break them apart or turn them around, but they are tools we still use on occasion to construct the world around us.”
Jonathan Kirsch, author of “The Harlot by the Side of the Road: Forbidden Tales of the Bible,” is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reach at email@example.com.
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