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

4.08  ·  Rating details ·  83 ratings  ·  22 reviews
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 ...more
Hardcover, 198 pages
Published March 4th 2010 by Princeton University Press (first published January 1st 2010)
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4.08  · 
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 ·  83 ratings  ·  22 reviews

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Feb 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
If you had to bet your entrance into Heaven (assuming you believe in such a place) on the answer, what would you say is most important word in the Bible? (Hint: it’s not a noun, proper or otherwise, not a verb, object, or adjective.) If you said “and” – that’s right, a little old conjunction – then book your soul for a first-class ticket to the sunny side of whatever awaits us after the last spadeful of dirt has thumped the coffin lid. If you said “parataxis,” then you’d probably get a 100 years ...more
Oct 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing
This is, at once, an examination of modes of Biblical style in American literature and a rallying-cry for a return to close reading in the study and criticism of literature. Alter maintains that literature departments have abandoned all attention to the idiosyncratic use of language and rhetoric by individual creators in favor of a an endless, politically driven, post-structuralist rehashing of Derrida and Foucault. Most graduate students of literature, Alter claims, might as well be reading nov ...more
Mar 26, 2012 rated it really liked it
Amazing serendipity that I picked this up immediately after reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy: Alter spends about 10 pages talking about it. And his understanding is very close to mine. He remarks that "...(McCarthy) is a writer whose mesmerizing power as a stylist often seems to exceed his range and insight as a novelist." I think I agree with that. And he notes poignantly that the last word of this almost hopeless novel is "mystery." But he spends most of his time talking about Moby Dick and ...more
Oct 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I have to admit to being a huge Robert Alter fan. While he does not pretend to be doing a complete analysis of the works and authors he surveys, his explication of these works through the lens of the effect of the King James Version of the bible is illuminating. I had previously noted in GR my impression that Hemingway's style was greatly influenced by the KJV, but Alter goes well beyond my understanding. He approaches each author from a different perspective, depending on how the KJV has influe ...more
J. Alfred
May 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book is a thoughtful look at the impact of the King James Version on some of the masterpieces of American lit. It does thoughtful little analysis of Lincoln, Hemingway, Marilynne Robinson, and Cormac McCarthy (all spot on) and has longer chapters on Moby-Dick, Absalom Absalom!, and Seize the Day (all rated five stars in these reviews, he said, brushing the shoulders off).
You could use this-- I should use this-- as a primer on how to talk effectively about style. It is also a work of remark
Mar 10, 2010 rated it liked it
This was more narrowly academic than I expected (I now know more than I ever expected to about biblical syntax), but interesting enough. The best part was that it got me to read Faulkner.
Douglas Wilson
Aug 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this study of the impact of the KJV on American writers, from Melville to Hemingway and beyond. Good stuff.
Dec 26, 2015 rated it it was amazing
When people focus on novels, they tend to focus on plot, character, theme, and history. While all of these are valuable and essential to understanding why great novels endure, style often gets lost in the shuffle. While I cannot claim to have a fantastic writing style for fiction (something I long for; I long to be on the heights of Melville, of Shakespeare, of Cormac McCarthy with his recondite lexicon and soaring biblical, Shakespearian, and Miltonic prose taken from the great Melville and Fau ...more
Mar 30, 2019 rated it liked it
I agree with one reviewer who says part of the author's intent is asking for a closer reading of literature. Alter is certainly a scholar of literature, including King James translation of the Bible. He is able to compare and contrast the language of authors such as Melville, Hemingway, Faulkner with the language and influence on the authors of King James version (KJV) of the Bible.

Though I found the book interesting, not being an English major or literature language analyst, I found that I had
Jul 31, 2013 rated it it was ok
This is a book about literary style. What is style? Funny you asked: Alter defines style as “sound (rhythm, alliteration, assonance, and so forth), syntax, idiomatic usage and divergence from it, linguistic register (that is, the level of diction) and the cultural and literary associations of language.” (page 26) He goes on to say that the essence of style is that which can’t be translated.

This seems a narrow definition of style. What of figurative language, use of rhetorical devices, perspectiv
Alan Gerstle
Dec 22, 2016 rated it really liked it
I found this work of literary analysis clearly written and thoughtful; happily, it is jargon free. Besides showing the influence of the King James Bible on American Prose--From Lincoln to Cormac McCarthy--it also provides a good argument why the gradual displacement of the book among the reading public in favor of mediocre, impersonal prose, has in general lowered expectations of what a 'well-written' book is, suggesting that it opened the way for ideologically-based analysis, which has no inter ...more
Margaret Harris
Apr 14, 2016 rated it really liked it
The author writes a fascinating observation about how certain American writers have reached eloquence by borrowing phrases, style, and ideas of human nature from the King James Bible—but more so in the 19th and early 20th centuries than lately. Some of the examples surely merit re-reading: Melville, Faulkner, Saul Bellow, always Abraham Lincoln, not to mention the Bible itself. Both the downside and the upside of this little volume of scholarship, however, is that I had to keep a dictionary ever ...more
Jul 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing
It is often said that the three greatest influences on the development of English literature are the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and the works of William Shakespeare. Almost all of the scholarly work pressing forward this assertion relies upon the demonstration of biblical themes in secular English literature and the adduction of phrases from the three sources in the later English fictional prose. Robert Alter is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Cal... ( ...more
This book is a little bit different from what I thought it was. It is described as showing how the King James version has influenced literature. Alter focuses on three books: Moby Dick by Melville, Absalom! Absalom! by Faulkner, and a book by Saul Bellows. I haven't read any of those, though I did read Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury. However, I find Alter's book very interesting just the same.
Ron Coulter
Nov 20, 2011 rated it really liked it
Close readings of great American texts focusing on Lincoln's Second Inaugural, Moby Dick, Absalom! Absalom!, and a handful of twentieth century works. Alter demonstrates how the characteristic styles of Hebrew prose as rendered in the KJV find echoes in American (and, interestingly, not much British) literature.
Christa Bergquist
Jun 09, 2016 rated it really liked it
As an avid reader of the Bible and lover of the rhetorical analysis of literature, I thoroughly enjoyed Robert Alter's perspectives on the impact of the style of the King James Version of the Bible on American prose.
Dec 16, 2010 rated it liked it
Very technical, in an English sense. I don't think anyone not an English major would enjoy it. I am an English major and I found it very dry, even though I am interested in the subject.
Jul 22, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
return to read this more in depth when I make the time to read some of the classics I missed on the first go round including the King James!
Uco Library
Jan 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: amy-hartquist
Check out what our librarians are reading!
Miriam Jacobs
Dec 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: jewish
Alter is among the most insightful critics of this type, and this book, like his others is exemplary.
Andrea Engle
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May 15, 2014
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Mike Normoyle
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Apr 22, 2016
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Jan 15, 2019
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Jul 25, 2016
Monte Rea
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Robert Bernard Alter (b. 1935) was awarded the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Lifetime Achievement and the PEN Center Literary Award for Translation. He is the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and has published many acclaimed works on the Bible, literary modernism, and contemporary Hebrew literature.