Allergenic Criticism

Robert Alter stretches credibility when he goes hunting for King James Bible echoes in Hemingway and other modern American writers

hunting lit (do not publish again) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
hunting lit (do not publish again)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
AMONG THE SORTS OF books I usually avoid are thrillers (too addictive), science fiction (bad science, bad fiction) and literary criticism (allergenic). This last requires some explanation.
Reading, or attempting to read, lit crit invariably gives me hives, heaves and heebiejeebies.
The prose is usually wretched (dare I deride Derrida?), the myopic scrutiny of texts usually pointless (“The Use of the Comma in Beowulf”), the theorizing often ludicrous (“The Impact of Karl Marx on William Shakespeare”). Far too many times the authors of literary criticism simply haven’t a clue as to how or why fiction, poetry and drama get writ.
I cannot recall a single instance when reading literary criticism enhanced my appreciation of literature.
But hold on – aren’t these two mole-like species, book reviewers and literary critics, related? Yes, but so are Lauren Bacall and Shimon Peres (two wind-blown branches of the same Persky family tree), and they don’t perform the same functions. Marshaling the mechanisms of analysis and interpretation, lit crit purports to tell readers how and why an artifact of literature is what it is.
A book reviewer more modestly aspires merely to suggest to readers if something is or is not worth their time, and why. The book reviewer will likely employ some of criticism’s analytic and interpretative tools, but is usually more focused on an implement that literary critics are often loath to pick up – evaluation. A reviewer, in short, is a mere shopper’s adviser.
A literary critic by contrast is engaged in a more intellectual pursuit – with all the good and bad that implies.
Case in point: Robert Alter, who since 1967 has taught Hebrew and world literature at the University of California at Berkeley. I much admire Prof. Alter’s translations and exegesis of selected portions of the Hebrew Bible (most recently, the Book of Psalms). But his latest effort, “Pen of Iron,” proved to be about as rash-inducing as any other work of literary criticism I’ve encountered.
“Pen of Iron” (the phrase is from Jeremiah and just a year ago inspired the title of an Israeli protest poetry anthology) is based on a series of lectures Alter gave in 2008 at Princeton University. His subject is the stylistic influence – the subtle insinuations of rhetoric, rhythms, vocabulary, sentence structure and syntax – of the King James Version of the Bible on several major American novelists. The essays confirm Alter as a sensitive reader and a polished writer.
This does not, however, save him from taking some very odd and questionable steps.
Alter begins by reminding us that the 1611 King James Version of the Bible is, among other things, very much an American book.
This is because for some 300 years it was the book most commonly found in American homes. Despite numerous other translations that have come along – including some that are more accurate and some that are more readily comprehensible – the King James remains the most familiar and most quoted of Bibles in the US.
That said, outside of Evangelical households, no version of Scripture in today’s America has anything like the impact that it once had. The New World may have been settled by Bible-toting fundamentalists who saw themselves as the Children of Israel reaching the Promised Land. But in America these days once near-universally recognized biblical allusions often as not are met only with blank stares. And if reference to serpents and forbidden fruit earn you incomprehension, try discussing the elusive matter of biblical style with the Twitterati.
All of this makes one wonder to whom “Pen of Iron” is addressed – but we’ll leave that aside. Early on Alter usefully defines style by offering a “partial list of attributes,” such as “sound (rhythm, alliteration, assonance and so forth), syntax, idiomatic usage and divergences from it, linguistic register (that is, level of diction) and the cultural and literary associations of language.” In regard to King James, Alter focuses on such stylistic features (familiar to readers of both English and Hebrew) as parallel construction, parataxis (the freight train coupling of clauses, often with the conjunction “and”) and, something especially true of William Faulkner, the recurring references to such terms as birthright, curse, lineage, bones, dust and clay.
Few would argue with Alter’s identification of the King James Version’s influence on the prose of Abraham Lincoln (most notably in the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address).
The same is true when Alter points out Herman Melville’s indebtedness, in “Moby Dick,” to the same Bible. But in writing his majestic epic narrative, Melville was equally indebted to Shakespeare and Milton – and from here on in lies a problem: the further Alter gets from those Bible-obsessed foundational days of American history, the harder time Alter has of showing the King James impact on American fiction.
To be sure, when Alter leaps from “Moby Dick” (1851) to Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” (1936), he can still find echoes of the King James Bible. But although “Absalom, Absalom!” is openly patterned after the story of the rape of Tamar, by Alter’s own definition of style Faulkner’s baroque diction and exquisitely tortured sentences arguably owe less to the Bible (which Faulkner indeed knew well) than to his immersion in modernist literature (Flaubert, Joyce, etc.) and to his devotion to hard liquor.
THEN IT’S NOT SO MUCH A LEAP as a stretch to go hunting for King James Bible echoes in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” (1926).
Yes, the title and epigraph are taken from Kohelet. But for heaven’s sake, Hemingway’s rock-solid nouns and verbs derive not from Bible class but from the bare bones journalism of his days as a reporter for the Kansas City Star (Hem would rewrite and refine his stories over and over again even after they were published).
Even his paratactic sentences owe less to the Bible than to the mere drive to get the story out. Indeed, one can only wonder about Alter’s ear when he writes: “The prose of the biblical passage is, of course incantatory, and this is not a feature Hemingway will in the least emulate because his basic stylistic strategy involves a principled avoidance of the hypnotic magic of language.”
A principled avoidance of the hypnotic magic of language? Consider the famous opening paragraph of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” (1929): “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plains to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and the leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.”
Not incantatory? Not hypnotic? To my ears, certainly not the King James Version of the Bible. Indeed, I think there’s something operating here that’s even older than the King James.
By this I mean the oral tradition – the age-old tradition of men mesmerizing each other with stories, whether they were nomads in the desert chanting tribal history as everyone stared into the firelight, or Melville’s fellow sailors passing the months and years by telling tales as they gazed up into the starry night, or Faulkner’s companions gathered round the campfire on his hunting trips deep in the woods or as they whittled away the sluggish afternoons in front of the Oxford, Mississippi courthouse, or the men in the fishing camps in the Upper Peninsula of Hemingway’s youth.
With all due respect, I think that Robert Alter, reading his texts so closely that I imagine his nose serving as a yad, or Torah pointer, is a little too focused on his thesis. And this is no more true than when he gets to Saul Bellow’s “Seize the Day” (1956), a novel that I’ve read and reread with my nose to the page.
(I love the book; Bellow is on record as not liking it at all.) Even Alter admits his inclusion of this book in his study “may seem a little eccentric.” It is, and nothing that Alter subsequently writes about “Seize the Day” changes this view. Was Bellow a reader of the King James Version? Sure. He could also read the Bible in Hebrew.
He also read several other languages. In reading Saul Bellow, one, moreover, gets the impression the man read everything ever printed.
Sure, “Seize the Day” is about fathers and sons and inheritance and mortality and fate and a whole lot of other things that have biblical resonance. And it’s about a whole lot of other things (money, fame, divorce, success) that are more American than anything else.
Just how wrong-footed Alter can be is seen in his leaping on a detail in a text that he admits has very few Jewish references. Walking through a pedestrian underpass in Manhattan, Tommy Wilhelm, the book’s central figure, notes graffiti that enjoins: “Sin no more” and “Do not eat pig.” Writes Alter: “The injunction to ‘Sin no more’could have been scrawled by an evangelical Christian, but ‘Do not eat pig’ invokes a prohibition addressed to Jews and raises the question of Wilhelm’s somewhat elusive Jewish identity.”
But the condemnation of consuming pork is in fact not addressed to Jews. This graffito was a common message spread in midcentury America by members of the Nation of Islam, and it was addressed solely to African Americans. Indeed, it was just this injunction that a mystified prison inmate named Malcolm Little received one day from his brother, a message that would lead the recipient to turn his life around and eventually emerge on the world stage as Malcolm X.
Even if Alter were not misreading the writing on the wall, his case for alleged King James influences on “Seize the Day” remains “eccentric” in the extreme. But, by this time, Alter is not only making dubious claims for the influence of King James style, he’s making extraordinary claims for the substance of style itself.
“These considerations of American fiction over the course of a century and a half,” he writes in conclusion, “should demonstrate that style in the novel is never merely a technical or ‘aesthetic’ procedure but a way of imagining the world, of articulating value.”
Despite such earnest assertions, I don’t see any of that in “Pen of Iron.” Instead, I’m reminded of the senator who, in proposing a bill to make English the official language of the United States, purportedly said: “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it should be good enough for America.” Juicy as it is, that anecdote is evidently apocryphal, but the point remains: the senator is seen as asserting something because it pleases him to think it true. I’m afraid many of Robert Alter’s claims for the influence of the King James Version of the Bible on American literature likewise smack less of Holy Writ than of the Apocrypha.
Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible By Robert Alter Princeton University Press 198 pages; $19.95