The Bible as a stylistic guide for writers: Pen of Iron by Robert Alter

Professor Robert Alter
Professor Robert Alter

I came across the coolest book the other day entitled Pen of Iron by Robert Alter.  Alter has taught Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, since 1967  and authored more than twenty books. He is also the 2009  recipient of the Robert Kirsch Award from the Los Angeles Times for lifetime contribution to American letters.

The genesis of the book, if I may use that term in this connection, was Alter’s invitation to present the Spencer Trask Lectures at Princeton University in April 2008. To give you a feel for the content of the book, I need only list its sections: Prelude, America as a Scriptural Culture; Chapter 1, Style in America and the King James Version; Chapter 2, Moby Dick (Polyphony); Chapter 3, Absalom, Absalom! (Lexicon); Chapter 4, Seize the Day (American Amalgam); Chapter 5, The World through Parataxis.

Let me say right off that I haven’t made it to Chapter 5 yet, but any chapter that uses the word Parataxis in its heading has to be worth reading, although I have yet to look up parataxis’s definition.

In the prelude, Alter explains the intent of the lectures.  Pen of Iron

Some American writers have explicitly deployed biblical motifs and references to specific biblical texts, but that will not be my main concern in what follows, and consequently I will be engaged only incidentally in the tracking of allusions to the Bible…. Rather than tracing the “influence” of the Bible on American writers, I should like to try to see how the language of the King James Bible is worked into the texture of the writing, making possible a kind of strong prose that would not have existed otherwise, and I shall seek to understand how this prose serves as the vehicle for certain distinctively American constructions of reality.

In the first chapter, which is as far as I have progressed, Alter has turned his attention to the prose of Abraham Lincoln, identified by Alter as “one of the finest stylists of nineteenth-century America.”  He moves from Lincoln to Faulkner to Melville.

Alter’s is a work about literary style, a topic not many, even the authors among us, focus on.  That is probably because the casual reader picks up on “style” as something that lurks between and behind the words and does not often come out to play in the daylight.  However, Alter makes his case for the importance of examining style as follows,

Let me propose a partial list of attributes of style that make a difference in our experience of the work of fiction, that generally resist translation, and that are neglected in literary studies to the peril of our understanding of literature. These are: 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.

Okay, that’s a mouthful, I know. But I agree with Professor Alter that readers and writers alike are well-served to think about style and the power inherent in it.

I can’t wait to see what he has to say about Hemingway, and to find out what parataxis is.

I’ll keep you posted.

(Stephen Woodfin is an attorney and author of six novels.)

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