Sunday, June 27, 2010
Robert Alter on Style by Stephen Miller
Beginning With the Word
How the cadences and diction of the King James Bible affected the prose style of American writers.
By STEPHEN MILLER; WSJ, MARCH 7, 2010
Once upon a time critics spoke of the pleasure they derived from reading a work of literature. They talked of an author's descriptive gifts or insight into human nature—even about a distinctive literary voice or prose style. But a generation ago many scholars, besotted by French theorists, concluded that this way of discussing literature was naïve, if not wrong. They argued that one should instead scrutinize novels—now called "texts"—for the self-subversive qualities of language itself or for hidden authorial bias.
Robert Alter would like us to return to the earlier view. These days, he says, teachers "look right through" literary style in their effort to ground texts "in one ideology or another." But style is valuable in itself. It is not only a source of "deep pleasure"; it is, he says, "the vehicle of a particular vision of reality." In "Pen of Iron," Mr. Alter—best known for his translations and close readings of the Hebrew Bible—looks in particular at how the King James Bible has influenced the prose style and literary voice of several American writers.
The first work he discusses, as it happens, is not a novel; it is the Gettysburg Address. Why does Lincoln say "four score and seven years ago" rather than 87? The locution alludes to "three score and ten," a phrase that appears in the King James Bible more than 100 times. Like other Bible-derived phrases from Lincoln's public speaking—"a house divided against itself cannot stand" is perhaps the most famous—the biblical cadences of the Gettysburg Address confer "weight and solemnity."
The King James Bible, Mr. Alter observes, has two major stylistic traits. It generally uses words of Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin origin, and its sentences often have a paratactic structure—that is, they juxtapose a series of short elements, sometimes joining them with a simple conjunction (usually "and"). Mr. Alter hears biblical diction and rhythms in several 20th-century novels, including Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" (1926), Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead" (2004) and Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" (2007). Not that biblical echoes, by themselves, make for great literature. "After the passage of eight decades," Mr. Alter writes of Hemingway's book, "much of the novel looks rather flat—its characters sketchy, lacking psychological or moral complexity." Mr. McCarthy's "mesmerizing power as a stylist," he says, "often seems to exceed his range and insights as a novelist."
Mr. Alter prefers novels that offer a range of styles, like Herman Melville's "Moby-Dick." The Bible is a "strong thread" in that novel's prose and themes. There is the thundering sermon to the whalers in New Bedford, for instance, before the voyage begins. Ahab's name (like Ishmael's) comes from the Bible, and Ahab's war with the whale has an apocalyptic quality to it, as if aimed at vanquishing evil itself. The grog onboard the Pequod, Ahab says to his men, is "hot as Satan's hoof" and "forks out at the serpent-snapping eye." Ishmael, serving as Melville's narrator, can be paratactic, too: "Lank Bildad, as pilot, headed the first watch, and ever and anon, as the old craft dived deep in the green seas, and sent the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled, and the cordage rang, his steady notes were heard."
But there are other threads in "Moby-Dick," Mr. Alter says: "Shakespeare, Milton, the English Baroque prose writers of the seventeenth century, sailors' argot . . . and the colloquial Yankee speech of antebellum New England." He argues that "extravagant stylistic hybridity" in "Moby-Dick" is an appropriate vehicle for what Melville wants to convey—"the unfathomability of human nature" and "the inscrutability and blind power of the natural world."
Mr. Alter sees admirable stylistic variety of Saul Bellow's "Seize the Day" (1956), too. Bellow, who confessed to reading the King James Bible all his life, drew on its "stylistic spareness" as a counterweight to "the exuberant side of his writing." At one point the novel's hapless protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm, remembers a time in his life when he was at peace with himself. The language is strongly indebted to Psalms: "He breathed in the sugar of the pure morning. He heard the long phrases of the birds. No enemy wanted his life."
Mr. Alter discusses Faulkner's "Absalom, Absalom!" (1936), but his argument centers less on style than on theme, since Faulkner's prose is not especially biblical. Rather, Mr. Alter writes, the King James Bible serves as a "thematic lexicon" for Faulkner. Certain key words give "Absalom, Absalom!" a scriptural quality even beyond its retelling of the King David story. Faulkner pulls together into "a catastrophic climax" a cluster of terms that are "drawn from the Bible—land, curse, son, birthright, inheritance, house." As for Faulkner's style, it is not entirely to Mr. Alter's liking. He speaks disapprovingly of Faulkner's "often bewildering abstractions," his "fondness for arcane and flamboyant terms" and his "convoluted syntax." These qualities, it should be said, have attracted readers as much as repelled them over the years.
Will 21st-century American novelists be influenced by the King James Bible—or any other version? Mr. Alter notes that "the Pilgrims, and their descendants for many generations, were Bible-steeped, Bible-quoting folk," but the popularity of the Bible waned by the end of the nineteenth century. Though of course it looms large in the lives of church-going Americans, "we no longer have 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 texts." It looks as if, to keep this classic work of English prose alive, it will have to be read in school.