Despite countless articles and classes on the topic, the King James Version of the Holy Bible is seen primarily as a religious text and rarely as a literary one. Of course, there is nothing wrong seeing it as a religious text, for that is its primary purpose, but what is unfortunate, is that some cannot get past its text-proof practicalities to its deep literary richness and ambiguity. It is probably because of its literary characteristics that the Bible continues to spawn conflicting religious and non-religious interpretations, but I would argue that by understanding the literary aspect also helps to clarify how it has been interpetaed as a religious text.
Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at University of California, Berkeley, helps takes us a little further along to consider how the Bible, particularly the King James Version of 1611, has influenced countless American writers in his book Pen of Iron. By seeing the Bible through the eyes of American fiction, it helps us recognize how biblical language has shaped our literary expression and culture, and in turn see the Bible through a different lens.
What Alter focuses on is not only how certain biblical stories or symbols are re-imagined in American fiction, but about how KJV style informs American expression, where “…the language of the Bible remains an ineluctable framework for verbal culture in this country” (3). Sometimes style is seen as aesthetic window dressing that the story is told through, but it is much more. As Alter iterates a few times, style is “a way of imagining the world, of articulating value” (180).
The writers and work that Alter considers are Melville’s Moby Dick, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Bellow’s Seize the Day, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, along with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with even an offhand reference to hard-boiled crime novelists. He offers insightful analysis of key passages and techniques that writers use to exploit certain biblical styles, in a give and take negotiation with literary history engaging with American complexities.
Let me touch briefly on one of these techniques. Parataxis is when simple declarative clauses are typically brought together by the use of the word “and.” This is seen in an example of Rebekah at the well from the 1611 English version, “and she hasted, and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again unto the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels” (Genesis 24:20). This is a fairly simple example, but illustrates what kind of syntax and diction was not present in early modern English until after the arrival of the 1611 KJV. Parataxis can be used for several effects, but usually creates a forward motion in the narrative where clauses can have equal weight, a phonetic compactness of diction, sometimes connecting dissimilar ideas or images in conjunction with each other, and often in fiction, creating ambiguity in the space between clauses.
To give a quick idea how this may look in a novel, Alter has plenty of examples he takes us through, but let’s try out McCarthy’s The Road.
In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons and carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all (28).
Though minimal usage of the connecting word “and,” Alter describes this paratactic passage as “the framework in which the landscape is laid out: there are no casual or hierarchical relationships here, just one detail of devastation after another as the observing eye scans them, with ‘and’ the dominant conjunction and only the most minimal syntactic subordination allowed. Several sentences are merely noun phrases without predicates, a procedure that here is basically a modernist extension of the logic of biblical parataxis” (173).
This is really nitty, gritty stuff that dives deep into how prose is constructed, and thereby how fictional worlds are imagined. I suspect that creative writers would really enjoy this book, whether they have an interest in the Bible or not. But I imagine for the general reader who didn’t enjoy English class, this book is probably not your cup of tea.
But at least consider, “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 cultural memory. We may break them apart or turn them around, but they are tools we still us on occasion to construct the world around us. That is precisely what a series of strong American writers since Melville have been doing” (183).