“Text,” the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, came into English usage as a signifier for the Gospels. It is related to texture and textile, establishing the written and the woven as related pursuits that join the useful and the comely. Thus wrote the fourteenth-century poet William Langland in Piers Plowman: “Dilige deum & proximum tuum, &c. [Th]is was [th]e tixte trewly..; [the] glose was gloriousely writen.”
The “gloriousely writen” text doesn’t seem to be the bailiwick of linguists. If there’s an offense that unites scientists and post-structuralists against a common foe, it’s belle-lettrism. Yet the concern with text as texture–what we’ve come to call its style–is fundamental not only to the pleasure of reading but to the understanding of what is written, which at its best is a fabric: composed of many strands. Discerning those strands requires knowledge–and judgment. Style is an apotheosis: it is the revelation of any author’s “construction of reality.”
We are coming on the 400th anniversary of the most authoritative English translation of Langland’s tixte: the King James Bible. “No book has had greater influence on the English language,” declared Alan G. Thomas in Great Books and Book Collectors, quoted on the first page of David Crystal’s new book, Begat: The King James Bible and the English Language (Oxford; $24.95). Naturally, such an influence would have to extend to the American language, a subject charted in Hebrew scholar and translator Robert Alter’s new book Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible (Princeton; $19.95).
These books could not be more different. Alter adapted his from the Spencer Trask Lectures he gave at Princeton University in 2008: each lecture takes a close and sensitive look at how the King James Bible shaped America’s identity through its impact on American stylists–Lincoln, Melville, Faulkner, Bellow, Hemingway and the two most redoubtable contemporaries writing in their vein, Cormac McCarthy and Marilynne Robinson. Crystal’s book poses a question–how “influential” was the King James Bible after all?–and sets about answering it with as quantitative a method as he could cook up, which includes aggregating, over dozens of chapters, contemporary citations from culture and news sources all over the English-speaking world that in some way quote, echo and otherwise mangle common biblical references.
“Influence” was once felt to be a kind of ether that emanated from the stars: an intangible. When Alter takes up the delicate task of assessing the King James Version’s perdurance in the American language, he is at pains to remind us that a text can’t be measured the way a sheet’s thread-count can be:
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 Version 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.
Abraham Lincoln used locutions from the King James Version in his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural to lend theological resonance to his vision of justice and reconciliation. Herman Melville’s biblicisms, particularly his references to Job, invoke the Bible in order to subvert the standard Christian interpretation of it (“Christ’s redeeming love of mankind…is antithetical to the truth about the world”). William Faulkner’s “thematic lexicon” of blood, seed, birthright and curse links the blasted dynasties of the Old Testament to the American South’s “catastrophically perverted” dream of a New Eden, a dream that originated with the first English settlers. Bellow’s biblical parataxis presents “the narrative data in ways that allow them to speak for themselves,” without literary distractions–distractions being, in Bellow’s view, “a pervasive malady of contemporary American society.” As for Hemingway, whose debt to Ecclesiastes is stamped on The Sun Also Rises, a refusal of stylistic ornamentation upends the entire tradition of what Alter calls English “standard-novelistic.” The King James Version pointed him toward “a fundamental repackaging of English prose,” which matched the aspirations of America in the twentieth century.