“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.
Alter doesn’t make any grand claims for the influence of the Bible on recent generations. As an Ivy League English professor once told me without rancor, you can’t count on an American freshman to know who Adam and Eve were. The influence runs under the surface, Alter proposes, and it runs deep in the weave of things.
This is in stark contrast to David Crystal’s project in Begat. Each chapter is organized around an expression or theme of the Bible, followed by an aggregation of contemporary references so trite and corrupted as to necrotize the language. No headline or deck punning on biblicisms goes unnoticed: “An argument about access in social networking sites is headed Let my people go social.” “Too cocky before exams? Pride goes before a fail.” “A neat pun accompanied a piece by someone who didn’t like wheat gluten meat substitute: Get thee behind me, seitan.” Crystal even quotes the bungled puns of unfortunate individuals like David Lang, the composer who said, on winning the Pulitzer alongside Bob Dylan, “I am not fit to touch the hem of his shoes.”
The closest Crystal can come to acknowledging style is in his comparisons of the King James Version with the Geneva, Bishops, Wycliffe, Tyndale and Douai-Rheims versions to see if popular expressions really took their source from the King James wording or not. And even then, he has come not to praise good style or blame bad style but merely to cite usages and round them up in a bean-counting exercise that ultimately comes to a shocking, shocking conclusion: “Very few idiomatic expressions unquestionably originate in the language of the King James Bible.”
A quick breakdown: Crystal identifies 257 biblical expressions that entered the language as idiom; in only eighteen cases did those idioms follow the King James Version. “Most books of the New Testament (23 out of 27) yield at least one expression, but fewer than half (19 out of 39) of the books of the Old Testament do…. Over half of the Old Testament references (51) are in just three books: Exodus, Genesis, and Ecclesiastes.” Idiom, Crystal acknowledges, is not the only measure of linguistic influence, and he limits the scope of his conclusion accordingly. By then it may be too late for the reader to recoup the slightest dividend from the time she invested in this juggernaut. There is a gesture toward textual pleasure, though, in Appendix 1, where the eighteen expressions “apparently unique to the King James Version” are set side by side with other translations, inviting comparisons between:
How are the mighty fallen (2 Samuel 1.19, King James Version)
How fell strong men (Wycliffe)
How are the mighty overthrown (Geneva, Bishops)
How are the valiant fallen (Douai-Rheims)
A still small voice (1 Kings 19.12, King James Version)
The issuing of thin wind (Wycliffe)
A still and soft voice (Geneva)
A small still voice (Bishops)
A whistling of a gentle air (Douai-Rheims)
This interlude of biblical varioria overpowers the bona fides of the pop linguist: his dispassionate tenor, his glabrous wit, his wisdom-busting provocation and his quantitative method, which may or may not do justice to his subject (but which is at least peer-approved). Of making many books there is no end, said Ecclesiastes (or: none end is to make many books; there is none end in making many books; to make many books, it is an endless work…). The “gloriousely written” used to be a mark of God, or the gods; but if there’s no God, does it follow that writing should be soulless?