Robert Alter’s masterpiece, “Pen of Iron“, celebrates the unique influence of KJV on American literature. But more than anything, it’s a story of loss and disintegration. In modern America, the heritage of the KJV has been abandoned by the literate, and is carried on by fundies, gangster rappers, and homeless schizophrenics.
For the first 150 years of America’s history, the KJV was the American canon, which all literate people knew intimately. In other countries, Christianity was less pervasive, and there was no single canonical translation of the Bible. But in America, the ubiquity of KJV provided a culturally unifying literary treasure which authors could mine in creating uniquely American literature.
As Alter explains, these works of literature, while borrowing heavily from KJV in substance and style, were not necessarily Christian:
In every case I will consider but one, there is a perceptible distance between the writer and biblical values, but the result is not simple rejection. It is easy to assume the stance of the village atheist if you think only of ideology or theology, as several recent anti-religious polemicists have done. An imaginative writer, on the other hand, is before all else a language-using animal, and when the language of the texts you cannot embrace as revealed truth is strongly chiseled, hewn from deep quarries of moral and spiritual experience, you somehow have to contend with it and, given its intrinsic poetic power, you may even be tempted to put it to use.
Alter repeatedly emphasizes that this American style relies on juxtaposition and deliberate violation of decorum:
There is an unfettered exuberance of invention and improvisation in the line of American prose that I shall be following which has no real British counterpart. Dickens, whom I would rate as the greatest stylist among British novelists in the nineteenth century, has his own linguistic exuberance, which frequently produces the most fantastic and beguiling inventions of metaphor, but on the whole it is played out within the decorum of an accepted order of literary language. The American stylistic turn that begins with Melville is to violate linguistic decorums with the greatest gusto. The general impulse is to fashion a language for the novel out of the most violently heterogeneous elements. …
No one after Melville wrote very much like him, but he established a precedent for later American novelists in the bustling promiscuity with which he mingled high and low, modern and archaic, with a strong biblical thread running through the pattern.
The book has been adequately reviewed elsewhere, and I highly recommend it. However, I want to make an observation about Alter’s commentary on William Faulkner’s novel, “Absalom, Absalom!“. Faulkner’s novel, I believe, has personal significance for Alter. Because of the great evil of the Holocaust, Alter says that he is unable to believe in a God who plays an active role in human affairs. In Faulkner’s novel, slavery is the great evil, and Sutpen’s proud southern family, reminiscent of King David’s family, ends up in ruin:
After everything Thomas Sutpen has built, material and familial, has been utterly devastated, the only survivor is Sutpen’s idiot black great-grandson, Jim Bond, who is no more than a pathetic inarticulate witness to the final destruction of Sutpen’s Hundred.
In a bitterly ironic comment on Sutpen’s dream of dynasty, Jim Bond is called “the scion,” a term at once medieval-heraldic and biblical. But the idea of the retarded mixed-race man as the surviving heir is given a dialectical twist in the penultimate paragraph of the novel when Shreve imagines that in due course of time “the Jim Bonds are going to conquer the western hemisphere,” only “bleached out”.
Sutpen, the child of hardscrabble itinerant whites, fiercely set his will to make himself a king, like David. The enduring royalty, however, abides in the once enslaved people brought in captivity from another continent, “sprung from the loins” – an appropriately biblical locution – “of African kings.”
Alter dolefully predicts that it will soon be necessary to teach KJV in university as a prerequisite to understanding American literature. Yet Alter surely knows that KJV is alive and well with fundies and urban street preachers. And it is from this latter that the “hip-hop” culture comes. In hip-hop we find all of the Biblical figures of speech, the counterpoint of monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon with Greco-Latin phrasing, and KJV words and imagery. And like the early American literature Alter describes, hip-hop could be seen as the ultimate terminus of “violation of linguistic decorum”, “violent heterogeneity”, “bustling promiscuity”, and “mingling of high and low”.
To be sure, some of the hip-hop demonstrates a great deal of creativity and talent. The skillful uses of synechdoche, parataxis, and all of the other Biblical figures of speech, as well as Biblical imagery, are unparalleled in any other modern popular “art” form. It’s just that this “art” tends to express something very depraved. Far more sobering is any fifteen-minute conversation with a typical homeless schizophrenic. In my experience (and I have a fair amount), the average homeless schizophrenic knows scripture better than the average Christian, and can quote KJV at length from memory. Just ask questions, listen to the crazy person’s theological musings, and you’ll soon be thinking of T.S. Eliot.
The KJV advocates of the past argued that America’s great material success was evidence of the divinity of the KJV translation. In shades of Sutpen, some believed that a perpetual dynasty could be established for those who relied upon this divine translation. If you spend any time with the modern scions of KJV’s heritage, though, it’s difficult not to think of Alter’s commentary on Faulkner.