Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

Robert Alter – The Bible and American Fiction

Posted by NT Wrong on June 7, 2008

Robert Alter delivered the 2008 Spencer Trask Lectures on April 8, 9 and 10, 2008. The videos have been made available at the Princeton website.

The Bible, though its centrality may now be fading, has been a pervasive presence in American culture—for the most part, in the King James version. It was the Old Testament rather than the New Testament that exerted the greater magnetism because its focus on family and nation, politics and history spoke to the American condition, and because, beginning with the Pilgrims, generations of Americans saw themselves as the New Israel. Allusions to biblical texts and biblical motifs consequently abound in American writing, but what deserves equal attention is that the memorable language of the King James version made a certain difference in the kind of prose some major American novelists fashioned to represent their world in fiction. The lectures will explore how the canonical English version of the Bible was drawn on in the diction, the syntax, the rhythms, and the thematic key-terms of three American novelists, making possible what is arguably a distinctive American style.

Part 1: Moby-Dick: Polyphony
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Melville, aspiring to create an American prose-epic about man and the cosmos, combined Yankee vernacular elements with three principal poetic sources from the early 17th century in England: Shakespeare’s tragedies (in particular, King Lear), Paradise Lost, and the King James version of the Bible. It was especially the poetic stratum of the Hebrew Bible that he made use of, echoing its cadences, its syntax, and even its convention of parallelism. It is to a large degree the biblical constituent of Melville’s language that makes the prose of Moby-Dick an achievement without precedent in English.

Part 2: Absalom, Absalom!: Lexicon
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Faulkner’s syntactically convoluted prose, with its relish for recondite polysyllabic terms of Greek and Latin derivation, would seem to be the antithesis of the spare language of the Bible as it is represented in the King James version. But in Absalom, Absalom!, which may well be his finest novel and is surely one of the great American novels of the 20th century, there is an elaborate network of thematic key-words that are taken directly from the Hebrew Bible. It is this special vocabulary that enables Faulkner to articulate his moral vision of the South, its primal sin of slavery, its traumatic defeat, and the collapse of family and of overweening ambition that were concomitant with the historical catastrophe.

Part 3: Seize the Day: American Amalgam
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Saul Bellow, beginning with The Adventures of Augie March, became the most original stylist in the generation of American writers after Faulkner. He himself claimed that Augie March had freed him from the constraints of formal literary diction and enabled him to combine what he called “street language” with a more refined literary style. What has not been sufficiently noticed is that the King James version—coupled in his case with some recourse to the Hebrew original—also was a significant source of strength in his style, encouraging an eloquent plainness of language and a fondness for sturdy paratactic sequences in the sentences. The prose of this urban novelist, vividly engaged as he was in the cityscapes of New York and Chicago, is at times surprisingly in touch with the values and themes of biblical literature.


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