On Eagles’ Wings: The King James Bible Turns 400
Although it left in its wake a number of excellent books, the fourth centennial of the publication of the King James Bible, or KJB, came and went without any of the high-profile public readings and fanfare that marked the three-hundredth anniversary in 1911. A substantial majority of Americans may still “believe in God,” yet the book that found its way to America in the seventeenth century and helped engender on this continent what Lincoln called a “new nation” is rapidly becoming terra incognita. Whether in the King James Version or in newer versions, the Bible is neither read, nor read aloud, nor memorized to anywhere near the extent it was when Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson extolled the KJB as America’s “national book” a century ago. It is anyone’s guess whether a century from now the fifth centennial of the King James Bible—a masterpiece of English prose and the most important book in the history of the English language—will be celebrated at all.
What does Western culture lose when it loses its biblical literacy? At the very least it loses a great deal of access to its literature. This is true not only of medieval and Renaissance literature but of a large part of the modern canon as well. How much of Nietzsche is comprehensible without a basic knowledge of scripture? Hardly a chapter in Thus Spoke Zarathustra does not contain overt allusions to or echoes of the Bible. The spiritual depths of writers like Emerson, Thoreau, and Dickinson are largely closed off to those who cannot hear in their inner ear the basso continuo of these New Englanders’ ongoing dialogue with the Bible. The same can be said of any number of modernists—Yeats, Joyce, Stevens, Eliot, and the bleak Samuel Beckett, who constantly engaged, if only to subvert, biblical motifs and paradigms.
In Pen of Iron, the eminent Bible scholar and translator Robert Alter recounts a small yet telling part of the story of American literature’s attunement to the King James Bible. Exploring the way the KJB has impacted both the prose and worldviews of select American authors—mainly Lincoln, Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, Bellow, and Cormac McCarthy—Alter shows that, even when they parody it or contend with its legacies (as Melville and Faulkner did), the King James Bible remains an enduring point of reference, if not a moral center of gravity, in their work.
One of the principal claims of Pen of Iron is that style is more than a set of rhetorical and aesthetic qualities; it is “the vehicle of a particular vision of reality.” Thus the style of America’s onetime national book—its diction, tone, cadences, and above all its unique combination of archaic formality and straightforward simplicity, or what Edmund Wilson called “that old tongue …