A few years ago the poet and critic Tom Paulin, reviewing a biography of Kipling in the Times Literary Supplement, surmised that Kipling was borrowing from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness when he used the phrase “dark places of the earth.” In fact, as a letter pointed out in the following issue, the phrase comes from Psalm 74:20—“Have respect unto the covenant: for the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty.” Both Conrad and Kipling, of course, were borrowing from the same biblical source.

Most of our critics and scholars have hardly any idea what’s actually in the Bible.

By itself, this little mistake wouldn’t amount to much. But it happens all the time. I have seen Samuel Johnson credited with the words “The night cometh when no man can work,” the phrase “hand to the plough” attributed to Charlotte Brontë, and Martin Luther King, Jr. said to be the author of the words “Let justice roll down like waters.” I remember cringing as I listened to a well-known literary critic explain that Lazarus took up his bed and walked.

Most of our critics and scholars have hardly any idea what’s actually in the Bible. They know the Creation story, they know there was a lot of killing in the Old Testament, and they know Jesus is said to have performed miracles and said strange things in the Gospels—but that’s about it. Yet their job, the critics’ and scholars’ job, is to interpret works of literature written by people who, even if they rejected their culture’s religious presuppositions, breathed in an atmosphere saturated by biblical phrases and conceptions.

You get a sense of just how deep the ignorance lies when you read through scholarly editions of older works. The most obvious biblical allusions are duly noted (“Let there be light,” “Blessed are they that mourn,” et cetera) while the ones alluding to less immediately recognizable passages—the ones it would be helpful to have pointed out—are passed over in silence. Or sometimes flatly misattributed. I have on my desk an anthology of British literature, a competent work of scholarship in most respects, in which Hannah More’s poem “Patient Joe or The Newcastle Coal Miner” is reprinted. More writes of “Joe’s notion that all things which happened were best”—referring to Paul’s famous statement in the Letter to the Romans that “we know all things work together for good to them that love God.” Attached to More’s lines is the modern editor’s footnote: “reference to philosophical optimism, ridiculed by Voltaire in Candide, or Optimism (1759).”

I suppose it isn’t fair to be haughty about this. The Bible is a massive book, and if you didn’t grow accustomed to its cadences and vocabulary in early life, there’s no reason why you should catch oblique allusions to it in adulthood. I was raised in the American South, which must be the last place in the English-speaking world where there are still remnants of a shared religious language or, indeed, a shared language of any kind. Much of it is gone now, but it’s still true that in much of the South, if you say the words “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry,” people will have a vague sense that it’s from the Bible. This was also true of the rest of the English-speaking world until a point within living memory—a remarkable fact that’s due, I think, in large part to the beauty of the King James translation of the Bible.

Everybody knows the Authorized Version, as it came to be called in England, is more “poetic” than the modern versions. But its poetic qualities derive from more than just the Middle English pronouns and verb conjugations. The King James translators knew how to give their renderings the appropriate aspects of sweetness or severity, and they had a highly developed feel for the way English sentences should sound. Time and again, the 1611 version falls into an iambic cadence that rolls easily of the tongue:

Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; Nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; Nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.

Nor is it the case that the King James Version’s power is merely a product of florid language. Indeed its translators generally preferred simpler vocabulary and straightforward diction (note the passage above, from Psalm 91—not a single word would send a literate person to the dictionary).

And, in any case, as Robert Alter reminds us in his splendid new study of the King James Version in American literature, it sounded archaic when it first appeared in 1611.1 Its translators’ use of the phrase “three score and ten,” for instance, is a deliberate rhetorical invention. The Hebrew says simply “seventy,” but the translators quite properly wished to impart the sense of weight clearly appearing in the original. Hence the famous tenth verse of Psalm 90: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow.” Abraham Lincoln, as Alter points out, was borrowing from this stylistic pattern when he began the Gettysburg Address, not with “Eighty-seven years ago,” but “Four score and seven years ago.”

Alter’s intelligent treatments of several major works—principally Moby-Dick, Absalom, Absalom!, Seize the Day, and Marilynne Robinson’s justly applauded novel Gilead (2004)—does more than simply explain allusions to biblical texts. He is interested in the ways in which American writers incorporate the stylistic traits of the King James Version for their own purposes, even when they are not themselves rooted in a Christian or biblical world view. “Style,” he insists,

is not merely a constellation of aesthetic properties but is the vehicle of a particular vision of reality. Those American writers who wove into their prose elements of the language of the Bible could scarcely ignore what the sundry biblical texts were saying about the world, and so they were often impelled to argue with the canonical text, or tease out dissident views within the biblical corpus, or sometimes to reaffirm its conception of things, or to place biblical terms in new contexts that could be surprising or even unsettling.

The chapter on Moby-Dick highlights its use of parallelism, the chief poetic device in the Hebrew Bible’s wisdom literature. Parallelism involves a statement and its rewording, usually with an intensification in the rewording. “Hearken unto thy father that begat thee, and despise not thy mother when she is old.” Melville draws on this pattern again and again. Ahab “sleeps with clenched hands; and wakes with his own bloody nails”; Ishmael “love[s] to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” Alter’s point is that Melville drew on biblical rhythms in order, partly, to contrast his own view of the world, in which a kind of vicious chaos rules the natural world, with the Bible’s God-ordered conception of things.

To my mind Melville’s idea seems rather sophomoric: biblical writers were hardly unaware of the sheer messiness and bedlam of life in the world—a fact of which we’re reminded, it seems to me, when Alter considers Absalom, Absalom! in the next chapter. The structure of that novel is borrowed from the story of King David’s son Amnon, who raped his half-sister Tamar and was murdered by his brother Absalom. But Alter shows that the novel, despite the distinctly unbiblical syntax of Faulkner’s writing, bears a far deeper relationship with the King James Version of the Old Testament than its allegorical use of Amnon’s folly.

It’s a melancholy irony that as the specialized study of literature grew beyond all reasonable bounds during the last century, biblical literacy almost disappeared.

Throughout the book Faulkner relies on terms meant to elicit in the reader’s mind an array of biblical themes and dynamics. When, for example, Quentin Compson asks in exasperation why Rosa Coldfield has to tell him so many things about the Sutpen family tragedy, he says, “What is it to me that the land or the earth or whatever it was got tired of him at last and turned and destroyed him?”—a question drawing on, though not quoting, many Old Testament passages in which God promises that the land will turn on its inhabitants if they ever forsake Him. “The LORD shall make the rain of thy land powder and dust: from heaven shall it come down upon thee, until thou be destroyed” (Deuteronomy 28:24).

Alter’s book is strongest on the Hebrew Bible’s stylistic reserve, a tendency admirably reproduced in the King James Version:

Against a trend in English prose from the Renaissance onward that cultivated lexical profusion, figurative ornamentation, and syntactic complication, the King James Version offered a model of spare diction and of a syntactic simplicity that amounted to a kind of studied reticence which generated its own distinctive eloquence.

In the book’s best chapter, “The World through Parataxis,” Alter illuminates the ways in which the Hebrew Bible’s typically paratactical narration, in which straightforward statements are placed alongside one another in the absence of explanatory syntax, provided twentieth-century American writers with a model for constructing prose that leaves as much of the interpretive task as possible to the reader. We often credit Hemingway for leading the way back to stylistic simplicity, but Hemingway was himself manifestly influenced by the uncomplicated style of the King James Version of the Old Testament—as evidenced, for example, by the title and epigraph, but especially the unadorned paratactical style, of The Sun Also Rises.

Alter is right that Hemingway’s style can grate over the course of a novel, and that it works best in the shorter form. The reader gropes in the dark to find his bearings, to find some circumstance or outcome with a plain meaning. By contrast, one of the reasons Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is so satisfying is that she finds a way to use a reticent, intermittently paratactical style without depriving the reader of moral direction—and indeed her novel is shot through with biblical associations.

It’s a melancholy irony that as the specialized study of literature grew beyond all reasonable bounds during the last century, biblical literacy almost disappeared. Even so, as Alter concludes, “the resonant language and the arresting vision of the canonical text … continue to ring in the cultural memory.”

  1.  Pen of Iron: American Prose & the King James Bible, by Robert Alter; Princeton University Press, 198 pages, $19.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 28 Number 9, on page 63
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