Perhaps my religious education was less attenuated than I have always believed. Monday evening in the Lutheran church where my younger sons’ Cub Scout meeting is held I found sheet music for “O How Amiable.” The composer is Ralph Vaughan Williams; the lyricists, Isaac Watts and King David. The text is adapted from Psalms 84 and 90. What attracted me to the eight-page score published by Oxford University Press was the lovely Latinate “amiable,” rooted in amare but unshaded with the sexual or romantic, at least in modern English. Rather: friendly, good-natured, companionable. In an 1852 letter to John Parker Hale, Whitman lauds “a manly and amiable spirit.”
I read the words of the hymn and when I came to the chorus I recognized it and remembered the melody: “O God, our help in ages past, / Our hope for years to come, / Our shelter from the stormy blast, / And our eternal home.” And I remembered how I knew them. When my brother and I were kids the elderly German woman who lived next door would occasionally walk us to services at a nearby Presbyterian church. I don’t know how this started or why my un-churchgoing parents permitted it. Mostly I associate the memories with tedium and starched collars in summer, but I enjoyed the readings, in particular the Old Testament, and the hymns. Millions of people must know “O How Amiable,” but I had forgotten even the title though the words and music remained latent.
All of which confirms in a round-about fashion the central argument of Robert Alter’s recently published Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible. Alter has taught Hebrew and comparative literature at Berkeley since 1967, and published four books of translations from the Old Testament, most recently The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (2007). In the new book he looks at how the language of the King James Bible (1611) suffuses the work of Melville, Faulkner, Bellow, Hemingway, Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy. In the first two novelists the impact is obvious but Alter traces the Biblical presence in the later writers “even when the fervid faith in Scripture as revelation had begun to fade.”
Most interesting and unexpected, at least by this reader, is Alter’s chapter devoted to Seize the Day, Bellow’s great short novel from 1956. Alter’s purpose is not merely to identity Biblical quotations, paraphrases or other overt allusions. Rather, he looks at something more elusive – literary style, often at the level of individual words. He defines style as “ultimately a mode of thinking” and “never merely a technical or `aesthetic’ procedure but a way of imagining the world, of articulating value.” After citing memorable passages by Bellow (of a minor character, Mr. Rappaport: “Purple stains were buried in the flesh of his nose and the cartilage of his ear was twisted like a cabbage heart.”), Alter writes:
“This efflorescence of figuration does not, as one might imagine, lead to any kind of florid literary diction. On the contrary, Bellow consistently grounds his exuberant similes and metaphors in plain language…What gives this writing tensile strength is its adherence to ordinary terms where the temptation to use fancy literary language might beckon…These choices are not exactly vernacular but have a kind of homespun simplicity and dignity, like the style of ancient Hebrew narrative as it is for the most part justly represented in the King James Version -- `and the ark went upon the face of the waters.’”
Conventional wisdom, assuming conventional minds still read the King James Version, associates its language with archaisms and bombast. Alter proves otherwise. Our thinking – the thinking of great novelists and common readers alike – is bathed in the language of a Bible translation published almost four hundred years ago. Such continuity of cultural memory gives a common reader hope in an age of literary hopelessness. Near the end of his book Alter writes:
“The business of making new literature is intrinsically conservative, at least formally, even when the writer means to be spectacularly iconoclastic (witness Joyce’s Ulysses), because few writers want to turn their backs on the rich resources of expression that antecedent literary tradition makes available to them.”