In a recent book, Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, author Robert Alter describes the biblical style of writing and how it has been used by many authors over the years. By “biblical,” of course, I am referring to the King James version. Alter is a professor of Hebrew Language and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkley, with several other published books in his field.
The biblical style is (or was) used by authors to convey a sense of a timeless, universal principle. Why did Lincoln begin the Gettysburg address with “Four score and seven years ago” when he could have simply said “Eighty-seven years ago?” His phrasing recalls the biblical account of a lifetime of “three score and ten.” (See posting of 2/13/06.) In Lincoln’s time, almost everyone was familiar with perhaps thousands of biblical phrases and the relevance would not be lost on them, but younger people today rarely read the Bible at all, much less the King James version, so Lincoln’s phrasing simply sounds pompous.
The style has two traits: It uses words of Anglo-Saxon origin rather than Latin, and it juxtaposes a series of short, seemingly unrelated, elements, often joining them without even a conjunction, a literary structure called “paratactic.” A familiar example is, “I came; I saw; I conquered.” A more obscure example is from Melville’s Moby-Dick. Ishmael, the narrator, says, “Lank Bildad, as pilot, headed the first watch, and ever and anon [occasionally], as the old craft dived deep in the green seas, and sent the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled, and the cordage rang, his steady notes were heard.” Sound biblical to you? And, of course, both “Ahab” and “Ishmael” are biblical names with connotations of their own. (Moby-Dick, the book, is hyphenated. Moby Dick, the movie, is not. Curious.)
A paratactic passage in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, recalls the style of Psalms: “He breathed in the sugar of the pure morning. He heard the long phrases of the birds. No enemy wanted his life.” Bellow was known to be a lifelong reader of the King James Bible.
The author points out that American culture was steeped in Bible references from the Pilgrims up until about the 1890s when the Bible was the only book available in most households. Today, many readers would not recognize the style if they tripped over it. Alter suggests the King James version will have to be read in schools for the style to have any future meaning, but even then, it will never again have the instinctive, deep meaning it once had.