Chapter and Verse
“American Literary Style and the Presence of the King James Bible” by Robert Alter, in New England Review, Vol. 30, No. 4 (2009–10).
That the 1611 King James Bible once exerted a profound influence on American literature is as inarguable as observing, along with Robert Alter, that there has been a “general erosion of a sense of literary language.” He suggests no causal connection, simply noting that serious literature and a literary voice once honed by letter writing have given way to novels that are “flat and banal” and “the high-speed shortcut language of e-mail and text messaging.” Alter writes that we are losing “one of the keen pleasures in the reading experience.”
Consider one of the more exhilarating passages from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), in which the doomed Captain Ahab rails against savage nature but ultimately acknowledges his unbreakable connection to the sea: “Then hail, for ever hail, O sea, in whose eternal tossings the wild fowl finds his only rest. Born of earth, yet suckled by the sea; though hill and valley mothered me, ye billows are my foster-brothers.” Though Melville marshals other influences (there is more than a touch of King Lear in the passage’s sensibility, for instance), his rhythm and syntax—“born of earth, yet suckled by the sea,” “ye billows”—are borrowed from the formal language of the Bible.
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