Saturday, March 10, 2012

Review of Robert Alter, Pen of Iron

Five chapters and a prelude bring forth American voices in a new way; a way that draws out from the diction and rhythm and word choice of that Good Book, the King James Bible, and, in particular, its rendition of the Old Testament, the unusual mixture of the literary and colloquial that defines American literature over the last two centuries. Robert Alter's Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible is a history of linguistic dynamics, from Moby Dick and Lincoln's speeches through to The Road and Gilead, and I can think of nothing like it out there in the reading world. I have read reviews suggesting this is an academic book of interest to specialists; do not believe those who would so limit it. If you read Faulkner and Melville and Hemingway, you should read Alter. You must read Alter. Really.

Alter's chapter on Moby Dick is truly and particularly brilliant, and one of the best things written on The Whale in the last half-century. He writes with the insights of a translator, yet writes of his own language and the subtle structures imported into it from the Hebrew in Elizabethan times and then again from the Elizabethan to the American, and traces the millenia for us in Melville's taut and oppositional prose. He finds Biblical poetry nestled among the many voices of the Great Whale, and carefully teases it out, comparing it to the other strands in Melville's voice, and highlighting its interaction with Melville's always deeper meanings.

Alter gets Melville's voice, he truly digs it, and he lets its light shine in a way that will enrich every reader's experience. His chapter on Faulkner is merely very good, but the chapter on Bellow and the discussion of Lincoln in the preface each challenge those Melvillian peaks.

If you are going to read contemporary literary criticism, put Alter on top of your list. I can think of only one other living American critic I would put on his level, and her focus is not the American corpus. (


  1. Very helpful review! It has persuaded me to buy a copy. Thanks. Tom

  2. I am pleased - you will enjoy it. Post if you've got thoughts on it as you read. Best, Sam