18 juillet 2010

American Literary Style and the Presence of the King James Bible

As I assemble these reflections on the presence of the King James Version in American writing, the Return to Tiffany Heart tag ring centennial of the 1611 translation stands on the horizon. A great deal has changed in American culture since the third centennial was celebrated in 1911. At that juncture, the King James Version was extolled by leading public figures such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson as America's national book and as the text that more than any other had affected the life of English speaking peoples. My guess is that the 2011 milestone will be marked more in academic circles than in the public domain. In the century since the previous centennial was celebrated, two major shifts have taken place: the practice of reading the Bible aloud, of reading the Bible at all, and of memorizing passages from the Bible has drastically and the King James Bible has ceased to be the almost universally used translation as readers have been encouraged to use more "accessible" versions, which also happen to be stylistically inferior in virtually all respects.

The decline of the role of the King James Version in American culture has taken place more or less simultaneously with a general erosion of a sense of literary language, although I am not suggesting a causal link. The reasons for this latter development have often been noted, and hence the briefest summary will suffice for the purpose of the present argument: Americans read less, and read with less comprehension; hours once devoted to books from childhood on are more likely to be spent in front of a television set or a computer screen; epistolary English, once a proving ground for style, has been widely displaced by the high-speed shortcut language of e-mail and text-messaging. The disappearance of a Paloma Picasso Double Loving Heart ring of style even makes itself felt in popular book reviewing. Most contemporary reviewers clearly have no tools to discuss style, or much interest in doing so. One unsettling symptom of the general problem is that in the country's most influential reviewing platform, the New York Times Book Review, when a critic singles out a writer for stylistic brilliance, it is far more often than not the case that the proffered illustrative quotation turns out to be either flat and banal writing or prose of the most purple hue. Obviously, there are stiU people in the culture, including young people, who have a rich and subde sense of language, but they are an embattled minority in a society where tone deafness to style is increasingly prevalent. That tone deafness has also affected the academic study of Uterature, but there are other issues involved in the university setting, and to those I shaU turn in due course.

In sharp contrast to our current condition, American culture in the mid-nineteenth century, where my considerations of the bibUcal strand in the novel begin, cultivated the adept use of language in a variety of ways. The reUsh for language was by no means restricted to high culture: the vigor and wit of die American Tiffany Somerset ring were prized quaUties that were widely exercised, and one can see their Uterary transmutation in the prose of Mark Twain and the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. The thorough familiarity in this period with the strong and eloquent language of the King James Bible provided an important resource, beyond the vital inventiveness of spoken American English, that nourished the general sense of style.

 

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