(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 24)

Robert Alter is professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley. He is widely known and respected as a biblical scholar and as a critic of literature in general. The book that put him on the scholarly map was The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age (1989), a powerfully influential book in the academic community. Other noteworthy titles include The Art of Biblical Narrative (1981), The Literary Guide to the Bible, co-edited with Frank Kermode (1987), Genesis: A New Translation with Commentary (1996), and The David Story (1999). Alter is a lively and expressive writer whose works appear in many periodicals, journals, and newspapers. He often comments on the Bible and on Jewish culture in general. In fact, the three major chapters of Canon and Creativity were presented as a series of lectures for the program in Jewish studies at Yale University in the spring of 1999.

During the decade of the 1970’s, a cultural revolution occurred on college and university campuses across the United States, a sea change in the way literature was interpreted, presented, and evaluated. Loosely described as the “culture wars,” this revolution, in fact, amounted to the virtual abolition of the New Criticism (the kind of literary interpretation favored by T. S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, and Robert Penn Warren), and its replacement by a variety of new ideas. New Criticism, after all, had reigned supreme in the academy for nearly fifty years. However, it was boldly challenged by several new schools of thought, including feminism, Marxism, structuralism, deconstruction, and multicultural studies. Perhaps the central issue in these contentious upheavals was the notion of the canon—that is, the de facto list of approved books that were acceptable for scholarly analysis. Most of the canon, according to the new thinkers, was composed of dead male Caucasian writers. The time had come to open up the canon to women, minority, and even non-Western writers. At the very center of that canon stood the Bible, the one book upon which most of Western literature depended.

Alter, an important scholar of the Bible, enters the debate at this stage, and he does so by asking two fundamental questions. First, What is the nature of a canon in the first place—that is, how does a canon operate, for good or for ill? Second, How does the Bible specifically exert its powerful influence on three very different writers: Franz Kafka, a Czech-Jewish novelist and short-story writer; Hayyim Nahman Bialik, a Russian-Jewish poet; and James Joyce, an Irish-Catholic novelist? Perhaps Alter’s greatest strength as a writer and philosopher lies in his ability to synthesize traditional and contemporary notions of the canon and thereby enlarge the common understanding of this crucial term. For Alter, the canon is not a group of texts that are frozen in stone; the canon is a potent, creative force that grows out of a collection of texts—a force that can exert itself in different ways at different times. In Alter’s own words, then, a canon is a “transhistorical textual community.” How writers join that community and make use of the artistic resources found within it are the primary themes of Alter’s monograph, which justly deserves its title: Canon and Creativity.

Canonicity is further complicated by the fact that the canon often cuts against itself, admitting elements that seemingly do not belong. For example, there are four major texts Alter identifies as “problem books” as he “deconstructs” the Bible. They are problem books because they undercut the authority of God, or because they question the goodness of the Almighty, or because they deal openly with profane or sexual matters. These books include the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and the Song of Songs, all of them extremely popular with ordinary Jewish readers—and grudgingly accepted by the elders. So the Bible is a good canon to study precisely because it exhibits an internal struggle, a “dialectic of iconoclasm and traditionalism.”

Alter might well have chosen more obvious writers to dissect—authors who clearly profited from biblical influence, such as John Milton, Herman Melville, or William Faulkner. The reason he omits these from the foreground of his study is simple: Alter seeks writers who advance the biblical narratives by reinventing or extending them. In short, he seeks creative renderings of biblical material, not mere allusion or repetition. Alter also makes liberal use of the theory of textualism, the notion that all great books are related to one another and essentially retell the same story, as shown by the similarity of such famous...

(The entire section is 1924 words.)