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Robert Alter shares insight about the King James Bible

By Kelsey McKinney

A page from the Book of Moses in the first edition of the King James Bible (1611). Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center
A page from the Book of Moses in the first edition of the King James Bible (1611). Image courtesy of Harry Ransom Center

In conjunction with the current exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, Robert Alter speaks this Thursday about “The Question of Eloquence in the King James Version.” The event, which is co-sponsored by the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies, takes place in Jessen Auditorium and will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.

Alter is a professor of Hebrew language and comparative literature, who has taught at the University of California at Berkeley since 1967. Alter’s 23rd book Pen of Iron: American Prose in the King James Bible was published in March 2010. Cultural Compass spoke with Dr. Alter about his own translations of the Hebrew bible and the influence of the King James Bible today.

In several interviews you have stated that you appreciate the King James Version. You have also created your own translations of many books of the Hebrew Bible. Are your goals in translating different from  the King James Version translators’?

For me, the power of the Hebrew Bible is inseparable from its stylistic virtuosity—its strong, compact rhythms; its expressive use of syntax; the subtlety and liveliness of its dialogue; the fine precision of its word-choices; the purposeful shifts of levels of diction. Though the King James Version often has its own stylistic beauty (though not as consistently as people tend to remember), the 1611 translators paid attention to none of these considerations and probably were unaware of most of them. Their goal was to provide as exact an equivalent as they could, according to their own understanding, of each word in the original. I share their commitment to a certain literalism but as part of a tight weave of stylistic effects in the Hebrew.

In your book Pen of Iron you examine the influence of the King James Bible on famous American writers such as William Faulkner and Herman Melville. Do you see the same influence in the work of any contemporary American writers?

Fewer American writers now, for rather obvious cultural reasons, are drawing on the King James Version, but its influence has far from disappeared. Two contemporary novelists I discuss in Pen of Iron who reflect the language of the King James Bible are Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy. Another is the late Barry Hannah.

With so many new translations available, is the King James Version still important and relevant today?

Translations that cast the Bible in up-to-the-minute American English are definitely cutting into the constituency of the King James Version because they are easier to read and seem more “accessible.” My own sense is that such translations lack any literary grace and distort the feeling and the meaning of the Bible. Though we are distanced from the 1611 version now because of its archaic language, its beauty is undiminished, and I think it will always have readers as a great literary achievement that altered the course of the English language.

Harry Ransom Center will host the David Foster Wallace Symposium in April

By Alicia Dietrich

Opening page of corrected proof of Wallace's 1996 essay 'Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise' for Harper's magazine.
Opening page of corrected proof of Wallace's 1996 essay 'Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise' for Harper's magazine.

The Harry Ransom Center will host the David Foster Wallace Symposium on April 5 and 6 at the Ransom Center. The symposium includes a public program on Thursday, April 5, at 7 p.m. in Jessen Auditorium.

Symposium
registration is limited and opens January 23 at 11 a.m. CST. Participants must register online. The $55 registration fee includes access to all events on the schedule.

All symposium events will be webcast live.

The Ransom Center holds Wallace’s archive, which was made accessible for research in September 2010. For the symposium, writers, editors, journalists, and critics gather to discuss Wallace’s life and work in panel discussions on such topics as “Editors on Wallace” and “A Life through the Archive.”

Symposium moderators and participants include Wallace’s literary agent Bonnie Nadell, editor Michael Pietsch of Little, Brown and Company, and Los Angeles Times book critic David Ulin.

Holiday hours at the Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

The Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.
The Harry Ransom Center. Photo by Pete Smith.

The Ransom Center will be closed for Thanksgiving Day. The galleries will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, November 25, and from noon to 5 p.m. on this Saturday and Sunday.

Visitors can see the current exhibitions, Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored and The Greenwich Village Bookshop Door: A Portal to Bohemia, 1920-1925, as well as Frida Kahlo’s Self-portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird.

Free docent-led tours of the gallery exhibitions are offered at 2 p.m. on this Saturday and Sunday.

Visit the Harry Ransom Center as part of Austin’s Cultural Campus “Museum Crawl” on Saturday, November 26. Enjoy the exhibitions with your family, friends, and out-of-town guests. Join us at 2 p.m. for a docent-led tour of the exhibitions. Kick off your holiday shopping with one-day discounts on Ransom Center merchandise, including postcards, totebags, and books. Purchase a gift membership specially packaged in an archival box and receive a free set of postcards ($10 value). Complimentary beverages will warm you on your walk to your next Austin’s Cultural Campus destination.

The Reading Room will be closed on Friday, November 25, and Saturday, November 26, but will reopen on Monday, November 28.

Parking information and a map are available online.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

University of Texas alumnus Kevin Kautzman portrays John Sumner in 'Censorship Then and Now.' Students in Kathryn Dawson’s 'Applications in Museum Settings' class at The University of Texas at Austin studied performance as a way to bring museum exhibitions to life, including creating characters based on the Center’s exhibition 'Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored.' Photo by Pete Smith.
University of Texas alumnus Kevin Kautzman portrays John Sumner in 'Censorship Then and Now.' Students in Kathryn Dawson’s 'Applications in Museum Settings' class at The University of Texas at Austin studied performance as a way to bring museum exhibitions to life, including creating characters based on the Center’s exhibition 'Banned, Burned, Seized, and Censored.' Photo by Pete Smith.
University of Texas at Austin undergraduate student Rachel Panella argues her point as Upton Sinclair in 'Censorship Then and Now,' a performance for area high school students. Photo by Pete Smith.
University of Texas at Austin undergraduate student Rachel Panella argues her point as Upton Sinclair in 'Censorship Then and Now,' a performance for area high school students. Photo by Pete Smith.
As part of their ongoing training at the Ransom Center, volunteers examine Leigh Hunt’s collection of famous people’s hair, including John Keats and John Milton. Photo by Pete Smith.
As part of their ongoing training at the Ransom Center, volunteers examine Leigh Hunt’s collection of famous people’s hair, including John Keats and John Milton. Photo by Pete Smith.

"Lisztomania" hits Austin

By Elana Estrin

Print of Franz Liszt, 1841.
Print of Franz Liszt, 1841.

Long before Beatlemania, mid-nineteenth-century European audiences went wild for Franz Liszt, the Hungarian pianist/composer with shoulder-length hair. Women fought over his broken piano strings and collected his coffee dregs in glass vials. One woman retrieved Liszt’s discarded cigar stump from a gutter and encased it in a diamond-studded locket monogrammed “F.L.” To describe this phenomenon, German poet Heinrich Heine coined the term “Lisztomania.”

Liszt took the classical music world by storm. Considered the best pianist of all time by his contemporaries, Liszt essentially created the piano recital. He was the first pianist to emerge onstage from the wings, he introduced the custom of performing in profile because he didn’t want the piano to block his face, and his unmatched technique and virtuosic piano compositions pushed the boundaries of what the piano could do.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Liszt’s birth and the 100th anniversary of the Austin Symphony Orchestra. On November 18 and 19, the Austin Symphony celebrates both birthdays when Anton Nel performs Liszt Piano Concerto No. 2 in A major, S. 125 with the Austin Symphony.

Signed photo of Franz Liszt, not dated.
Signed photo of Franz Liszt, not dated.

Liszt is well represented in the Ransom Center’s collections. The musicians collection contains photos of Liszt, one of which Liszt autographed; two collections hold notebooks, manuscripts, and other materials for two Liszt biographies; and the Carlton Lake collection includes a signed manuscript of Liszt’s Gaudeamus igitur and 150 letters between Liszt and his daughters, Blandine and Cosima.

In these letters, spanning from 1850 to 1862, Liszt comes across as a caring but demanding father. It is clear that his daughters’ musical education is a priority. In an 1854 letter addressed to both daughters, Liszt tells Blandine and Cosima to make the most of the approaching winter, when the only teacher around will be their piano teacher:

“How goes it with your piano strumming? Do you practice? Is M. Seghers giving you regular lessons?… Music being the universal language, and even to a certain extent able to dispense with ideas, it is by no means my intention to end your studies with M. Seghers. But try to learn yourselves what even the best teachers cannot convey through lessons; and, until the day when I try to shape your talents to my liking, I kiss you most tenderly.”

Liszt also discusses the difficulty of navigating his relationships with other composers. In an 1858 letter to Blandine, Liszt writes about German composer and conductor Richard Wagner, who later married Cosima and with whom Liszt had a notoriously tumultuous relationship:

“With his immense genius which becomes more and more indisputable through all the foolish disputes he has to embark on, he unfortunately can’t manage to rid himself of the most trying domestic vexations, not to mention all the disappointments of his fantastic expectations. In this way he resembles those lofty mountains, radiant at their peaks, but shrouded in fog up to their shoulders…Tell me something of him in your next letter, for I love him with all my heart and admire him as Germany’s finest génie-artiste.”

While living in Rome in 1862, Liszt tells Blandine that he’s a little annoyed with French composer Charles Gounod:

“You know what sincere esteem and liking I have always had for the talent of Gounod, and how affectionate our personal relations were. Well! Can you believe that he spent more than six weeks in Rome without taking the trouble to come and see me, and that we didn’t once see one another?”

Through these letters, we catch a glimpse of Liszt’s life as a rock-star pianist, at its height in the 1840s. But Liszt’s letters from the 1850s reveal that he cherished solitude and was tiring of public life. On May 4, 1858, Liszt wrote to Blandine about his visit with Cosima in Berlin:

“The wholly public life (less and less to my taste) that I had been obliged to lead these last two months made me feel all the more, by contrast, the charm and intimacy of her affection.”

On July 19, 1862, Liszt sent his last letter to Blandine, who died two months later at the age of 26 following childbirth: “The fact is, I am comfortable only in my own company and in that of the very small number of those I love with whom I feel at one in thought and feeling.”

Selected items related to Liszt will be on display in the Ransom Center lobby from Tuesday, November 15 through Sunday, November 27.

Photo Friday

By Kelsey McKinney

Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.

Musician Graham Reynolds plays an interlude during the program “Censorship,” presented by the Harry Ransom Center in conjunction with the Dionysium. Photo by Pete Smith.
Musician Graham Reynolds plays an interlude during the program “Censorship,” presented by the Harry Ransom Center in conjunction with the Dionysium. Photo by Pete Smith.
Visitors at the Dionysium event enjoy a night of lecture, debate, theatrical presentation, and music. Photo by Pete Smith.
Visitors at the Dionysium event enjoy a night of lecture, debate, theatrical presentation, and music. Photo by Pete Smith.
Isaiah Sheffer of Selected Shorts reads selections from some notorious banned books. Photo by Pete Smith.
Isaiah Sheffer of Selected Shorts reads selections from some notorious banned books. Photo by Pete Smith.
Sam Tanenhaus, Editor of The New York Times Book Review, spoke informally with Ransom Center staff about the future of publishing. Photo by Pete Smith.
Sam Tanenhaus, Editor of The New York Times Book Review, spoke informally with Ransom Center staff about the future of publishing. Photo by Pete Smith.

This Veteran’s Day Weekend: Free Book Giveaway of Tim O’Brien’s "The Things They Carried"

By Io Montecillo

Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried.'
Tim O'Brien's 'The Things They Carried.'

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is an account of soldiers’ experiences during and after the Vietnam War. Like his other National Book Award-winning work, Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried offers readers a glimpse of war that neither glorifies nor camouflages its realities. O’Brien himself has said he is only attempting to tell a “true war story.” Because of O’Brien’s frank depiction of war and strong use of language, The Things They Carried has been challenged and banned by some counties and schools.  In connection with the Ransom Center’s exhibition Burned, Banned, Seized, and Censored, visitors are invited to see the exhibition during Veteran’s Day weekend, Friday, November 11 through Sunday, November 13, and receive a free copy of The Things They Carried while supplies last. Tim O’Brien’s archive resides at the Ransom Center.