Alter, Robert B. 1935–
Alter, Robert B. 1935–
(Robert Bernard Alter)
PERSONAL: Born April 2, 1935, in New York, NY; son of Harry (a salesman) and Tillie Alter; married Judith Berkenbilt, June 4, 1961 (divorced, February, 1973); married Carol Cosman (an editor and translator), June 17, 1973; children: (first marriage) Miriam, Dan; (second marriage) Gabriel, Micha. Education: Columbia University, B.A., 1957; Harvard University, M.A., 1958, Ph.D., 1962. Religion: Jewish.
ADDRESSES: Home—Berkeley, CA. Office—Department of Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720. Agent—Georges Borchardt, 136 E. 57th St., New York, NY 10022. E-mail—[email protected]
CAREER: Columbia University, New York, NY, instructor, 1962–64, assistant professor of English, 1964–66; University of California, Berkeley, CA, associate professor, 1967–69, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature, 1969–89, chair of comparative literature department, 1970–72, Class of 1937 professor, 1989–, and director of Jewish studies.
MEMBER: American Academy of Arts and Sciences (fellow), Council of Scholars of Library of Congress, Association of Literary Scholars and Critics (president, 1997), American Comparative Literature Association, Association for Jewish Studies, National Association of Professors of Hebrew.
AWARDS, HONORS: English Institute essay prize, 1965; Guggenheim fellow, 1966–67, 1979–80; National Endowment for the Humanities senior fellow, 1972–73; Institute for Advanced Studies, Jerusalem, fellow, 1980–83; National Jewish Book Award, 1982, for The Art of Biblical Narrative; Joel H. Cavior Award for religious thought, 1987, for The Art of Biblical Poetry; Scholarship Award for Social and Cultural Studies, National Foundation for Jewish Culture, 1995; Bay Area Book Reviewers' Association Award for Translation, 1997, for Genesis: Translation and Commentary; Old Dominion Fellow, Princeton University; Koret Jewish Book Award for translation and commentary, 2004, for The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary.
Rogue's Progress: Studies in the Picaresque Novel, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1964.
Fielding and the Nature of the Novel, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1968.
After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing, Dutton (New York, NY), 1969.
Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-Conscious Genre, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1975.
(Editor and author of introduction and notes) Modern Hebrew Literature, Behrman House (New York, NY), 1975.
Defenses of the Imagination: Jewish Writers and Modern Historical Crisis, Jewish Publication Society (Philadelphia, PA), 1978.
(With wife, Carol Cosman) A Lion for Love: A Critical Biography of Stendahl, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1979.
The Art of Biblical Narrative, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1981.
Motives for Fiction, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1984.
The Art of Biblical Poetry, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1985.
(Editor, with Frank Kermode) The Literary Guide to the Bible, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1987.
The Invention of Hebrew Prose: Modern Fiction and the Language of Realism, University of Washington Press (Seattle, WA), 1988.
The Pleasures of Reading: In an Ideological Age, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1989.
Necessary Angels: Tradition and Modernity in Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1991.
The World of Biblical Literature, Basic Books (New York, NY), 1992.
Hebrew and Modernity, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1994.
Genesis: Translation and Commentary, Norton (New York, NY), 1996.
The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, Norton (New York, NY), 1999.
On Biblical Narrative, University of Oregon Books (Eugene, OR), 2000.
The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, Norton (New York, NY), 2004.
(Editor and author of introduction) Frank Kermode, Pleasure and Change: The Aesthetics of Canon, commentaries by Geoffrey Hartman, John Guillory, and Carey Perloff, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 2004.
Author of introduction to Gates of Bronze, 2nd English edition, by Haim Hazaz, translated by H. Gershon Levi, Toby Press (New Milford, CT), 2005. Contributor to periodicals, including New Republic, London Review of Books, and New York Times Book Review. Commentary, columnist, 1965–73, contributing editor, 1973–87.
SIDELIGHTS: Robert B. Alter is a scholar of comparative literature whose works shed new light on that most potent and elemental literary work of the Western canon, the Bible. As Jonathan Wilson noted in the New York Times Book Review, Alter "has accomplished the admirable feat in the last several decades of rescuing for literary study, within the academy anyway, the ultracanonical work of Western culture at a time when its relevance seemed most threatened. In so doing Alter in turn threatens to explode the orthodoxies of the new politically correct canon." Alter's interest in the Bible as literature has led him to write essays on biblical narrative and biblical poetry, as well as to conduct his own translations from the original Hebrew in an effort to connect modern English-language readers with the cadences of the ancient texts. "Robert Alter's contribution to current scripture studies has been immense and defining," declared Walter Brueggemann in Christian Century. Brueggemann added that Alter "possesses a rare combination of interpretive gifts. He has both a sensitive ability to work with Hebrew and an artistic sensibility that allows him to grasp the aesthetic workings of a text without excessive or premature theological judgment…. [His works] have had a vital influence on the methods and perspectives of the 'literary study' of the Bible—an approach that has opened ways of reading and interpreting scripture unavailable to the dominant methods of historical criticism."
Alter's reputation as a literary interpreter of the Bible was established in 1981 with the publication of The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter subjected the Old Testament to the kind of scrutiny that secular literature often receives but the Bible rarely does. Typically, the Bible is either accepted as the truth by religious believers, or examined for contradictions by others. Instead, Alter studied the text for the design of its narrative, structure, and technique. In The Art of Biblical Narrative he discusses the strategies and literary features of its stories, including scenes, characterization, dialogue, verbal and gestural repetition, and silence. Reynolds Price, writing for the Washington Post Book World, maintained that Alter uncovers "virtually uncontestable evidence for his contention that the stories—far from being the awkwardly conflated primitive documents that so much scholarship has led us to see—are as sophisticated in their verbal and formal devices as any other ancient narratives."
Finding the Old Testament a complex fusion of history and fiction, Alter suggests in The Art of Biblical Narrative that the authors of the Bible "were among the pioneers of prose fiction in the Western tradition." He notes that one common feature of biblical writing was a tendency to give the characters' speech priority over the narrator's own. Alter gives as one example David's return to Jerusalem with the Ark of the Covenant; the perspective the Bible gives is not that of the narrator but of Michal, David's first wife. Alter points out that the reader can only infer the reason for Michal's scorn. Like a modern novelist, the writer has left the interpretation to the reader. New Republic writer Geoffrey Hartman argued that Alter "turns laconic stories, through his care for detail and nuance, into miniature novels," explaining each one "line by line, until the characters are men and women we can get to know, until their actions and passions, and their social and psychological milieu, resemble ours."
Alter's next book concentrates solely on critical analysis of modern fiction. Motives for Fiction is a collection of what the author calls "episodic critical writing" that originally appeared in such publications as American Scholar, Commentary, and the New Republic. In his essays, Alter argues that the novel can be "an imaginative instrument for the empirical exploration of social, moral, and psychological realities." This thesis met with some criticism. In an article for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, Michael F. Harper imagined that Alter sees himself as "St. George galloping to … [the reader's] aid, crucial lance at the ready." Harper criticized the fact that the book "lumps together under the heading of 'structuralism and its aftermath' such disparate spirits as Roland Barthes, Gerard Genette, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Tzvetan Todorov, Jacques Derrida, but he gives no detailed exposition of any of their works. Instead of confronting their arguments, Alter is content … to deny their claims by invoking 'experience' and 'indispensable common sense,' as if this somehow settled the matter." A reviewer for the Journal of Modern Literature dismissed Alter as "one of those urbane modern critics who almost never cite work by anyone else, but who seem terribly derivative nonetheless." Not all critics greeted Motives for Fiction with such disdain, however. Robert D. Spector, writing in World Literature Today, stressed Alter's emphasis on reality, remarking that his "aesthetic sensibility enhances a fine sense of the historical content. His flair for detail never interferes with his grasp of broader implications. There is verve, and even a sting, in his prose; but his judgments are fair."
In The Art of Biblical Poetry Alter returns to the language and literature of the Hebrew Bible, this time concentrating on poetic technique in the sacred text. This is a subject fraught with difficulty because, as Peter Levi stated in the New York Times Book Review: "It is not even agreed which bits of the Bible are in verse." Nonetheless, Levi considered Alter's achievement "admirable; he lays a strong foundation for students of the Bible." The critic further wrote: "The analysis of the Psalms is particularly convincing…. I would despair of analyzing how they work as poetry. Mr. Alter, using clear eyes and dogged common sense, has successfully shown how most of them work."
Alter returned to contemporary literary criticism with The Pleasures of Reading: In an Ideological Age. This "frankly oppositional work," according to Robert Boyers in the New York Times Book Review, all but invites academic critics to "scoff at Mr. Alter's charming and hopeless naivete." Yet Boyers shared Alter's dismay, "fostered by deconstructionists … that character in fiction is a pernicious illusion." Boyers regarded The Pleasures of Reading as a "richly inflected and only intermittently polemical" defense of character in literature and other "discarded orthodoxies." Boyers felt that "Mr. Alter's assault on influential misconceptions often seems astonishing, if only because it is hard to believe that it is necessary." Jay Parini rejected the work in a Nation assessment, asserting that it is "ultimately a weak book, written defensively by a critic who denies his own ideology while he points a finger at others for being 'ideological.'" On the other hand, Jack Fuller, writing in the Chicago Tribune Books, recommended it: "Add this volume to the growing list of welcome works of criticism that reassure lovers of literature that they are not fools to like a book for its characters and story and seriousness of purpose."
Alter's The World of Biblical Literature elicited praise from E.P. Sanders in the New York Times Book Review. "Almost everyone would benefit from reading this book," Sanders stated, mentioning people as diverse as fundamentalists, biblical scholars, secularists, and people who read for pleasure and insight. "The exploration of individual biblical passages, which are the backbone of The World of Biblical Literature, are addictive," Sanders continued. Joseph Coates, writing in Tribune Books, commended Alter for insisting on the importance of reading the Bible "in its compelling immediacy, in the momentum of its complex continuities." He quoted Alter's observation that, however odd it may sound, "we are in fact better readers of biblical narrative because we are lucky enough to come after Flaubert and Joyce, Dante and Shakespeare." Coates added: "And we, as readers, are lucky to come after Alter."
A logical outcome of Alter's interest in the Bible's original texts was his decision to begin translating them himself. In an online interview with Natalie Weinstein of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, he said: "I asked myself: 'Is it possible to fashion an English style for representing the Bible … that has a certain eloquence and poise as literary English and at the same time mirrors a lot of the significant literary effects of the Hebrew?'" He told a Christian Century contributor: "My notion of accuracy is not just premised on word-for-word equivalencies. It also takes into account the level of style manifested in the literary language of the Hebrew Bible in its time…. So my translation is faithful not just to the words of Genesis but to the book's spirit." More than once Alter has described the process of translating biblical passages as particularly exhilarating, especially when he feels he has rendered unique aspects of ancient Hebrew in cogent English.
Alter's translations have been published as Genesis: Translation and Commentary and The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel. The latter work encompasses the entire story of King David, a figure of much speculation in modern times. While some scholars have suggested that David was not an actual historical figure, but rather a mythical creation in the vein of King Arthur, Alter musters evidence to the contrary. He believes that David did exist, because the Biblical narrative paints him not as a faultless hero but rather as a flawed human being who nevertheless tries to live a righteous life. Alter goes so far as to style David a "Machiavellian prince" and a master manipulator, whose every move from youth to old age was dictated by ambition. In his work on Genesis, Alter acknowledges that the ancient text was a compilation of several sources, but he nevertheless detects a cohesiveness that renders debate on sources rather irrelevant.
Many critics applauded Alter's translations, feeling that he reached his goal of imparting the feel of the Hebrew to an English-speaking audience. In the New Republic, Hillel Halkin commented that both Genesis and The David Story are "marked by the same mixture of good sense and erudition that characterizes [Alter] as a critic. [The translation] replicates the Hebrew's quiet gravity with a modest English that does not strive for effects, and even when questioning its choice of a word one sees the thoughtfulness behind it." Commonweal contributor Edward T. Oakes wrote: "Alter's dual competence as biblical scholar and literary critic has uniquely positioned him to give us a translation that is both vigorous and contemporary. My only regret in this work is to realize how much the translation of the whole Bible nowadays transcends the capacities of any one individual."
In his London Review of Books piece on The David Story, Gerald Hammond reminded readers that Alter "established a whole school of literary appreciation of the Bible" before commencing his translations. Hammond then styled the translation "conservative, fully in line with the Authorised Version (and all the better for that)." The critic added that the accompanying commentary "is up to date, absorbing not only the latest scholarship but concentrating on the extraordinary narrative power of the story of family vendetta and power politics which spans the two books of Samuel."
Even more praise has been heaped on Alter's translation, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. Calling it a "landmark study," Library Journal contributor Charles Murray reported that what the scholar attempts here is to recapture the original meaning of the scriptures through his knowledge of "Hebrew's varied nuances." A combination of new translative interpretations and clarifying notes reveals to readers the literary skill employed by the authors of the Pentateuch to better convey their religious themes. Alan Jacobs, writing in First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, provides several examples in his review of how The Five Books of Moses reworks biblical passages that, along with Alter's "wonderful" notes, provide new insights into the Bible. For example, Alter shows that in Exodus, Moses's use of the word "they" refers to the living Israelites, emphasizing that the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant are for all the people of Israel and deemphasizing the action of God passing on His instructions just to Moses. Jacobs remarked: "As Alter's commentary notes, 'they' are the Israelites, so that the force of the passage is something like this: 'God has so taught Moses how to build the altar, and the people of Israel will carry it accordingly.' The King James Version doesn't quite get this, and assumes that that last clause means, 'so shall they make it.' But most modern translations—even including my favorite one, the recent English Standard Version—simply ignore the clause altogether." Declaring Alter's work "inspired," Jacobs goes on to conclude that The Five Books of Moses "is a translation-and-commentary that indeed shows the unfamiliar and often unexpected literary excellence of the Pentateuch. And because Alter (unlike Kierkegaard's Christian scholars) has no interest in 'protecting' us from the biblical text, his work also, however unwittingly, provides devotional encouragement to one who would read this text 'religiously.' Reading the edgy, rhythmical prose of Alter's translation, and consulting his tactful but richly woven commentary, such a reader comes away with a deepened sense of the providential care of the Lord for his Israel."
Time critic Richard Lacayo called Alter "an officer in the culture war over the Western canon." Indeed, Alter—through his writings, talks, and membership in the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics—has sought to reverse trends toward a literary criticism that deconstructs texts in search of racial, political, and sexual prejudice. He also would like to see literary criticism conducted in a language that is accessible to all educated individuals, not merely high-level academics. Although Alter's primary goal has been to restore the Old Testament to its prominence in the Western canon, he has also written on the value of other pieces of literature from many different cultures. Some of these thoughts animate Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture, a selection of critical essays on biblical influence in modern literature. This work uses James Joyce's Ulysses, Franz Kafka's Amerika, and Haim Nahman Bialik's "The Dead of the Desert" as examples of works that incorporate biblical influences, not necessarily as tracts of religious faith but rather as seminal impulses in Western art. A Publishers Weekly reviewer praised Canon and Creativity for its "dazzling ability to interpret texts, both ancient and modern." Steven Schroeder contended in Booklist that the work "should make conversational space for creativity and the cultivation of continuity."
In another work on twentieth-century literature, Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel, Alter discusses the work of five authors—Charles Dickens, Gustave Flaubert, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Andrei Bely—to illustrate how Modernist authors employed style to convey the reality of changing urban life. Reviewers of this particular work, however, were not overly impressed. In Victorian Studies, for instance, Richard Maxwell conceded that while "Alter writes clearly and succinctly," he felt that "most of what's here is routine." The critic added: "Alter's effort to uphold the cause of style and literary form would be more convincing had he engaged more fully with the social criticism from which he distances himself." On the other hand, while New Leader critic Robert Gutman did not find all of Alter's arguments to be convincing, he concluded that the author's "illumination of the techniques employed in the novels he surveys makes for fascinating reading."
In an article for the University of California at Berkeley Web site, Alter spoke on his motivation as a writer/translator. "I'm not much of a theological person," he said, "but as a literary person, when I read the narratives and poetry of the Hebrew Bible, I see that it's great literature, some of the most marvelous stories we have in the Western tradition." In the National Review, David Gelernter concluded: "When we look at modern scholarship, we are used to decay, despair, and disguised self-hatred. But Alter's extraordinary work shows that Bible scholarship is healthy and getting healthier. Read it and rejoice."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Alter, Robert B., Motives for Fiction, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1984.
America, March 11, 2000, review of The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel, p. 20.
Booklist, October 1, 2000, Steven Schroeder, review of Canon and Creativity: Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture, p. 298.
Business Wire, March 3, 2005, "UC Berkeley Prof's New Torah Translation Tops Koret Jewish Book Award Winners."
Christian Century, December 18, 1996, "Art, Imagination and the Bible: An Interview with Robert Alter," p. 1250; November 17, 1999, Walter Brueggemann, review of The David Story, p. 1122.
Commonweal, March 14, 1997, Edward T. Oakes, review of Genesis: Translation and Commentary, p. 28.
First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, August-September, 2005, Alan Jacobs, "Robert Alter's Fidelity," review of The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, p. 22.
Journal of Modern Literature, November, 1984, review of Motives for Fiction, p. 374.
Library Journal, November 1, 2004, Charles Murray, review of The Five Books of Moses, p. 89.
London Review of Books, September 7, 2000, Gerald Hammond, "Vendetta," pp. 27-28.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 20, 1984, Michael F. Harper, review of Motives for Fiction, p. 3.
Nation, August 7, 1989, Jay Parini, review of The Pleasures of Reading: In an Ideological Age, pp. 179-180.
National Review, December 6, 1996, Jacob Neusner, "Genesis," p. 61; September 27, 1999, David Gelernter, "David, Done Right," p. 59.
New Leader, May-June, 2005, Robert Gutman, "Village Voice," review of Imagined Cities, p. 48.
New Republic, July 4, 1981, Geoffrey Hartman, review of The Art of Biblical Narrative; February 21, 2000, Hillel Halkin, "Sacred Implications," p. 38.
New York Review of Books, March 31, 1988, Harold Bloom, review of The Literary Guide to the Bible, pp. 23-25.
New York Times Book Review, October 20, 1985, Peter Levi, review of The Art of Biblical Poetry; June 25, 1989, Robert Boyers, review of The Pleasures of Reading; February 9, 1992, E.P. Sanders, review of The World of Biblical Literature; December 15, 1996, Phyllis Trible, "Unauthorized Versions," p. 7; November 14, 1999, Jonathan Wilson, "From Slingshot to Crown," p. 11.
Publishers Weekly, October 2, 2000, review of Canon and Creativity, p. 70.
Time, July 7, 1997, Richard Lacayo, "War of Words," p. 92.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), July 16, 1989, Jack Fuller, review of The Pleasures of Reading, p. 7; February 23, 1992, Joseph Coates, review of The World of Biblical Literature.
Victorian Studies, spring, 2006, Richard Maxwell, review of Imagined Cities: Urban Experience and the Language of the Novel, p. 538.
Washington Post Book World, August 30, 1981, Reynolds Price, review of The Art of Biblical Narrative.
World Literature Today, summer, 1984, Robert D. Spector, review of Motives for Fiction, pp. 479-480.
Association of Literary Scholars and Critics Web site, http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/∼wcd/alsc!.htm/ (November 1, 1997), Robert Alter, "The President's Column."
Jewish Bulletin of Northern California Online, http://www.jewishsf.com/ (November 1, 1996), Natalie Weinstein, "U.C. Scholar's Genesis Translation Seeks to Maintain Bible's Cadence," interview with Robert B. Alter.
University of California at Berkeley Web site, http://www.berkeley.edu/ (November 6, 2000), "Refining the Art of Biblical Translation."