"Canon and Creativity" by Robert Alter

Canon and Creativity Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture Robert Alter

The Franz Rosenzweig Lecture Series
Publication date:
30 Sep 2013
Yale University Press
208 pages: 197 x 121mm
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In this illuminating book, one of our foremost literary critics views the much-debated question of the literary canon from an entirely new angle. Robert Alter explores the ways in which a range of iconoclastic twentieth-century authors have put to use the stories, language, and imagery of the paramount canonical text—the Hebrew Bible. Alter makes a compelling case against the prevalent, pejorative notion of the canon as a vehicle of ideological enforcement. He shows instead that canons by nature are surprisingly elastic, providing later writers with imaginative resources even when those same writers rebel against what they conceive as the constraints of the canon.

Focusing special attention on Franz Kafka’s Amerika, Haim Nahman Bialik’s The Dead of the Desert, and James Joyce’s Ulysses, Alter brings to bear an unusual perspective, putting into a single frame of discussion three writers from widely different linguistic traditions (German, Hebrew, English) and from disparate cultural settings (Prague, Odessa, Dublin). Alter’s close readings of these major modern writers reveal how reference to canonical antecedents can be both surprisingly various and enabling. Examining the diverse modes in which Biblical material becomes interwoven with the fabric of a new work, he also offers new insights into the nature and range of modernism. Critically appreciative rather than polemic in tone, Alter conveys in this thoughtful book a renewed sense of the vitality of literary modernism.

Robert Alter is Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Among his many previous books are The Art of Biblical Narrative, Necessary Angels, and most recently The David Story: A Translation with Commentary of 1 and 2 Samuel.

Selected as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2001 by Choice Magazine

“Anyone interested in literature of any kind could enjoy and profit from this fascinating and elegant book.”—John Hollander

"Few American critics can match Robert Alter either in linguistic range or in sensitivity to all the nuances of a literary text. In his new book, he moves from the Song of Songs to the Hebrew poets of the Golden Age in Spain and 19th century Russia, and then on to Kafka and Joyce. All used the Bible as a source of inspiration, but did so with total freedom from doctrine or dogma. Alter brilliantly demonstrates the futility of all the arguments over the literary canon by showing how independently every original writer has always employed it for his own purposes."—Joseph Frank, Prof. Emeritus of Slavic & Comparative Lit., Stanford University

“Robert Alter’s work on the literary impact of the Hebrew Bible is always fresh and illuminating. Here he demonstrates with great cogency how three very different modern writers developed their own antithetical visions by recasting and transforming biblical materials.”—Morris Dickstein, Distinguished Professor of English, City University of New York