Inside take on a Folger, Bodleian, and Ransom Center exhibition on the creation and afterlife of the King James Bible on the 400th anniversary of its publication.

Posts tagged “American West

Roadtripping with the King James Bible

Gallatin Mountain Range outside of Bozeman, MT. Photo by Amy Arden.

Two years ago, I was in the midst of developing content for the Manifold Greatness website. During that summer, I also embarked on a cross-country road trip that had been on my bucket list for years. I drove from Washington, DC, south to Texas, then north to Montana, and then all the way back.

In the weeks leading up to my departure I spent hours thinking about what I would need and what should make the final cut for my packing list. I was traveling relatively light, my goal more in line with being a modern-day pioneer than with bringing along every comfort of home. I had camping gear, an ultra-light stove, a laptop and camera to record my experiences, and a few choice books. One of them was a copy of the King James Bible.

As an earlier post noted, many settlers carried family Bibles with them as they traveled westward. For my own personal journey, I wanted a book that reflected that period and the leaps of faith that traveling to a new destination required.

Admittedly, I did not own a copy of the King James Bible before my trip. And I wasn’t looking for just any copy – I wanted one that had existed in the 1870s and 1880s, the heyday of the Western frontier. In order to find one, I visited antique book stores and browsed online.

I finally located the Bible that would travel nearly 6,000 miles with me at an antiquarian bookseller based in New York City. (Thank you, AbeBooks.) It had been printed in Glasgow, Scotland in 1858. Inside, a woman has signed her name. Part of the signature is difficult to read, but it looks like “Mrs. Anne Pattison.”

King James Bible. Glasgow, 1858. Private collection. Photo by Julie Ainsworth.

With its tooled black leather binding and a perfect size for transporting, I was instantly convinced that I had found the right Bible. The little book piqued my curiosity as well. Who was Anne Pattison, and how had her book come to the United States? Had she herself moved to America? Was it passed along through a family member? Or was it merely another old book traveling between sellers’ inventories?

Regardless of how it got here, having it with me seemed fitting. One evening at a campground in Oklahoma, as the families around me were settling in for the night, I took it out and read a passage. 140 years ago, had someone done the same? Holding that artifact in my hands, I felt uncannily connected to the past, and to my pioneer doppelganger, if she had existed.

 If you’d like to know more about my 2010 roadtrip, please visit my trip blog, the Outside Fringe, here.




Amy Arden assisted in the development and production of the Manifold Greatness website. She is a communications associate at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Shakespeare and the KJB on the American Frontier

American tragedian Edwin Booth as Iago in Othello, 1869 (detail). Folger.

I continue to find it astonishing that the two books often said to be found in American log cabins were the King James Bible and the collected works of William Shakespeare. In so many ways both books—the quintessential literary expression of a small island kingdom at the beginning of the seventeenth century—seem out of place on the American frontier with its rough and tumble values and its hardscrabble life. Yet perhaps it is just in such challenging circumstances that these two books would offer the powerful imaginative stoking that otherwise bleak lives require.

Shakespeare doesn’t offer a direct view of the beginnings and ends of Creation, yet his works are replete with versions of heaven and hell and with characters who imagine themselves under the eye of God. Think of King Lear on the heath, calling on the all-shaking thunder to “strike flat the thick rotundity o’th’world!” or Iago comparing himself to devils who “will the blackest sins put on” or the guilt-ridden Macbeth recognizing that the “taking-off” of the good King Duncan is a “deep damnation.”

The gorgeousness of Shakespeare’s figurative language differs greatly from the magisterial plainness that the King James Bible translators aimed for, yet we often forget that some of the most striking effects in the plays come from the plainest of locutions—Hamlet’s despairing words to Ophelia, “What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven?” or the hunch-backed Richard’s bitter self-description, “I have no brother, I am like no brother” or Prospero’s enigmatic, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

So, let me take back my astonishment: if I were in a log cabin, I would be happy to have a warm fire, a bubbling pot of stew on the stove, and these two books to keep me company. A person could do much, much worse.

Gail Kern Paster is the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

The recently opened Folger summer exhibition, Fame, Fortune, & Theft: The Shakespeare First Folio, continues through September 3; it will be followed by the Folger exhibition of Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, opening September 23. For more about Shakespeare in American culture, see the Folger website Shakespeare in American Life.