It is widely recognized, though perhaps seldom admitted, especially by school administrators forbidding Bible distribution, that the Bible is a major source of literary allusion. If you don’t know the Bible you can’t have a genuine understanding of Western culture. But what is not widely recognized is the place of the Gideon Bible in American literature. Since the first distribution in 1908, its presence in hostels ranging from Heartbreak Hotel to the Hilton, from the St. Gregory to the Hyatt-Regency, has rendered the Gideon Bible a symbol and perhaps even a stylistic influence in American literature.
“Every hotel room … offers a Bible for the perusal of travel-worn salesmen [and] bickering vacationers” who are thus not “denied the consolation and stimulation of this incredible, most credible book.” So writes novelist John Updike in A Month of Sundays (Knopf, 1975, p. 101). The influence of this “incredible, most credible book” is pervasive, with allusions thereto ranging from such works of pop-culture as the Beatles’ “Rocky Raccoon” to more sophisticated belles-lettres such as Wright Morris’s picture-prose book The Inhabitants. One literary critic even credits the Gideon Bible with forming the “biblical poetic” style of the fiction of Sherwood Anderson, a significant writer of twentieth-century America. “Anderson carried about with him pages torn from the Gideon Bibles that he found in the hotels in which he spent so much of his time both before and after he became a professional writer,” Jarvis A. Thurston has observed in “Anderson and ‘Winesburg’: Mysticism and Craft” (Accent, Spring, 1956).
Anderson, perhaps like Doctor Reefy with his “paper pills” in Winesburg, Ohio, would pull from his pockets the loose pages and study them on trains and during other free moments. The biblical style, with its expanded, rounded cadences, its incremental repetition, and its vivid diction, perhaps influenced such passages as this one from “Loneliness” in Winesburg, Ohio: “Youthful sadness, young man’s sadness, the sadness of a growing boy in a village at the year’s end, opened the lips of the old man. The sadness was in the heart of George Willard and was without meaning, but it appealed to Enoch Robinson” (Viking Press, 1962, p. 173); or this passage from “Hands” in Winesburg, Ohio: “Wing Biddlebaum became wholly inspired. For once he forgot the hands. Slowly they stole forth and lay upon George Willard’s shoulders. Something new and bold came into the voice that talked …” (p. 30).
The fact that Gideon Bibles in the line of duty sometimes get both ripped and ripped off shows that they are used, that they offer stimulation, if not consolation. Peter, a hotelier in Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, finds it necessary occasionally to “check the Gideon Bibles—one in each room” and arrange for new copies to be supplied. And Old Simms, a street preacher in Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, makes a present of a Gideon Bible to Jake Blount, the town drunkard.
Other American novelists have referred in their fiction to the Gideon Bible sometimes as a symbol of nostalgia for a Christian past in a post-or un-Christian present. Ralph Ellison’s black protagonist, “invisible man,” having checked into a New York hotel, sees “a Gideon Bible lying upon a small table. I dropped my bags and sat on the bed.… There was nothing familiar in my surroundings. Except the Bible; I picked it up and sat back on the bed, allowing its blood-red-edged pages to ripple beneath my thumb.… I turned to the book of Genesis, but could not read. I thought of home and the attempts my father had made to institute family prayer, the gathering around the stove at mealtime and kneeling with heads bowed over the seats of our chairs …” (Vintage, 1972, p. 159). The implication seems to be that if the nameless protagonist’s early Christian training had been truly meaningful, if it had been something more than mere “church-house rhetoric,” the Christian faith as represented by these “blood-red-edged pages” and perhaps by Mary later in the novel might have offered a solution to the problem of invisibility. Only later after considerable adversity does he learn the basically Christian lessons that life comes only out of death and that the end is in the beginning.
In another American novel the Gideon Bible is a symbol of consolation in the midst of deep trouble. Elvira Griffiths in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy goes East to be with her son, Clyde, who has just been sentenced to die for murder:
“On the small dresser was a Gideon Bible, which, sitting on the edge of the commonplace iron bed, she now opened instinctively at Psalms 3 and 4. ‘Lord, how are they increased that trouble.’ ‘Hear me, when I call, O God of my righteousness.’
“And then reading on silently, even placidly apparently, through 6, 8, 10, 13, 23, 91.… It was as if, and in spite of all this, she had been able to retreat into some still, silent place, where, for the time being at least, no evil human ill could reach her” (Signet, 1953, p. 623).
Mrs. Griffiths, “quite calmly closing the book,” arises from her reading with renewed strength and then, interpolating promises from the Bible, sets about her courageous effort to secure a pardon for her son. Her source of strength is her Christian faith, a faith grounded in the Bible. Robert Penn Warren correctly notes that “the only persons who offer a notion of the self that Dreiser can set against the machine of the world are Clyde’s mother and the Reverend McMillan.” This is not to say that Dreiser is offering a doctrinal solution. But it is to say that only in the image drawn from religion does he, ironically and despite the ambivalences, find an image of the responsible self, and an image of the possibility of meaning in the hymn that Clyde’s family lifts up, as evening crowds bustle by, “against the vast skepticism and apathy of life.” If Ellison’s protagonist finds only a fleeting nostalgia in the Gideon Bible, Dreiser’s character finds what the invisible man lacks and only much later finds: “an image of the responsible self and an image of the possibility of meaningfulness.”
The Gideon Bible also seems to symbolize meaning in the midst of modern absurdity in Wright Morris’s The Inhabitants: “In the mirror he could see the slab of the wall and the small table with the Bible—a Gideon Bible with the raw red stain on the leaves. There was a path from the table to where he sat on the bed.… Did they come here to sleep—those who came here—or to walk between the bed and the table, between the bed and the Book with the raw red stain on the leaves? As if they wondered what the Book was for. As if there was something about a Hotel room and a Gideon Bible—as if the connection, some kind of connection, wasn’t clear. As if a long distance call had something vague about it, the message garbled but ringing one number all night long. As if the connection had to be made by waiting, waiting and walking—walking the carpet between the front and the back of the mind. For there was something about a bedroom, a carpet and a Gideon Bible, when the connection, the answer, was up to him” (Scribners, 1946, n.p.).
There is something about a bedroom—or a schoolroom or a hospital room—a carpet, and a Gideon Bible. Many people continue to read and reread about the Book and find the “connection.” Many of them find the Saviour and Lord of Life through that Book, that “incredible, most credible book.”
D. G. Kehl is professor of English, Arizona State University, Tempe.
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