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Capital letter U. Genesis 15:5

CAT 29  Capital letter U. Genesis 15.5. Taferelen. BA 59.jpg

CAT 28. Capital letter U. Printed as the first letter of Tableau 14 (from Genesis 15:5) in Taferelen der voornaamste geschiedenissen van het Oude en Nieuwe Testament. The Hague: Pieter de Hondt, 1728, 1:27. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Genesis 15: “[1] AFTER these things the word of the Lord came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward. [2] And Abram said, Lord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? [3] And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed; and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir. [4] And, behold, the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. [5] And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. [6] And he believed the Lord; and he counted it to him for righteousness. [7] And he said unto him, I am the Lord that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it” [my underlines correspond to the ones Melville made in his copy of the above  passage].

The illustrator has skillfully evoked the mystery and glory of Abraham’s revelation, the stars expanding before the eyes of the patriarch embraced by the capital “U.” This revelation is important to Melville as the spiritual genesis of Isaac, the “seed” of Abraham with Sarah whose arrival will result in Ishmael and his mother Hagar being cast out into the wilderness. The Ishmael persona, as Wright argues, is the most persistent one in Melville’s writing, not only in his namesake narrator of Moby-Dick but a variety of other characters including Redburn, White Jacket, Pierre, Israel Potter, and Ungar (Wright 47). 

In Melville’s poem “The Muster” in Battle Pieces, whose action is dated one month after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, Melville expands the imagery of Abraham and the stars in a martial context by depicting the Mississippi River as “the Abrahamic river— / Patriarch of floods” who “Calls the roll of all his streams” into a “Milky Way of armies— / Star rising after star” (NN PP 109-110).