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Capital letter L. Genesis 19:24

CAT 30 Capital letter L.  Genesis 19.24. Taferelen. BA 53.jpg

CAT 29. Capital letter L. Printed as the first letter of Tableau 18 (from Genesis 19:24) in Taferelen der voornaamste geschiedenissen van het Oude en Nieuwe Testament. The Hague: Pieter de Hondt, 1728, 1:35. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Genesis 19: “[23] The sun was risen upon the earth when Lot entered into Zoar. [24] Then the Lord rained on Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven; [25] And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground. [26] But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.”

This Biblical passage picks up directly from Lot’s vision of Zoar in Genesis 13 (CAT 27).  In this illustration of Sodom and Gomorrah there is no mystery about the fire and brimstone of verse 24—or about the desperation of those subjected to it. Here is part of the commentary for this tableau in the Taferelen: “Hailstones, sparks, squalls, thunderstorms, fire embers, as from a miscellany in a black sky as a burst, with flashing thunderbolts, like waves of fire, swung around.” One of the words on the verso of Melville’s cut-out image, “aanzigtkrabben,” denotes “scratching one’s face,” one of those desperate activities which, like wringing one’s hands and pulling out one’s hair, will not deter God from visiting destruction upon this city of sinners (1:35).

Wright contends that the “destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” is perhaps the most “prominent among the retold stories of violence” in Melville’s writing. Melville alludes to this event “in describing such dissimilar objects and occurrences as the dismal Liverpool houses, those ships manned by what White Jacket considers evil crews, the sinking of the Bon Homme Richard, the ash box outside the Negro church in New Bedford, the sounds of the sharks tapping against the Pequod, and, in The Confidence Man, "all wicked thoughts” (Wright 25). In Melville’s 1846 edition of the Bible he drew a marginal line alongside the “brimstone and fire” in verse 24 (Cowen 3: 85). In Mardi he asks, “Do you believe that you lived three thousand years ago? That you were at the taking of Tyre, were overwhelmed in Gomorrah?” (NN M 297).

In Melville’s Bible, his interest in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah continues into Genesis 19: 28, where he drew two marginal lines alongside the passage in which Abraham “looked toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace” (Cowen 3: 83-85). In Clarel, as the pilgrims approach Siddim, certain “vapors” and “exhalations” still recall “that morn which followed rain / Of fire, when Abraham looked again, / The smoke went up from all the plain” (NN C 3.1.123-32). Earlier, on their way to the Dead Sea (called “Lot’s Sea”), the subject of Melville’s engraving had in this way returned to life in the minds of the pilgrims: “Imagination time repealed— / Restored there, and in fear revealed / Lot and his daughters twin in flight, / Three shadows flung on reflex light / Of Sodom in her funeral pyre” (NN C 2.32.39-44).