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STEPHEN DOUGHERTY Prophecy, Racial Paranoia, and the Figure of Egypt in Antebellum America Or much of their history, Americans have believed that their country occupied a providential place among nations. In his novel White Jacket (1850), Herman Melville offers a fascinating but also typical mid-nineteenth-century expression of this conviction: In many things we Americans are driven to a rejection of the maxims of the Past, seeing that, ere long, the van of the nations must, of right, belong to ourselves. . . . Escaped from the house of bondage, Israel of old did not follow after the Egyptians ; to her were given new things under the sun. And we Americans are the peculiar, chosen people—the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. . . . (177) Historically, the benefit that has accrued from the proliferation and the accretion of such unyielding and inexorable rhetoric is the tremendous sense of national self-confidence that is a hallmark of the "American way of life." But there is also a cost involved in imagining one's place in the world as being divinely ordained. Since it is only vis-à-vis the imagined profanity of other nations and other races that the United States could imagine itself as a unique and providential nation, its sacredness and purity was inextricably bound up with the other's defilement. For the United States to be a sacred nation in the ritual sense—for America 's future greatness to be predestined in a divine order of things— there had to be people who were accursed in the divine order as well. Arizona Quarterly Volume 56, Number 3, Autumn 2000 Copyright © 2000 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 Stephen Dougherty Domestically, there were enslaved Africans who suffered the ancient curse of Ham. But although it was indeed vital for the nation to read in the slaves' misery the mark of Anglo-American divinity, such a reading strategy was of its nature divisive, and traumatic; for it could always be perceived from the proper (or improper) perspective as self-serving and duplicitous. What was needed in Melville's day was an wr-curse; a curse that was in itself capable of legitimizing the curse of slavery (if you were a Southerner), or merely the curse of not being white (if you were a racist Northerner); a curse that was simultaneously historical, figurai, and visionary, and which applied to a people who were far-removed from American circumstances, but who nevertheless occupied an intimate niche in the national dream-space. Melville had of course hit upon the solution in White Jacket. The glorious equivalence that he postulates between America's mission and Israel's exodus is enabling insofar as Egypt is insinuated as the accursed place of bondage from which the Israelites are delivered. The notion that the United States was the new Israel had already become an integral part of the national heritage by the antebellum period . Mid-century Americans had inherited it from the rhetoricians and propagandists of the revolutionary period, who used it to authorize the quest for independence.' In Timothy Dwight's prospect poem The Conquest of Canaan (1785), for example, the biblical Joshua assumes the role of the neo-romantic muse who inspires, and indeed demands, that prophecies regarding the millennial role of America be boldly and joyously proclaimed: The chief, whose arm to Israel's chosen band Gave the fair empire of the promis'd land, Ordain'd by Heaven to hold the sacred sway, Demands my voice and animates my lay. (qtd. Tuveson 106) As Ernest Lee Tuveson notes, Dwight's initial draft of the poem included a number of parallels between notable biblical figures and American soldiers who died in valiant defense of their fledgling country.2 Although many of these lines were cut, Dwight's revisions in no way undermined the overall analogical force of the text, as Joshua's vision of America's future glory demonstrates: The Figure of Egypt in Antebellum America Far from all realms this world imperial lies; Seas roll between, and threatening storms arise; Alike unmov'd beyond Ambition's pale, And bold pinions of the ventrous sail; Till circling years...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 1-28
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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