man standing off to the side looking down at a marble bust of another man laying atop a pile of broken columns

By the Waters of Babylon

by Stephen Vincent Benét

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What does "UBTREAS" mean in "By the Waters of Babylon"?

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In Stephen Vincent Benét's "By the Waters of Babylon," the term "UBTREAS" is a fragment of a broken sign John encounters while exploring New York City, originally reading "SUBTREASURY." This sign, along with other descriptions, reveals the city as a post-apocalyptic version of our own New York, highlighting the author's warning against the destructive potential of modern technology. John's discoveries influence his resolve to rebuild civilization upon his return to his tribe.

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UBTREAS is part of a broken sign that once said SUBTREASURY. John encounters it when he's exploring New York City in Stephen Vincent Benét's "By the Waters of Babylon." 

When John ventures into New York City, he finds the broken remnants of buildings, though some have remained intact. He finds the intact ones hollow and abandoned. The sight of the city is overwhelming to the man who grew up with the Hill People, forbidden to travel through the Dead Places.

As John explores NYC, he thinks:

How shall I tell what I saw? The towers are not all broken—here and there one still stands, like a great tree in a forest, and the birds nest high. But the towers themselves look blind, for the gods are gone. I saw a fishhawk, catching fish in the river. I saw a little dance of white butterflies over a great heap of broken stones and columns. I went there and looked about me—there was a carved stone with cut—letters, broken in half. I can read letters but I could not understand these. They said UBTREAS. There was also the shattered image of a man or a god. It had been made of white stone and he wore his hair tied back like a woman's. His name was ASHING, as I read on the cracked half of a stone. I thought it wise to pray to ASHING, though I do not know that god.

UBTREAS is the sign from the Subtreasury building. The building that once served as the subtreasury in New York City is called Federal Hall, and there is a statue of George Washington out front. The building is where George Washington took his oath of office, according to the National Parks Service.

After John sees the wonders of New York, he returns home to his tribe, determined to use what he's learned to begin to build civilization again when he becomes the chief priest. 

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There really is no question about this one.  The other people are correct.  The word fragment "UBTREAS" clearly does stand for "Subtreasury."  The author presumably includes this word fragment, along with his description of the "building with the starry ceiling," to let us understand that the City of the Gods is actually New York City.  The author probably does this because he wants us to realize that he is warning us about the sorts of calamities our own world would be facing if it continued on the path down which it was going.  Benet was writing this story in 1937, when the Spanish Civil War was going on and the city of Guernica had just been bombed.  This event made him consider the destructive power of the modern technology of the time.  He wrote "By the Waters of Babylon" as a cautionary tale.  In order to make it more effective, he needed to state quite clearly that the ruined civilization that John sees is our own civilization.

Thus, we can say that the fragment "UBTREAS" is one of the clues that tells us that this part of the story takes place in New York City.

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Since we can deduct that the City of the Gods is New York we can also figure out some of the meanings. "--primitive hunting society after destruction of "civilized" world). Explain the following: "the Bitter Water" (Atlantic Ocean) bitter because of the salt; "ASHIN" (Washington); "UBTREAS" (Subtreasury Building); "building with starry ceiling" (Grand Central). "

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