Melville was the author of a novel abut what we'd now consider an illegal
the commercial hunting of whales for oil and meat. In capturing the
whaling industry at its peak, showcasing the rebellious white whale, in
our view he was lobbying for the whales, the innocent victims in his
story. Following his death in New York City in 1891, he posthumously came to be regarded as one of the great American
writers, with which we agree absolutely.
LIGHTNING ROD MAN
In “The Lightning‐Rod Man,” Melville offers his readers a short, self‐contained tale about a man enjoying a thunderstorm who hears an unexpected knock on his door.
The main character opens to door to find one of our Jacksonian traveling salesmen, quite conveniently pitching lightning‐rods. From the start of the interaction, our salesman preaches doom, gloom, and widespread destruction should our narrator fail to purchase a rod.
The man is drenched by the rain and the narrator invites him inside so that he may dry off, although he does not know the stranger.
The narrator is very hospitable to the wet stranger and tries to get him to come and stand by the fire so that he may dry off. At this point, the stranger starts to urge the narrator to come stand where he is instead of by the fire.
His language is grand, his message is apocalyptic, and his prices are low, low, low! Gradually throughout the storm, the lightning‐rod man erratically tries to convince the narrator that nothing and no one but he and his copper tubes are safe during a storm.
The two men go back and forth with each other trying to get the other to stand where they are. Finally the narrator asks the stranger what his business is and the stranger tells him that he sales lightning rods.
The stranger is very persistent at trying to get the narrator to stand near him. He urges the narrator to come stand in the middle of the cottage with him telling him that standing near the fireplace is one of the worst places to stand because there is soot and heated air which the stranger claims are great conductors of lightning.
The narrator ends up being furious with the man because he has stood there ridiculing the narrator and as it turned out, all he wanted to do was sale lightning rods.
Finally tired of the attempt at exploitation, our narrator casts the peddler out of his home.
Romanticism was changing the way literature was written. Herman Melville's "The Lightning-Rod Man", takes on few characteristics of Romanticism writing, but still stays true to it.
For more than a century and a half, readers have puzzled over the inspiration for and meaning of Herman Melville’s comic tale “The Lightning-Rod Man,” which one contemporary compared to “Poe in his strangest mood.” In the 1940s Jay Leyda, who performed the scholarly groundwork for much of the information that has come down to us about Melville’s life, heard from Helen Gansevoort Morewood (the granddaughter of Melville’s brother) that the story was known in the family “as an encounter that Melville had had with a real lightning-rod salesman, who chose times of storm to pursue his trade.” This interesting biographical tidbit might be apocryphal, but Leyda adds that in 1853 “the Berkshires were enduring an intense lightning-rod sales campaign, with advertisements and warnings and editorials on the subject in all the Berkshire papers.” Other chroniclers have confirmed the ubiquitous presence of peddlers selling such products across the American countryside during this decade; you can see an 1859 advertisement for a copper lightning rod (like the one in Melville’s story) here.
Leyda also notes that, about the time Melville wrote this story, the Pittsfield Library Association acquired a copy of Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana, “a troubling and frightening record of religion in its most fiercely bullying and bigoted aspect.” Numerous scholars agree that Melville must have been familiar with Mather’s work, which contains a chapter titled "Ceraunius. Relating remarkables done by thunder" and includes the warning “make your peace with God immediately, lest by the stroke of his thunder he take you away in his wrath.” Thus, Melville could be portraying “a fear-instilling religionist playing the role of the peddler” (to quote the masterful biography by Hershel Parker) or, more generally, “sneering at proponents of the stern religious notion that God can strike sinners out of stormy clouds” (A Herman Melville Encyclopedia).
The literary critic William B. Dillingham argues persuasively, however, for a more complex reading of Melville’s “peculiar and elusive” tale. “The source of its strangeness is not so much the storm that rages in it or even the characterization of the salesman (though admittedly he is not your everyday Fuller Brush Man), but the narrator, who from the first paragraph is a highly unusual person.” The story’s peddler, far from being the voice of religious fear and dogma, “is the voice of science” and everything he says about “lightning rods and lightning is examined closely and measured against scientific fact” (at least as it was understood at the time). Dillingham cautions against equating the salesman merely with “Christian dogma, Satan, or Fear” and he concludes that Melville’s purpose “is not to present one character as good and the other as evil but to show through the ironic use of a Christian frame of reference how each views the other.” In other words, “Each of the two characters sees himself as righteous and the other as Satanic.”*
Although “The Lightning-Rod Man” is one of Melville’s lesser-known works, it was perhaps the most widely read of his stories during his lifetime and the only one that remained in print from its publication until his death. In 1858 it was included in William E. Burton’s Cyclopaedia of Wit and Humor, which was reprinted frequently until the end of the century. (Four years after Melville’s death the tale was also included alongside selections by Hawthorne, Irving, and Twain in Capital Stories by American Authors, published by The Christian Herald.) In the Burton anthology Melville’s story was accompanied by a drawing, making it—according to the Critical Companion to Herman Melville—“the only one of his signed works to appear with an original illustration during his lifetime.”
* Dillingham’s essay on “The Lightning-Rod Man” was published in Melville’s Short Fiction, 1853–1856 (1977), pages 168–82.
What grand irregular thunder, thought I, standing on my hearthstone among the Acroceraunian hills, as the scattered bolts boomed overhead and crashed down among the valleys, every bolt followed by zigzag irradiations, and swift slants of sharp rain, which audibly rang, like a charge of spear-points, on my low shingled roof. I suppose, though, that the mountains hereabouts break and churn up the thunder, so that it is far more glorious here than on the plain. Hark! -- some one at the door. Who is this that chooses a time of thunder for making calls? And why don't he, man-fashion, use the knocker, instead of making that doleful undertaker's clatter with his fist against the hollow panel? But let him in. Ah, here he comes. "Good day, sir:" an entire stranger. "Pray be seated." What is that strange-looking walking-stick he carries: "A fine thunder-storm, sir."
"Fine? -- Awful!"
"You are wet. Stand here on the hearth before the fire."
"Not for worlds."
The stranger still stood in the exact middle of the cottage, where he had first planted himself. His singularity impelled a closer scrutiny. A lean, gloomy figure. Hair dark and lank, mattedly streaked over his brow. His sunken pitfalls of eyes were ringed by indigo halos, and played with an innocuous sort of lightning: the gleam without the bolt. The whole man was dripping. He stood in a puddle on the bare oak floor: his strange-walking stick vertically resting at his side.
It was a polished copper rod, four feet long, lengthwise attached to a neat wooden staff, by insertion into two balls of greenish glass, ringed with copper bands. The metal rod terminated at the top tripodwise, in three keen tines, brightly gilt. He held the thing by the wooden part alone.
"Sir," said I, bowing politely, "have I the honor of a visit from that illustrious God, Jupiter Tonans? So stood he in the Greek statue of old, grasping the lightning-bolt. If you be he, or his viceroy, I have to thank you for this noble storm you have brewed among our mountains. Listen: that was a glorious peal. Ah, to a lover of the majestic, it is a good thing to have the Thunderer himself in one's cottage. The thunder grows finer for that. But pray be seated. This old rush- bottomed arm-chair, I grant, is a poor substitute for your evergreen throne on Olympus; but, condescend to be seated."
While I thus pleasantly spoke, the stranger eyed me, half in wonder, and half in a strange sort of horror; but did not move a foot.
"Do, sir, be seated; you need to be dried ere going forth again."
I planted the chair invitingly on the broad hearth, where a little fire had been kindled that afternoon to dissipate the dampness, not the cold; for it was early in the month of September.
But without heeding my solicitation, and still standing in the middle of the floor, the stranger gazed at me portentously and spoke.
"Sir," said he, "excuse me; but instead of my accepting your invitation to be seated on the hearth there, I solemnly warn you, that you had best accept mine, and stand with me in the middle of the room. Good Heavens!" he cried, starting -- "there is another of those awful crashes. I warn you, sir, quit the hearth."
Mr Jupiter Tonans," said I, quietly rolling my body on the stone, "I stand very well here."
"Are you so horridly ignorant, then," he cried, "as not to know, that by far the most dangerous part of a house, during such a terrific tempest as this, is the fire-place?"
"Nay, I did not know that," involuntarily stepping upon the first board next to the stone.
The stranger now assumed such an unpleasant air of successful admonition, that -- quite involuntarily again -- I stepped back upon the hearth, and threw myself into the erectest, proudest posture I could command. But I said nothing.
"For Heaven's sake," he cried, with a strange mixture of alarm and intimidation -- "for Heaven's sake, get off the hearth! Know you not, that the heated air and soot are conductors; -- to say nothing of those immense iron fire-dogs? Quit the spot -- I conjure -- I command you."
"Mr Jupiter Tonans, I am not accustomed to be commanded in my own house."
"Call me not by that pagan name. You are profane in this time of terror."
"Sir, will you be so good as to tell me your business? If you seek shelter from the storm, you are welcome, so long as you be civil; but if you come on business, open it forthwith. Who are you?"
"I am a dealer in lightning-rods," said the stranger, softening his tone; "my special business is -- merciful Heavens! what a crash! -- Have you ever been struck -- your premises, I mean? No? It's best to be provided," -- significantly rattling his metallic staff on the floor, -- "by nature, there are no castles in thunder-storms; yet, say but the word, and of this cottage I can make a Gibraltar by a few waves of this wand. Hark, what Himalayas of concussions!"
"You interrupted yourself; your special business you were about to speak of."
"My special business is to travel the country for orders for lightning-rods. This is my specimen rod;" tapping his staff; "I have the best of references" -- fumbling in his pockets. "In Criggan last month, I put up three-and-twenty rods on only five buildings."
"Let me see. Was it not at Criggan last week, about midnight on Saturday, that the steeple, the big elm, and the assembly-room cupola were struck? Any of your rods there?"
"Not on the tree and cupola, but on the steeple."
"Of what use is your rod, then?"
"Of life-and-death use. But my workman was heedless. In fitting the rod at top to the steeple, he allowed a part of the metal to graze the tin sheeting. Hence the accident. Not my fault, but his. Hark!"
"Never mind. That clap burst quite loud enough to be heard without finger-pointing. Did you hear of the event at Montreal last year? A servant-girl struck at her bedside with a rosary in her hand; the beads being metal. Does your beat extend into the Canadas?"
"No. And I hear that there, iron rods only are in use. They should have mine, which are copper. Iron is easily fused. Then they draw out the rod so slender, that it has not body enough to conduct the full electric current. The metal melts; the building is destroyed. My copper rods never act so. Those Canadians are fools. Some of them knob the rod at the top, which risks a deadly explosion, instead of imperceptibly carrying down the current into the earth, as this sort of rod does. Mine is the only true rod. Look at it. Only one dollar a foot."
"This abuse of your own calling in another might make one distrustful with respect to yourself."
"Hark! The thunder becomes less muttering. It is nearing us, and nearing the earth, too. Hark! One crammed crash! All the vibrations made one by nearness. Another flash. Hold."
"What do you?" I said, seeing him now instantaneously relinquishing his staff, lean intently forward towards the window, with his right fore and middle fingers on his left wrist.
But ere the words had well escaped me, another exclamation escaped him.
"Crash! only three pulses -- less than a third of a mile off -- yonder, somewhere in that wood. I passed three stricken oaks there, ripped out new and glittering. The oak draws lightning more than other timber, having iron in solution in its sap. Your floor here seems oak."
"Heart-of-oak. From the peculiar time of your call upon me, I suppose you purposely select stormy weather for your journeys. When the thunder is roaring, you deem it an hour peculiarly favorable for producing impressions favorable to your trade."
"Hark -- Awful!"
"For one who would arm others with fearlessness, you seem unbeseemingly timorous yourself. Common men are choose fair weather for their travels; you choose thunder-storms; and yet --"
"That I travel in thunder-storms, I grant; but not without particular precautions, such as only a lightning-rod man may know. Hark! Quick -- look at my specimen rod. Only one dollar a foot."
"A very fine rod, I dare say. But what are these particular precautions of yours? Yet first let me close yonder shutters; the slanting rain is beating through the sash. I will bar up."
"Are you mad? Know you not that yon iron bar is a swift conductor? Desist."
"I will simply close the shutters, then, and call my boy to bring me a wooden bar. Pray, touch the bell-pull there."
"Are you frantic? That bell-wire might blast you. Never touch bell-wire in a thunderstorm, nor ring a bell of any sort."
"Nor those in belfries? Pray, will you tell me where and how one may be safe in a time like this? Is there any part of my house I may touch with hopes of my life?"
"There is; but not where you now stand. Come away from the wall. The current will sometimes run down a wall, and -- a man being a better conductor than a wall -- it would leave the wall and run into him. Swoop! That must have fallen very nigh. That must have been globular lightning."
"Very probably. Tell me at once, which is, in your opinion, the safest part of this house?"
"This room, and this one spot in it where I stand. Come hither."
"The reasons first."
"Hark! -- after the flash the gust -- the sashes shiver -- the house, the house! -- Come hither to me!"
"The reasons, if you please."
"Come hither to me!"
"Thank you again, I think I will try my old stand -- the hearth. And now, Mr Lightning-rod man, in the pauses of the thunder, be so good as to tell me your reasons for esteeming this one room of the house the safest, and your own one stand-point there the safest spot in it."
There was now a little cessation of the storm for a while. The Lightning-rod man seemed relieved, and replied --
"Your house is a one-storied house, with an attic and a cellar; this room is between. Hence its comparative safety. Because lightning sometimes passes from the clouds to the earth, and sometimes from the earth to the clouds. Do you comprehend? -- and I choose the middle of the room, because, if the lightning should strike the house at all, it would come down the chimney or walls; so, obviously, the further you are from them, the better. Come hither to me, now."
"Presently. Something you just said, instead of alarming me, has strangely inspired confidence."
"What have I said?"
"You said that sometimes lightning flashes from the earth to the clouds."
"Aye, the returning-stroke, as it is called; when the earth, being overcharged with the fluid, flashes its surplus upward."
"The returning-stroke; that is, from earth to sky. Better and better. But come here on the hearth, and dry yourself."
"I am better here, and better wet."
"It is the safest thing you can do -- Hark, again! -- to get yourself thoroughly drenched in a thunder-storm. Wet clothes are better conductors than the body; and so, if the lightning strike, it might pass down the wet clothes without touching the body. The storm deepens again. Have you a rug in the house? Rugs are non-conductors. Get one, that I may stand on it here, and you, too. The skies blacken -- it is dusk at noon. Hark! -- the rug, the rug!"
I gave him one; while the hooded mountains seemed closing and tumbling into the cottage.
"And now, since our being dumb will not help us," said I, resuming my place, "let me hear your precautions in traveling during thunder-storms."
"Wait till this one is passed."
"Nay, proceed with the precautions. You stand in the safest possible place according to your own account. Go on."
"Briefly, then. I avoid pine-trees, high houses, lonely barns, upland pastures, running water, flocks of cattle and sheep, a crowd of men. If I travel on foot -- as today -- I do not walk fast; if in my buggy, I touch not its back or sides; if on horseback, I dismount and lead the horse. But of all things, I avoid tall men."
"Do I dream? Man avoid man? and in danger-time, too."
"Tall men in a thunder-storm I avoid. Are you so grossly ignorant as not to know, that the height of a six-footer is sufficient to discharge an electric cloud upon him? Are not lonely Kentuckians, ploughing, smit in the unfinished furrow? Nay, if the six-footer stand by running water, the cloud will sometimes select him as its conductor to that running water. Hark! Sure, yon black pinnacle is split. Yes, a man is a good conductor. The lightning goes through and through a man, but only peels a tree. But sir, you have kept me so long answering your questions, that I have not yet come to business. Will you order one of my rods? Look at this specimen one? See: it is of the best of copper. Copper's the best conductor. Your house is low; but being upon the mountains, that lowness does not one whit depress it. You mountaineers are most exposed. In mountainous countries the lightning-rod man should have most business. Look at the specimen, sir. One rod will answer for a house so small as this. Look over these recommendations. Only one rod, sir; cost, only twenty dollars. Hark! There go all the granite Taconics and Hoosics dashed together like pebbles. By the sound, that must have struck something. An elevation of five feet above the house will protect twenty feet radius all about the rod. Only twenty dollars, sir -- a dollar a foot. Hark -- Dreadful! -- Will you order? Will you buy? Shall I put down your name? Think of being a heap of charred offal, like a haltered horse burnt in his stall; and all in one flash!"
"You pretended envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to and from Jupiter Tonans," laughed I; "you mere man who come here to put you and your pipestem between clay and sky, do you think that because you can strike a bit of green light from the Leyden jar, that you can thoroughly avert the supernal bolt? Your rod rusts, or breaks, and where are you? Who has empowered you, you Tetzel, to peddle round your indulgences from divine ordinations? The hairs of our heads are numbered, and the days of our lives. In thunder as in sunshine, I stand at ease in the hands of my God. False negotiator, away! See, the scroll of the storm is rolled back; the house is unharmed; and in the blue heavens I read in the rainbow, that the Deity will not, of purpose, make war on man's earth."
"Impious wretch!" foamed the stranger, blackening in the face as the rainbow beamed. "I will publish your infidel notions."
"Begone! move quickly! if quickly you can, you that shine forth into sight in moist times like the worm."
The scowl grew blacker on his face; the indigo-circles enlarged round his eyes as the storm rings round the midnight moon. He sprang upon me; his tri-forked thing at my heart.
I seized it; I snapped it; I dashed it; I trod it; and dragging the dark lightning-king out of my door, flung his elbowed, copper sceptre after him.
But spite of my treatment, and spite of my dissuasive talk of him to my neighbors, the Lightning-rod man still dwells in the land; still travels in storm-time, and drives a brave trade with the fears of man.
DICK - IS OUR FAVOURITE
Dick, is the story of a great white sperm whale that fought back at
whalers who tried to kill him. The idea came to Herman Melville after
he spent time on a commercial whaler, where stories abounded of the
sinking of the Essex in 1821 and Mocha
Dick, a giant sperm whale that sank around 20 ships, before being
harpooned in 1838.
The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids
PIAZZA TALES - COLLECTION
Bartleby, the Scrivener
The Encantadas or Enchanted Islands
Lightning Rod Man
Moby Dick (1851)
Israel Potter (1855)
The Confidence-Man (1857)
Billy Budd (1924)
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