Friday, March 6, 2015

The Lightning-Rod Man

Herman Melville (1819–1891)
From Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Billy Budd, & Uncollected Prose

The Storm, oil on canvas, 1885, by American painter George Inness (1825–1894). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.
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.

Notes: The Acroceraunian hills, more commonly known as the Ceraunian Mountains, are in southwestern Albania; as the Greek name (“thunder-split peaks”) implies, the region is famous for its lightning storms. Johann Tetzel (mentioned on page 762) became the Grand Commissioner for indulgences in Germany in 1517 and was accused for granting full forgiveness of sins in exchange for money, a practice assailed by Martin Luther.

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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. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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