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The Well Calculated Risk–Melville’s “The Lightning-Rod Man”

Herman Melville (1819-1891)One almost has to read Melville’s story “The Lightning-Rod Man” as allegory or think the writer completely mad for offering such a peculiar tale. Indeed, over the past half century or so, scholars have latched onto this story with the sort of feverish enthusiasm produced by any story that clearly offers symbolism but unclearly indicates what is signified. For Eric Wertheimer, the story is a tale of commercialism and the illusory quality of home security, while most others have taken some sort of religious reading. Most commonly, the salesman of lightning rods is seen as a represenative of revivalist Christianity, preaching gloom and doom at a moment of apparent peril. In short, he can be read as Jonathan Edwards, offering a commodified version of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Given Melville’s history in the “Burned Over District,” such a reading seems reasonable. It doesn’t explain why the story is apparently set in Albania–with its reference to¬†the¬†Acroceraunian hills–but there is a thoroughgoing exotic quality to this story. The characters, places, and situations seem simultaneously familiar and foreign.

Let’s assume for a moment that the key to Melville’s allegory is indeed religion rather than science or commercialism. In such a case, the mysterious lightning-rod salesman, a fellow who appears only in the midst of particularly ominous thunderstorms, would seem to stand as a representative of religious faith. A lightning-filled world poses dire physical (and even more significant) threats in this man’s mind, and he possesses the only key to salvation, a three-pronged lightning rod sure to deflect the wrath of an vengeful deity.

The narrator and host, then, stands in as a skeptical auditor of this lightning evangelist’s gospel. Far from being cowed into submission, the narrator mocks the lightning-rod man and the danger that he espouses.

“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.”

The combination of sarcasm with scientific debunking and semi-religious phraseology explains the angry response of the lightning-rod man. Clearly the narrator is not the most accomodating of hosts, but his attacks, while provoking the salesman to local anger, do not slow his efforts. At the story’s close, we learn that he “still travels in storm-time, and drives a brave trade with the fears of man.”

Accepting that the lightning-rod man represents an evangelist, either of religious salvation or home safety, and that the narrator rejects and in fact inverts the very claims of peril on which the sales pitch is constructed, the question that a reader must ask is how to interpret the wisdom of the narrator’s stance. Clearly neither the narrator’s house nor his person have been dashed apart by lightning as of his telling of this story, but such fortune neither proves nor disproves the wisdom of his course of action.

One cannot be entirely sure of Melville’s attitude toward his skeptical narrator in the way that one can be sure of, for example, Bunyan’s attitudes toward his various characters. Does this narrator speak for Melville? Does Melville offer him for tacit condemnation? Or is the author more ambivalent, simply presenting the story for our interpretation. Given what we know of Melville’s biography and other work, the direct critique of the religious seems likely but hardly a settled matter.

Posted in American Literature, Romanticism.

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