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HomeLifestyleThe God of Nature Or Nature’s God: Herman Melville’s “The Lightening-Rod Man”

The God of Nature Or Nature’s God: Herman Melville’s “The Lightening-Rod Man”

Herman Melville’s (1819-1891) “Lightening Rod Man” was, according to the Library of America, “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.” Published in 1854, the tale describes a meeting between a traveling lightening-rod salesman and his mark, a singular cottage-dweller, during the course of a storm.

In Melville’s day, itinerant salesmen roamed the country-side selling many useful—and not-so-useful—items for which there was no easy geographic access. A lightning-rod salesman sold exactly that, and to a poorly-educated sap the described wonders of these metal magic sticks would have imbued the confidence-man with powers akin to a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. It was not uncommon to find homes and barns covered in lightening rods like so many thistles on a cactus.

But narrator of Melville’s story is hip to the game. A storm is about and there is a knock at the door. The teller of our tale is confronted by a drenched stranger who, after a few pleasantries are exchanged, begins thus:

“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.”

Which sets off the following first of many rebuffs by the narrator:

“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 the steeple.”

“Of what use is your rod, then?”

And so persists, for about two or three pages of text, a back-and-forth that, I think, Melville uses to explore tensions between nature, technology, and the Divine.

The cottage-dweller from the outset evinces a disbelief in what he considers are the over-stated powers of the lightening-rod salesman’s wares. He ensnares the salesman by peppering him with logical questions regarding the efficacy of his contraptions. Each passing exchange brings the salesman to greater fits of anger. He simply cannot provide a sufficient answer for why, where, and when the rods should be used, but presses on aggressively:

“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!”

The cottage-dweller is finally provoked toward this false technological prophet and explodes:

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!

What makes this story interesting is Melville’s ability to obscure the lesson of the story through the background of his characters and their choice of rhetoric. Consequently, we are never sure which side Melville favors. For instance, the peddler seems to believe in the power of modern science to conquer the “supernal bolt.” But he has to take this science on the faith of a believer. He cannot explain it. Conversely, the cottage-dweller, who dissects the phenomena of lightening with the reason of a modern Aristotle, is the one who later lapses in to religious rhetoric and is also the only character who invokes God.

More puzzling still is the way the Melville concludes, which is precisely where I will conclude this review:

“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.”

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