The Lightning-Rod Man
by Herman Melville

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Putnam's Monthly Magazine, August 1854

collected in —
The Piazza Tales
Pierre, etc. (Library of America)

April 2014


Many aspects and phenomena of Nature fascinated people of the Nineteenth Century perhaps more than their ancestors or descendants. Civilization was learning and shaping heaps of new knowledge about natural science. Past exotic mysteries were becoming glorious science and technology, but these knowledge and techniques still were fresh and fascinating, not masses of humdrum outdoor lore which they dwindled to, for their descendants.

Thanks to Benjamin Franklin and other scientific theorists and practical experimenters, lightning was one of these strange phenomena over which we were finally gaining some control; yet even the life-saving and property-saving mitigation of lightning strikes remained a quaint outlier compared with the stunningly imaginative breakthroughs in technology with which inventors and engineers gave us steamboats, railroads, telegraphy, and so on.

An eventual outfall of Franklin's lightning experiments was the lightning-rod salesman, likely a door-to-door, long-walking and slick-talking fellow. Herman Melville's short story "The Lightning-Rod Man" deals with the descent of one of these salesmen upon the resident of a lonely mountain homestead. It is a stormy night, with rain and lightning and thunder.

Yet even in these propitious sales conditions, the householder stands rather for old-school faith or fate than the new-fangled electrical conductor. This is a confrontation in dialogue, not a drama of events. The householder is as brimming with Classical allusions as the salesman is with urgent advice. Their ideas of common sense are a good match for each other, there in the mountain home with the thunderstorm outside. "The Lightning-Rod Man" is just a sketch, but vivid and entertaining.

Lightning always has held some personal fascination for me. My grandmother Edith Rose Franson grew up in a lighthouse of which her father was official operator, and there as a teenage girl she was struck by lightning. My father's retelling of this event is Lightning Strikes the Lighthouse: Sand Point, Michigan, 1906.


© 2014 Robert Wilfred Franson

Project Gutenberg online version of
"The Lightning-Rod Man"
in The Piazza Tales


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