The Lightning-Rod Man

by Herman Melville (1854)

WHAT GRAND IRREGULAR thunder thought I, standing on my hearth-stone1 among the Acroceraunian hills,2 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.”1
       “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 lighting: the gleam without the bolt. Ihe 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 himself3 in one’s cottage. The thunder grows finer for that. But pray be seated. This old rush-bottomed arm-chair,1 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 heaven! 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,4 and the assembly-room5 cupola were struck? Any of your rods there?”
       “Not on the tree and cupola, but 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 Montreal6 last year? A servant girl struck at her bed-side 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 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 thunder-storm, 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.7 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.”8
       “How?”
       “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 to-day—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?9 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,10 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 Diety 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.”
       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,11 the Lightning-rod man still dwells in the land; still travels in storm-time, and drives a brave trade12 with the fears of man.



 

The following notes to The Lightning-Rod Man are from a 1948 edition of Piazza Tales, by Herman Melville, edited by Egbert S. Oliver.

This story was first published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine for August, 1854. Melville was paid $18.00 for the story.

1. hearth-stone, fire, arm-chair:
The hearth-stone, the fire-place, and the rush-bottomed arm-chair are symbols of home-like comfort and domesticity contrasting with the uneasy fear of the Lightning-rod man. At the end of the story the tri-forked weapon is aimed at the narrator’s “heart,” emblem of warm humanity. In considering these symbols one would do well to read Merton M. Sealts, “Herman Melville’s ‘I and My Chimney’,” American Literature, XIII (May, 1941), 142-154.

2. Acroceraunian hills:
Acroceraunia is a section of ancient Greece on the Adriatic Sea famous for its frequent and violent thunder-storms. It was not far from the seat of Jupiter; hence it is a suitable name for use in this story, with a Berkshire locale. In its first published form Melville used the name Greylock as the seat of the Thunderer.

3. the Thunderer himself:
A contemporary evaluation of the Rev. John Todd, pastor of the First Church (Congregational) of Pittsfield from 1842 to 1873, leads to interesting speculation concerning what might have been the result if this cleric had called on Herman Melville, the creator of Ahab:

       “In all this region he [Rev. John Todd] was recognized as a kind of bishop, partly, in later years, on account of his age and experience; partly because of his being pastor of the leading church in the county, but most of all, on account of his strong common sense and practical wisdom, and his unconscious tendency to push to the front and take the lead, from sheer weight and energy of character. There was scarcely a convention or anniversary, a dediication or an installation, or a meeting or gathering of any kind, secular or religious, which did not demand his presence.”   (John Todd, the Story of His Life, by John E. Todd: New York, 1876, 494)

He never swerved from a firm belief in the Calvinism of Jonathan Edwards, a sufficient grounding in belief in divine wrath to familiarize him with heaven-hurled fire. In the pulpit he was solemn, but he lacked a convincing fieriness of manner. He is probably the object of Melville’s satirical caricature in this story.

4. big elm:
“But, in 1841, the lightning scored a ghastly wound down its [the big elm’s] tall, straight trunk, and began to dry up its life-blood. Limbs fell away from it from time to time; and the thunderbolt again scathed it.”   (History of Pittsfield, I, 36.) This old elm, twice scarred by lightning, stood in the Pittsfield Park. Melville undoubtedly had it in mind as he described Ahab, in Moby-Dick:

       “Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish. It resembled that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it, and without wrenching a single twig, peels and grooves out the bark from top to bottom, ere running off into the soil, leaving the tree still greenly alive, but branded.” (Ch. XXVIII)

5. assembly-room:
The assembly-room of First Church (Congregational) in Pittsfield was struck by lightning in such a spectacular manner as to impress the memory of the citizens and get written into the official records as follows:

“Sunday Evening, September 6, 1835.
A pretty full prayer-meeting, supposed to number about three hundred, were in attendance at the lecture-room, when the lightning struck and descended the rod to the eaves. The rod had become detached from the building, and swung loose. There the lightning parted. One portion descended the rod to the earth, and there made a mighty display of its wonderful power. The other portion entered the lecture-room between the first and second windows, carrying in the second window, to the large stove; followed the pipe to the chimney at the west end of the house; descended until it met the stove-pipe in the lower room; thence followed the pipe north to the stove in the north-west lower room, where it tore its way through the floor, and passed out through the underpinning: leaving a visible trace of its irresistible course in the earth outside, and at the north-west corner of the building. Although several were severely injured, yet God’s great goodness and mercy were signally manifested in the preservation of the life of every one present.”   (History of Pittsfield, II, 423)

6. Montreal:
The intent is clearly to contrast Catholic and Protestant faiths, and to satirize the arrogance of one who says, “Mine is the only true rod.” Probably the use of “rod” is related to the usage of the Pentateuch. It should further be noted that the Rev. John Todd’s dedicatory sermon at his church in Philadelphia, published under the title Principles and Results of Congregationalism (1837), contained such strictures on the other denominations as to cause much feeling. See the Dictionary of American Biography. The Rev. Mr. Todd’s ministry in Philadelphia ended in comparative failure, as had his effort in a pastorate before he went to the Quaker City. In contrast he was eminently successful in Pittsfield.

7. from the earth to the clouds:
Kimpel suggests that this sentence is evidently “hinting at a divinity in man.” The lightning is used symbolically as it has often been from ancient mythology as God’s wrath hurled from heaven to earth. I take it that Melville’s suggestion more nearly means that some Promethean figures sometimes hurl bolts from earth to heaven, i.e., Ahab. Blasphemy might be “the returning stroke.” A consideration of Chapter CXIX, “The Candles,” of Moby-Dick, with its use of lightning, lightning-rods, and defiance, is particularly relevant to this story, though “The Lightning-Rod Man” lacks the Zoroastrian symbolism of “The Candles.” Melville uses lightning in Moby-Dick and Clarel as a symbol of supernatural power.

8. better wet:
Baptism is undoubtedly signified by the emphasis upon being wet and safe.

9. put down your name:
This sales talk with the urgency of completing the transaction and getting the name down, with the emphasis on amount, may have some reference to the campaign to raise funds to build the stone structure of First Church in Pittsfield, the church over which John Todd presided. The former building burned 9 January 1851, soon after the Melvilles were established at Arrowhead. The manner adopted to finance the new building was thus:

       “The plan adopted was that familiarly known as “dooming,” a method of raising money for public purposes then common in Pittsfield. In accordance with it, the committee assessed upon each man of property in the parish, a sort of semi-voluntary tax, proportioned not exactly to what they supposed his resources to be; but based partly upon that, and in part upon his interest in the proposed object, his reputed liberality, and his sense of duty in such matters. In short, they assigned to each individual that measure of contribution which they believed he would voluntarily assume, were he as well-informed in the premises as themselves. Of course the acquiescence of the parties doomed was entirely optional except in so far as a regard for moral obligation, or respect for public opinion, enforced compliance. In the present case, the members of the parish were divided into classes; the first being asked to contribute six hundred dollars each, the second five hundred dollars the third four hundred, and so down to one hundred. No assessment was laid upon those who were not considered able and willing to pay the latter sum; but they were left to their own judgment, and many of them contributed very liberally. The result of this plan was a subscription of sixteen thousand and seven hundred dollars.”   (History of Pittsfield, II, 425-26)

10. Tetzel:
Johann Tetzel (c. 1460-1519). “He combined the elocutionary gifts of a revivalist orator with the shrewdness of an auctioneer. He painted in lurid colors the terrors of purgatory, while he dwelt on the cheapness of the indulgence which would purchase remission....”   (Encyclopedia Britannica, eleventh ed., XXVI, 672)

11. my neighbors:
Melville’s neighbor, Mrs. Morewood, wrote a comment on his talk among his neighbors on religion:

       “Mr. Herman was more quiet than usual—still he is a pleasant companion at all times and I like him very much—Mr. Morewood now that he knows him better likes him the more—still he dislikes many of Mr. Herman’s opinions and religious views—It is a pity that Mr. Melville so often in conversation uses irreverent language—he will not be popular in society here on that very account....”

12. a brave trade:
Under the pastorate of the Rev. John Todd (1842-1873) 1,008 persons were admitted to membership in First Church and 502 persons were baptized. The church conducted several successful revivals. (History of Pittsfield, II, 419) Melville’s description of the lightning-rod man at the opening of the story is entirely compatible with the picture of the Rev. Mr. Todd given in the History of Pittsfield and in John Todd, the Story of His Life.