I'm currently reading some Herman Melville short stories, including, last night, the one titled the same as this post -- "The Lightning-Rod Man." I think I saw a televised version of this story once as a kid, but didn't know it to be Melvilles, though I hope I'm not just confusing it with the film version of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.
In this very short story, a powerful thunderstorm is raging in some northeastern mountains. The main character of the story is enjoying the sublimity of the moment. Knowing Melville, there is some irony intended here -- he is both presenting this typical American character (like us plainsmen who go outside during a tornado) and mocking it.
In the midst of his aesthetic experience, a soaked stranger comes to the door bearing a fascinatingly exotic lightning-rod. The homeowner calls the character Jupiter. The lightning-rod man proceeds to scold the homeowner for standing near the hearth, near the walls, for touching metal during a storm and for blasphemously calling him a pagan god. In overwrought language he attempts to frighten the homeowner and to sell his implement.
This character is fascinating. At once imminently practical sounding, and some mix of superstition and science, he is also some version of a frontier prophet and evangelist. Surely more than one American type is present here as well.
What fascinates about this little story is how many layers of irony and interpretation are possible. Bloom's criticism is really beginning to school me in reading things better!
At the conclusion of the story, the homeowner casts out the salesman and proclaims:
You pretended envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to and from Jupiter Tonans. . . . 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.
A fascinating speech, full of possibilities.
Now, my edition has some critical notes from some scholar. Here's what he writes about this concluding speech:
But this story has a subsurface meaning. Melville is satirizing ministers of the Calvinist persuasion who preach hell-fire and damnation while at the same time they exhort their congregations to buy a lightning rod (conversion to Christianity) in order to escape God's wrath. The narrator's (and Melville's) position is stated at the end of the story [in the speech just quoted].
Yes, Melville is critical of the Calvinist preacher -- that's clear from other places in his body of work. But I don't think that the critic is correct that the narrator, the homeowner, represents Melville's own view. I don't know for certain what Melville's own view of religion and God are. I've read such widely different, yet convincing, arguments from various scholars and critics, including some as eminent themselves as John Updike.
In fact, I think there are some more ironies that this critic misses and more layers of meaning possible in interpreting the story. It is possible that Melville thinks the lightning-rod man correct in his vision of a world doomed to destructive forces; this would make the homeowner naive. It is possible that Melville accepted the pessimistic worldview of the Calvinists, but rejected (as I think one must) that their deity is worthy of worship. Their deity is a brute -- the white whale, for instance, with is "predestinating head" that batters ships at sea. One can, then, accept the Calvinist worldview, reject the worshipfulness of that deity, and, therefore, end a nihilist. This may be Melville.
I do think that the homeowners view of the deity, whether it be some stoic deistic view or some sensitive love-centered view is not clear to tell, but likely the first, is also being mocked by Melville.
Recenlty in the book All Things Shining it has been proposed that Melville was proposing some sort of return to a polytheistic value system. The appearance of the pagan god in this story is interesting. Does it hint to support of this view? Does this story suggest value in multiple different perspectives of deity and meaning? Or that many exist and are mutually unreconcilable?
I don't know. That's what makes this short story so much fun!