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Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 62.1 (2006) 1-33

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The Temporality of Allegory:

Melville's "The Lightning-Rod Man"


Poised Between "Benito Cereno" and "The Encantadas," two of Melville's most mature works of short fiction, is an innocuous little story about a peddler: "The Lightning-Rod Man." Though mostly unread and uncollected now, it was one of his most popular short stories during his lifetime; it was, in fact, Melville's only story that remained in print until his death.1 After appearing first in Putnam's Monthly (in July, 1854) and then in The Piazza Tales (1856), "The Lightning-Rod Man" was collected in William E. Burton's Cyclopaedia of Wit and Humor (1857), and was regularly reprinted in similar compendia thereafter.2 Its circulation outlived, even, the life of its author; though Melville died in 1891, "The Lightning-Rod Man" was reprinted, in 1895, in Capital Stories by American Authors.

Melville's tale probably found such persistent acceptance because it is generically recognizable. It is a salesman story, what Hershel Parker identifies as a "little Berkshire salesman story," and it is as a salesman story that it seems to have found its immediate legacy: bound up in anthologies like Burton's Cyclopaedia that recycled compact stories with a singleness of plot and a clear thematic task. As with the other salesman stories in such collections, the straightforward thematic tension of "The Lightning-Rod Man" develops between a hard-sell door-to-door peddler and an acute consumer; the trick, in the salesman story, is for the prospective buyer to figure out what the salesman is really selling; they are parables of alert consumerism. The moral of the tale is always caveat emptor.3 [End Page 1]

On the other hand, for all its historical popularity, the experience of reading "The Lightning-Rod Man," if a survey of the critical response is any indication, is characterized by nothing so much as the sense that all is not as it seems, here.4 For one thing, the salesman and his buyer are talking about a lightning-rod, but their dialogue seems to be orbiting into vocabularies not properly about lightning-rods: about Catholic indulgences, or rosaries, or scepters, tri-forked things, and Leyden jars. And, more telling, the sale of the rod never seems to turn on questions appropriate to the purchase of a lightning-rod; questions of voltage differentials and electrical resistance, of conductivity and the strange logic of electric "fluid" never quite come up. This is partly to say that thematic desire is very much like the critical desire that is implied in it; they both turn on a question first put by Melville's narrator in the opening paragraph of the tale: "what is that strange-looking walking-stick he carries?" (118, 122). Whatever it is, it is more than just an every-day lightning-rod. In Ben Kimpel's words, "obviously there is some allegory here" (30).5

Yet, if it is an allegory, it is an allegory of a particularly New England sort, allegory of the right sort, the Puritan sort of allegory. For "The Lightning-Rod Man" declines to invent a fiction out of the raw material of fancy. Instead, it insists on the literal fact of the lightning-rod as a lightning-rod just as it insists on the historicity of its figures; it is as much about the history of New England Protestantism as it is about one of the principle challenges to New England Protestant theology: the advent of the lightning-rod itself. Melville would have us know that a lighting-rod is very much like an idol, and the lightning-rod consumer is vulnerable to the charge of idolatry; placing trust in a lightning-rod is very much like putting one's refuge in means and creatures rather than in God.6 As such, an ethical consideration of the lightning-rod, in the New England tradition of allegory, finds its most...


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