‘The Lightning-Rod Man’ by Herman Melville

The Lightning-Rod Man by Herman Melville, 1854

The magic trick:

Roasting capitalist commercialism with humor

Herman Melville, America’s great comedian.


This is a very funny story. We’ve got a traveling salesman who only peddles his lightning rods during thunderstorms, and what’s more, he is extremely scared of storms. Or at least paranoid about the horrible things that could happen. It’s funny. You’ll laugh.

One can only imagine what Melville would make of today’s fear mongering politics and aggressive-to-the-point-of-devious marketing. His anger here regarding the clownish lightning-rod man can barely be contained, but at least it’s coated in humor.

And that’s quite a trick on Melville’s part. 

The selection:

“For one who would arm others with fearlessness, you seem unbeseemingly timorous yourself. Common men are 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 thunderstorm, 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.”


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