Sunday, March 8, 2015

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 267: Herman Melville, The Lightning-Rod Man (#267)

Herman Melville, "The Lightning-Rod Man" (1819–1891) from Herman Melville: Pierre, Israel Potter, The Piazza Tales, The Confidence-Man, Billy Budd, & Uncollected Prose:

I haven't read Moby Dick in years, so take that into account when I say that The Confidence-Man is my favorite novel of Melville's--largely because it's such a mess as a novel. Take all the things you usually find in a novel: a plot that runs for hundreds of pages; characters that continue or at least reappear; maybe a theme or two. Confidence-Man pretty much ditches the first two and leans hard on the third, but not in any way where you can say, as if writing a paper, "Melville shows us that..." Because what does he show us? There's something about faith and trust and confidence and how people relate to each other (along with a whole host of characters that are stand-ins for 19th-century contemporaries of Melville).

"The Lightning-Rod Man" is a lot like that; and as the LoA headnote says, there's a lot of different readings of this sort of ambiguous sketch. The plot, as such, involves a lightning-rod salesman coming to the narrator's house and making what we would consider a hard pitch for a sale, before the two get into a fight. The characters, as such, are both a little odd, as if they might be stand-ins themselves: the narrator is humorous, but a little cracked; the lightning-rod salesman is either pious or devilish. The theme or themes circle around piety, science, punishment, obedience.

And I don't have anything really cute or clever to say to wrap it up. Which is maybe why I like these stories and novels of Melville's that seem a little off. In a letter to Hawthorne, he noted that he couldn't really write what the market demanded, but he tried, and so "all my books are botches." He's talking about a different mechanism there, but I still tend to think of some of these stories as botches, both because they're a weird hash of stuff; and because they tend to revolve around people involved in botches of their own.

For more on this, I would recommend his stories "The Happy Failure" (crazy uncle has new invention to dry up swampland, which doesn't work, leaving him--remarkably happy) and "I and My Chimney" (no one respects character's relationship with his chimney, but he persists--all alone except for his chimney).

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