Sleep Fictions: A Digital Companion

I.6 Hudson

The danger of lightning’s electrical currents and the instrumental power of the rod is a concept explored in Herman Melville’s 1854 short story “The Lightning-Rod Man.”* One of Melville’s most celebrated tales during his lifetime, the story begins with the same fascination that sets the stage for Roderick Hudson, for after a lightning rod salesman appears at his story in the midst of a storm, the unnamed narrator is at first intrigued by the peddler’s creation—asking himself “what is that strange-looking walking-stick he carries?” This likewise occurs when Cecilia introduces Rowland to Roderick via the "pretty boy" sculpture. Upon encountering the art piece, Rowland asks Cecilia “Who the deuce is Mr. Hudson?”

Melville’s narrator perceives his visitor as a sculpted form, for he refers to the peddler as “Jupiter Tonans.” Rather than simply call him “Jupiter,” for the narrator is reminded of a deity wielding his trident, the narrator references Jupiter’s idolized statue. By distinguishing his guest as one who only mimics one who wields power (as opposed to some truly god-like harbinger of power), the narrator negates the man’s potential for danger. Rowland likewise views Roderick the sculptor in the same he does the Thirst statuette: as a harmless "pretty boy" seeking enlightenment. 

The notion of wielding power is implied by Rodericks very name. Etymologically, “Roderick” means “famous power,” as it is derived from the Germanic roots “hrod,” meaning “fame,” and “ric,” meaning “power.” The man’s name “Roderick” fell out of use following the Middle Ages, but was revived by Sir Walter Scott’s 1811 poetic ode to the last Visigoth King of Spain, entitled “The Vision of Don Roderick.” Scott’s poem, however, is not written to admire King Roderick’s infamous power but that of military hero, the Duke of Wellington. Roderick functions merely as an instrument through which the reader may envision the Duke’s leading the British liberation of Spain from Napoleonic forces. Therefore, the poetic advent that brought “Roderick” back into popularity also transformed the name’s meaning, changing it from one who holds power to one who represents power. This emphasis on instrumentality—the redistribution of power—calls to mind an abbreviated version of the name, “rod.” As in its Old English usage, “rod” refers to a slender pole used for a variety of means. Specifically, James’s opening descriptions of the titular character evoke the very embodiment of a lightning rod. Roderick is depicted as a neurotic youth practically buzzing with electricity. When his friend Cecilia accuses him of doing “everything too fast," Roderick expands upon her observation: “‘I know it!’ he cried, passing his hand through his abundant dark hair and making it stand out in a picturesque shock. ‘I can’t be slow if I try. There's something inside of me that drives me. A restless fiend!’” Roderick seems electrically charged—thus, the vision of his hair standing on end.

Despite viewing the artisans they encounter as sculpted duplicates, both very much embody various states of bodily exhaustion. Melville’s narrator, for instance, observes of the salesman: “His sunken pitfalls of eyes were ringed by indigo halos, and played with an innocuous sort of lightning: the gleam without the bolt. The whole man was dripping.” Lightning and water is a dangerous combination, yet the man’s carries no electrical power within. Like a statue, he hosts the “gleam” of lightning without controlling the power of the “bolt,” and, thus, enables the narrator to reject his sales pitch. At first glance, Roderick, too, is a vision of one being dangerously close to electrocution. Roderick’s first line in James’s story is “I’m dripping wet!” A proclamation he makes just before he restlessly ruffles his hair into its “picturesque shock” and looks upon Rowland with eyes of “a sort of kindling glow.”

Moreover, both stories infer an inherently exhaustive nature to one’s seeming full of electric energy. In Melville’s tale, the “indigo halos” that encircle the peddler’s “sunken pitfalls of eyes” are symptomatic of the man’s precarious and incessant wandering, which the narrator articulates after turning him away at the story’s end: “The Lightning-rod man still dwells in the land; still travels in storm-time, and drives a brave trade with the fears of man.” Roderick is more accutely plagued by his nervousness. When Cecilia offers him a cup of tea to “restore . . . equanimity,” Roderick refuses: “‘Aye, by keeping me awake all night! . . . With my nerves set on edge by a sleepless night, I should perforce stay at home." That a mere cup of tea would plunge the young man so far into prolonged wakefulness—or that its mention inspires his over dramatization of its effects—evinces the agitation of his inner “restless fiend.” Whereas Melville’s narrator is skeptical of the proposed “specimen-rod” and put off by his garrulous excitations, Rowland is immediately captivated by Roderick’s boy sculpture and incessant energy. Although it is Roderick’s wares (or future wares) for sale, it is Rowland who controls the exchange. If James’s story echoes Melville’s tale of caveat emptor within an age of burgeoning materialism, then, rather than reject the product, James’ consumer appropriates both seller and product for his own designs.

Rowland's observation of Roderick (a few lines down) describes him as physically becoming of a rod: “The fault of the young man’s whole structure was an excessive want of breadth. The forehead, though it was high and rounded, was narrow; the jaw and the shoulders were narrow; and the result was an air of insufficient physical substance." Roderick seems constantly overcome by an internal energy, a power source that captivates Rowland: “Mallet afterwards learned that this fair, slim youth could draw indefinitely upon a mysterious fund of nervous force, which outlasted and outwearied the endurance of many a sturdier temperament. And certainly there was life enough in his eye to furnish an immortality!” Rowland’s final observation implies that Roderick’s energy source may something worth tapping into and appropriating for oneself. Rowland seems to covet the internal energy that Roderick harbors for his own benefit.


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