Thursday, March 24, 2022

Too-Familiar Science in "The Lightning-Rod Man"

Like the "irregular" sound of mountain thunder, much of Melville's 1854 short story The Lightning-Rod Man has been creatively appropriated--that is to say, plagiarized--from questions and answers about the basic science of thunder and lightning in one or another version of a popular nineteenth-century schoolbook. As demonstrated in my first Substack effort,

part one of a two-part essay titled "Borrowed thunder," Melville definitely used some version of Ebenezer Cobham Brewer's influential Guide to the Scientific Knowledge of Things Familiar. Aka "Dr. Brewer's Guide to Science." 

More work is needed to figure out which version Melville used in the 1850's, and where else he used it besides "The Lightning-Rod Man." (Aside: Poor Man's Pudding, for sure, as I will have to show in another post on Substack.) Among the possibilities are two different American editions, both issued in 1851--one published in New York by C. S. Francis, based on Brewer's text in prior English editions

and another, improved American edition published in Philadelphia by Robert Evans Peterson. Melville I think would have appreciated the more coherent arrangement of questions-and-answers in Familiar Science; or, The Scientific Explanation of Common Things (Philadelphia, 1851) and the copious index there, much juicer than in Brewer's English edition. Commonly known in Melville's day as Peterson's Familiar Science.

from "The Lightning-Rod Man"
Putnam's magazine - August 1854 - page 133

One of the more notable instances of creative plagiarism in The Lighting-Rod Man concerns the "returning stroke" of lighting from earth to sky, a phenomenon that fascinates the narrator. Excerpt below is from the first part of my aforementioned Substack essay, Borrowed thunder:  

You can also say with absolute certainty that Melville appropriated essential elements in the conversation about “the returning-stroke” from a printed source, either Dr. Brewer’s Guide or Q and A #36 in Peterson’s Familiar Science:

Q. When lightning flashes from the earth to the clouds, what is the flash called?

A. It is popularly called the “returning stroke;" because the earth (being overcharged with electric fluid,) returns the surplus quantity to the clouds. [page 17]

Here Melville’s rewrite is especially faithful to the original wording of his source-text. Melville has copied it verbatim, in places:

Familiar Science #36 lightning flashes from the earth to the clouds
Lightning-Rod Manlightning flashes from the earth to the clouds

Familiar Science #36 the earth (being overcharged with electric fluid
Lightning-Rod Manthe earth, being overcharged with the fluid,

Familiar Science #36: returns the surplus quantity to the clouds
Lightning-Rod Man: flashes its surplus upward

The boldness of borrowing here is remarkable, even for a habitual plagiarist like Melville. Brazenly, he imports big chunks of stolen text without bothering to disguise the theft. Along with his telling re-use of “returning stroke,” Melville also hijacked single words from Familiar Science, the verb flashes and noun surplus, and conjoined them in the phrase “flashes its surplus” (“supplies” in the original magazine version, page 133, emended to “surplus” in The Piazza Tales, page 281). Where his source is redundant, Melville compresses. The answer to #36 in Familiar Science repeats part of the question: “to the clouds.” Melville avoids needless repetition through revision, avoiding a second instance of the phrase to the clouds by substituting “upward” instead.

To encourage further study, here is the NYPL copy of the 1854 edition of Peterson's Familiar Science, Google-digitized and accessible online courtesy of HathiTrust Digital Library.

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