I. In this riff: Ch. 54 of Moby-Dick, “The Town Ho’s Story.”
II. “The Town Ho’s Story” comes not-exactly halfway through Moby-Dick.
At almost 8,000 words, it’s the longest chapter in the novel. For a sense of comparison, Melville’s novella Bartleby is about 14,000 words long. Indeed, “The Town Ho’s Story” reads like a long short story at times, but one without the conceptual scope of a novella.
III. Or maybe “without the conceptual scope of a novella” is incorrect. The plot of “The Town-Ho’s Story” anticipates Melville’s great late novella Billy Budd. Its handsome hero Steelkilt anticipates Baby Budd, and its villain Radney prefigures uglyassed Claggart. However, Ch. 54 ultimately fits into the strange shape of Moby-Dick, offering an alternate version of the novel’s catastrophic climax.
IV. Ch. 54 culminates with an attack on Moby Dick! But it’s the Town-Ho’s attack, not the Pequod’s! Which brings me to—
V. (Actually, before I get there, let me just address it: Yes, “The Town-Ho’s Story” is a salacious title to our modern ears. It is but one of many smutty sounding chapter titles in Moby-Dick.)
VI. So like well–which brings me to the narratological framing of “The Town-Ho’s Story”:
The Pequod meets The Town-Ho, a whale ship “manned almost wholly by Polynesians.”
There is a reason for this majority crew.
Ishmael informs us that the true Town-Ho’s story is “the private property of three confederate white seamen of that ship,” and that “one of whom, it seems, communicated it to Tashtego with Romish injunctions of secrecy.” Our harpooneer might have been sworn to secrecy—“injunctions of secrecy” and that hedging expression “it seems” points to Moby-Dick’s central acentered ambiguity—-
—–but Ishmael, ever the witness, notes that “the following night Tashtego rambled in his sleep, and revealed so much of it in that way, that when he was wakened he could not well withhold the rest.” The Pequod’s crew keeps the story from Ahab and his mates. Labor vs. management:
To some the general interest in the White Whale was now wildly heightened by a circumstance of the Town-Ho’s story, which seemed obscurely to involve with the whale a certain wondrous, inverted visitation of one of those so called judgments of God which at times are said to overtake some men. This latter circumstance, with its own particular accompaniments, forming what may be called the secret part of the tragedy about to be narrated, never reached the ears of Captain Ahab or his mates.
But, above—the reason for a majority Polynesian crew? Well, the Town-Ho fell on disastrous times.
VII. But again, the framing is what most intrigues me here. This story is told by three whites on the Town-Ho to the Native American harpooneer Tashtego, who reveals much of it in his sleep–to Ishmael? Or, rather, that is what Ishmael tells us. But Ishmael also tells us that
For my humor’s sake, I shall preserve the style in which I once narrated it at Lima, to a lounging circle of my Spanish friends, one saint’s eve, smoking upon the thick-gilt tiled piazza of the Golden Inn.
We have a story inside a story inside a dream inside a story inside an epic encyclopedic novel that may or may not be told from the perspective of a ghost.
VIII. (But—if Ishmael tells this story to living auditors, is he actually a ghost, or a proper survivor of the wreck of the Pequod? Or are his auditors in turn spirits as well, taking the measure of storytelling at their leisure?)
IX. There is but one Barry Moser illustration for this chapter in the edition I am reading. It depicts some dudes at the pumps—
X. The pumps are one of the major conflicts in “The Town-Ho’s Story.” The ship springs a leak and has to be pumped (more phallic language in this oh-so-phallic novel); the pumping accelerates the conflict between Radney and Steelkit, which eventually explodes into mutiny and suppression—and all that egotism is overwhelmed by a sighting of that great whale Moby Dick! They chase the monster and lose:
…Radney was tossed over into the sea, on the other flank of the whale. He struck out through the spray, and, for an instant, was dimly seen through that veil, wildly seeking to remove himself from the eye of Moby Dick. But the whale rushed round in a sudden maelstrom; seized the swimmer between his jaws; and rearing high up with him, plunged headlong again, and went down.
There’s no amount of pumping that will revive the drowned sailor.
But he lives on in Ishmael’s storytelling.