Chapter 54: The Town-Ho’s Story

Uff dah fee tah. This chapter… this chapter is a trial.


I’ve tried to write this post like three times now, and I keep getting way too far out in the weeds, just trying to, like, summarize what even happens. There’s just way too much. If you want the full story, you gotta read it yourself, I’m sorry. This is gonna be more of a… loose reflections kind of post.

SUMMARY: The Pequod gams with another ship, as the waters around the Cape of Good Hope are busy with ships bound for every part of the world. This time, it’s an in-bound whaling ship called the Town-Ho, and they’ve got news about Moby Dick. Ahab gets the story from the captain, and Tashtego gets the real story from one of the few white crewmen on the ship mostly filled with Tahitians, which is unusual.

Turns out, the Town-Ho was the scene of a near murder, a standoff between the captain and a prominent, charismatic crewman, and the first mate. The crewman, named Steelkilt, was horribly insulted by the mate, named Radney. The former ended up punching the latter’s jaw into his head when he was threatened with a hammer, which then lead to a stand-off, with most of the crew hiding out in the forecastle. In the end, Steelkilt was betrayed and flogged by Radney, and then plotted his murder. But before it could happen, Radney was killed by Moby Dick, dragged out of the whaling boat down to the unfathomable depths of the ocean.

Afterwards, Steelkilt and most of the crew abandoned the captain en masse at a random tropical island.

This story is related as Ishmael told it years after the case, to a group of Spanish dons at the Golden Inn in Lima, Peru.

Right, so like I said: a lot going on here.

The whole thing where, after the intro about the gam, the whole chapter is told as Ishmael telling the story to some random Spanish dandies in Peru is just as blunt and out of nowhere in the book.

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.

Although, this is really a nice, juicy, thick piece of grist for my mill, w/r/t Ishmael’s status as an old, experienced whaleman at the time of the penning of this tome. The fictional penning, of the fictional version of the tome, of course. He’s just hangin’ out in Peru spinning old whaling yarns from his days on the high seas, no big deal. He even demurs about Moby Dick in the story when it comes up:

“‘Moby Dick!’ cried Don Sebastian; ‘St. Dominic! Sir sailor, but do whales have christenings? Whom call you Moby Dick?’

“‘A very white, and famous, and most deadly immortal monster, Don;—but that would be too long a story.’

“‘How? how?’ cried all the young Spaniards, crowding.

“‘Nay, Dons, Dons—nay, nay! I cannot rehearse that now. Let me get more into the air, Sirs.’

Which is pretty fun. It is, indeed, too long of a story to get into just then. How ironic, that we get this in the middle of this god damned short story he shoved into the middle of his already gigantic tome! All it’s missing are some chapter breaks, and he could publish it as a whole separate novella, I reckon.


Indeed, the plot of this chapter reminds me a lot of a number of Herman Melville’s other short stories and novels. He often writes on the subject of nautical justice and injustice, the direct experience of being a lowly crewman on various sorts of voyages, under the thumb of various sorts of captains.

Indeed, the book he wrote right before Moby-Dick; or, the Whale was called White-Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War. This book concerned the life of an ordinary sailor on board a US war ship, and his close brushes with death, named for the white jacket he was forced to wear, since it was never able to be tarred and thus water-proofed. He was gearing up for the symbolism of the color white in Moby-Dick, I suppose.

This book was based closely on Melville’s own experiences as a sailor on a naval ship, and was basically all but an autobiography, as his earlier books Typee and Omoo were. As I’ve said before, back in the 19th century people really loved reading books that were authentic, and Melville could certainly bring that aspect.

Coming off the roaring success of his first two south-seas adventures, White-Jacket actually ended up leading to the banning of flogging as punishment by the United States Navy. It was directly cited by New Hampshire Senator John P. Hale in his arguments. Why, it even lead to the court-martial of the captain who terrorized Melville when he was a sailor! Such is the power of the written word in those days.

The thing that makes Melville so interesting to me is the particular perspective he brings to these sorts of stories. He is not writing as a captain, as a leader of men trying to accomplish some noble goal, but just as a common sailor. As someone who went on boats as a job. Thus, he is able to bring to life these small details, like how it feels to stand watch at the top of a masthead, or how awful it is to have an imperious, overbearing boss.

This perspective is what makes me so eager to find the anti-capitalist readings in all of his work. The focus on menial labor, the acknowledgment of physical realities underlying all these high-minded ideas, these sorts of things grant his writing a relevance and, dare I say, authenticity that is sorely lacking in most 19th century literature.

It’s funny to me that there’s so much cruft in this chapter, all built around the small bit of essential whale intelligence that Ahab was after, which is also the thematic core of the full, true story that Ishmael uncovers: Radney being killed by Moby Dick.


We get this full backstory on the feud between Radney and Steelkilt, complete with dialog scenes more lengthy and detailed than we’ve seen in the main action of this book since the Pequod left Nantucket. This is because Ishmael wants to tell a good story, and because it’s necessary to really understand what it means that Radney was murdered by this particular fish, at this particular moment.

The gist of it is thus: Moby Dick was carrying out cosmic, karmic justice. He saved Steelkilt from becoming a murderer himself, the captain from being or imprisoned by his crew, the whole situation from boiling out of control. The whale was a proverbial bolt from the blue, a deus ex machina in the old sense, that solved this unbearably tense situation and let everyone else on the ship escape alive.

Ohoho, you see it? The Town-Ho‘s encounter with Moby Dick has the precise opposite effect as the Pequod‘s eventually will. A single survivor is all that will remain of the latter ship, whereas a single victim’s death was the sum total of the damage in the former’s fatal encounter.

But this framing of Moby Dick as some sort of cosmic or divine avenger… I think this is an example of Ishmael, within the text, reading too much into things. Trying to spin, again, a random accident into something bigger than it is. I mean, it’s a story he’s telling in a bar, for pete’s sake! It’s certainly hard to take it as the gospel truth.

So what we’ve got here… is a microcosm of the book as a whole, really. Ishmael telling a story, embellishing it, adding lots of fun details, explaining things in lengthy asides (in response to questions from Don Sebastian and Don Pedro, of course), and leading up to a fatal encounter with a whale, exemplifying a sort of cosmic force of justice. Ah, now I understand it, why it’s here, and why it’s so fuuuuucking long.

19th Century Tahitian people

If anything, this story actually gives us more context than the full-sized tome we’re reading. Ishmael is insistent on its reality, says that he’s met Radney’s widow in Nantucket, and walked aboard the Town-Ho himself.

“‘So help me Heaven, and on my honor the story I have told ye, gentlemen, is in substance and its great items, true. I know it to be true; it happened on this ball; I trod the ship; I knew the crew; I have seen and talked with Steelkilt since the death of Radney.’”

“It happened on this ball” is an incredible turn of phrase, I’ve got to start using that.

I suppose we’ve seen some of this sort of context here and there. The bits of evidence I’ve been collecting for my theory about Ishmael as an elderly statesman of whaling is just that, at the end of the day. For example, the old bit about the smoky oil painting at the Spouter-Inn, where Ishmael said he returned many times and looked at it from all sorts of angles and interrogated other patrons. It speaks to a life of long-lived study, of seeking for context and explanation of every aspect of this fatal voyage, no matter how minor.

One final thought, a bit of a detour but something I feel is valuable to touch on.

This chapter demonstrates aptly how much the world has changed in just the last hundred and fifty-odd years. Particularly when it comes to communication and the size and scope of an individual’s experience.

In the latter part of the chapter, which I kind of glossed over in the summary, there’s a bit where the nearly mutinous crew meets up with their former captain. They are in a large double war-canoe, and he is in a small whaling boat, trying to make his way to Tahiti for a fresh crew. Steelkilt himself tells his former captain that he’ll allow him to live only if he beaches himself at the nearest island for six days before continuing on to Tahiti.


This is, of course, so that Steelkilt and co. can get there first and hop on some other boats before the captain arrives and ruins their reputation. All they have to do is stay one step ahead of him in his journey and they can get away scott-free with abandoning him as they did.

Information was so slow. Back then, and for all of human existence before then. It’s hard to even imagine how narrow the context of the average person was. How little they really knew or even guessed of the world beyond their immediate field of view!

It brings to mind to me that… we really live in an utterly unprecedented age. It’s hard to grapple with that, because we spend so much time looking back at the whole scope of human history. All these traditions going back hundreds, thousands of years. The weight of history, the scope of human progress and existence, from our humble origins to the undisputed masters over all nature. It binds us, it is used to keep our imagination small and limited.

We are wired to respect tradition, to a certain extent. Some of it is cultural, but there is a tendency to respect things as they have been done since you were a child. Which is a small period of time, and is getting smaller every year, on a technological and sociological scale. Things change so fast now, there is no time for them to settle into stable, effective traditions. We just have to deal with whatever happens to befall us, whatever infinitesimal epoch we are able to slot ourselves into, to feel that fleeting sense of stability and continuity.

Are we really any better off? There is more available, but when it comes to sorting the wheat from the chaff, nobody is any better equipped than they have ever been.

We make the world that we live in. Don’t ever let anyone tell you any different.

Whew! I made it through this time. Got… a little abstract towards the end there. If I was writing a formal essay on the topic I would definitely go in deeper and furnish a few more concrete examples, but I just have to leave this one as it lies.

I can only hope that I have made myself understood, in some vague way.

Until next time, shipmates!

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