Morning Read: 'Corrupt as Lima'


¶ What to make of Chapter 54 of Moby-Dick? “The Town-Ho’s Story” (what an unfortunate title, given &c &c), while long enough to be a short story on its own, is hardly an independent episode; after all, it’s the title character’s first major appearance. Ishmael relates a backstory, as it were, to his adventure on the Pequod, and frames it doubly as a narrative. First, it was told to his shipmates on the Pequod during a “gam” with sailors from the Town-Ho, another whaler. Second, it is told to us as Ishmael claims to have told it to acquaintances in Lima, after the action recounted in the novel itself. The elaborate framing seems to be nothing more than just that — a bit of tarting-up.

What bores these sailors must have been on land! But the Dons of Lima give as good as they get, at least as rendered in Melville’s ridiculously starchy translated Spanish. In a “witty” gloss of Ishmael’s bracketing of the Erie Canal and Venice as equally corrupt, a Peruvian interrupts Ishmael with the following bolt of fustian:

“A moment! Pardon!” cried another of the company. “In the name of all us Limeese, I but desire to express to you, sir sailor, that we have by no means overlooked your delicacy in not substituting present Lima for distant Venice in your corrupt comparison. Oh! do not bow and look surprised, you know the proverb all along this coast — ‘Corrupt as Lima.’ It but bears out your saying, too; churches more plentiful than billiard-tables, and forever open — and ‘Corrupt as Lima.’ So, too Venice; I have been there; the holy city of the blessed evangelist, St Mark! — St Dominic, purge it! Your cup! Thanks: here I refill, now, you poor out again.”

It’s a bit rich.