“‘I say, Quohog, blast ye! dost thou sign thy name or make thy mark?’”

In the context of Moby-Dick “Quohog” does not refer to the famous hometown of Peter Griffin and his family but rather to a famous marine creature. A quohog (or quahog) is “a large, rounded, edible clam […] of the Atlantic coast of North America,” also referred to as a “hard clam, hardshell clam” (OED). One can’t imagine that this clam is referenced in many renowned literary works besides Moby-Dick; it is commonly referred to, however, in the pages of historical documents, New England periodicals such as the Rhode Island Monthly, dietetics literature, and in cookbooks. The spelling of the word often differs between “quohog” and “quahog”; it is assumed that Melville chose to spell it in the “quo”-fashion due to its regional pronunciation. The first reference to the quohog occurs in Chapter 14, “Nantucket,” when Ishmael describes the early maritime harvests of the island’s inhabitants: they “first caught crabs and quohogs in the sand.” The word “quohog” recurs in the book four chapters later, but this time it has an entirely different meaning.

When Captain Peleg is trying to communicate to Ishmael his permission to ship Queequeg aboard the Pequod, he refers to the proven harpooneer thus: “tell Quohog there—what’s that you call him?” Now, initially the mistake seems innocent enough. One can’t expect that Peleg has often happened upon a name like Queequeg (recall the kneejerk reaction he and Bildad had to the sight of the man). One might even have a laugh at Queequeg’s expense, hearing him likened to a creature having a course exterior and a soft, squishy, delicious inside; after all, this is not far off the mark from how Melville characterizes him. Still, the misidentification of Queequeg seems more strikingly sad and bitingly ironic when it is intimated that Peleg records Queequeg’s name in the ship’s log as “Quohog.” It is beneath this word that Queequeg signs “his mark,” as if he were signing off on this ridiculous moniker. And about this “mark,” should we take this as his genuine signature? Just the one he uses for his Euro-American employers? Some generic stand-in? Or something else entirely?

  Quohog.

his X mark.

Now, Queequeg, it may be imagined, never thought much of the offense, but Melville might be making a larger point here about the ways in which history can be erased by the mere slip of a tongue. In the event, say, of a disaster at sea which made it so the Pequod never returned from this voyage, Queequeg—owing precisely to his heritage and background, or more properly to Peleg’s inability faithfully to record it—would only be remembered in the ship’s articles, should someone think to consult them, as “Quohog.” Melville might have been more attuned than the average whaleman to the ways in which foreign peoples’ work and dedication to the whaling industry has gone forever unrecorded: an historical negligence, we might add, which not only extended to whaling but to other enterprises that helped make America what it is today. Consider the records of the names, birthplaces, and birth-dates of the victims of the slave trade.

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