On Thoreau: He always was `thorough'

August 15, 2004|By Julia Keller

Say it right!

The name of the man who penned Walden is Henry David Thoreau, pronounced THOR-oh, not Tho-ROW, say scholars, even though the majority of Americans accent the last syllable.

How do we know?

Jeffrey S. Cramer, curator of collections at the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods, says the evidence is irrefutable. "Thoreau himself made an incredible number of puns" on his own name, puns whose meaning hinges on saying the name as if it were "thorough." And Thoreau's friends also wrote poetry whose rhyme scheme depends on the first-syllable accent.

So why have generations gotten it wrong? "We've been taught to accent the last syllable with French words," such as "brunet" or "Chevrolet," says Elizabeth Hall Witherell, editor of Thoreau's collected works.

To keep things simple, can't we just call him "Henry"?

Maybe not.

Thoreau was christened "David Henry," not "Henry David," Witherell notes. He changed it after graduating from Harvard because he thought it sounded more like an author's name.

To live a more deliberate life

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

-- Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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