A name pronounced is the recognition of the individual to whom it belongs. He who can pronounce my name aright, he can call me, and is entitled to my love and service.
—Henry David Thoreau
John McPhee had an article in the Dec. 15 New Yorker—not one in a seemingly endless series on the history of concrete or some damn thing, as in the alleged glory days of the magazine (stricter editorial standards then, combined with a much greater tolerance for dullness), but a standalone piece called “1839/2003” about a trip he and a friend made recently to replicate (as far as possible) the famous one Thoreau and his brother John took in 1839, recorded in Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. (Note how in writing about McPhee I am insensibly drawn into interminable multipart sentences. McPhee is one of those writers whose style I admire in short passages but who put me to sleep over long stretches.)
All this is by the by; the question is: how do you pronounce “Thoreau”?
I had heard it was properly stressed on the first syllable, and McPhee had heard the same:
Obscured by the trees on the west side of the river was a Billerica subdivision called Rio Vista—its houses, bungalows, and cottages dating from the nineteen-twenties, its entrances flanked by concrete pillars raisined with spherical stones. I had wandered around in Rio Vista two months before, ingesting information. Billerica is pronounced as if he were one of three brothers named Ricka. John Ricka. Henry David Ricka. Bill Ricka. Rio Vista has a street named Thoreau, and I wondered how the residents pronounce that. Thoreau scholars generally accent the first syllable of his name. Elizabeth Witherell, the editor-in-chief of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau, had told me that people around Concord seem to say “THERR-oh,” as in “I gave it a through cleaning.” I knocked on the door at No. 22 Thoreau. Two slats of a Venetian blind came slowly apart. A woman of upper-middle years informed me that she was not about to open the door. I shouted back through the glass, asking about an island in the river behind her house. “I never heard of one!” she shouted back. Would she mind telling me how she pronounces the name of her street? “Thor-OH!” she shouted, with a bold stroke on the “OH.”
So do scholars, like “people around Concord” (but not the suspicious Rio Vista lady), say “THERR-oh”? And do any of my readers happen to know the evidence for Thoreau’s own use? I do so love knowing these things. (Coleridge was considerate enough to describe exactly how he said his name: COLE-uh-ridge.)