"Are you Henry David Thoreau?"

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A few minutes ago, an earnest-looking stranger came up to me on the sidewalk and asked "Are you Henry David Thoreau?" I shook my head and kept walking. And I'm pretty sure that was the right choice. But to satisfy my idle curiosity, can anyone tell me what he was selling?


  1. Lance Nathan said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 9:05 am

    Maybe he was Diogenes, cursed to wander until he found an honest man? Though somehow it mostly reminds me of the liner notes for Sting's "Sister Moon", from his Nothing Like the Sun album:

    I was accosted late one night on Highgate Hill by a staggering drunk who grabbed me by the lapels and, after tranquilizing me with his foul breath, pointed to the moon which was swollen in its fullness and demanded of me threateningly, “How beautiful is the moon? … How beautiful is the moon?” he repeated. Thinking quickly and not wishing for an early toxic death, I fixed him with my eye and declaimed, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.” Shakespeare is always useful I’ve found for calming down violent drunks if only because it gives them the impression that you’re crazier then they are. “A good answer…” he said. “A good answer” as he set off on a tack for Kentish Town like a listing Galleon.

  2. Morten Jonsson said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 9:05 am

    Maybe it was one of the sheriff's men. Thoreau probably still hasn't paid his poll tax.

  3. Teemu said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 9:17 am

    It's gotta be neckbeard warmers.

  4. Simon Spero said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 9:20 am

    Ray, if someone asks you if you're Henry David Thoreau you say yes.

  5. Jon Lennox said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 9:49 am

    I feel like this should be the setup to a pickup line but I can't figure out the punchline.

  6. Ferdinand Cesarano said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 9:49 am

    Maybe it was Bill or Ted studying for a test.

    Serious (if tortured theory): Perhaps the person meant "David Foster Wallace"?

    There is enough broad resemblance to make someone who is unaware of Wallace's death at least momentarily consider the possibility.

  7. Rube said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 10:13 am

    Possibly you should have said "Hush. I can't hear my drummer."

  8. bks said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 10:21 am

    The correct response would have been, Who wants to know?

  9. bratschegirl said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 10:22 am

    You'd only have needed to worry if he called you Kenneth and asked what the frequency was.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 11:04 am

    I would have suggested responding with an adapted Dylan lyric: "I might look like Henry David Thoreau, but I feel just like Jesse James."

  11. Hitchcock said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 11:09 am

    Are you sure you heard the question correctly? If, for example, what he actually said was "Are you happy dating your beau?" then I'd suspect it was an Ashley Madison field rep trying to initiate a cold call.

  12. michael farris said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 11:39 am

    My guess is that he's a talent scout for a celebrity look alike service. They can never have too many Henry David Thoreaus on tap.

  13. Henry David Thoreau said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 11:45 am

    Have you seen an earnest-looking guy around? I was supposed to meet him here.

  14. David L said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 11:51 am

    Talent scout, yes, but for the HGTV show "Tiny House, Big Living."

  15. S Frankel said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 12:21 pm

    If Ralph Waldo Emerson is asking, then run.

  16. Jeff Carney said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 1:05 pm

    Obviously a schizophrenic who needs to be walled in.

  17. Theophylact said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

    I think I might reply, "I'm Henery the Eighth, I am".

  18. Sarah said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 3:06 pm

    Well you did mention Thoreau in a blog post on 10/25!

  19. Gordon said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 3:13 pm

    Pond-side real estate or sanctimonious hipsterism.

  20. Anthony said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 3:24 pm

    There's been recent mention of Thoreau in the press (and not very flattering):


  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 6:19 pm

    I don't know the answer, but the question is "How did he pronounce 'Thoreau'?"

    (I suppose you don't know whether there was a silent 3 in "Henry".)

  22. Rubrick said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 6:25 pm

    I feel the appropriate reply would be "I am GROOT!"

  23. S Frankel said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 6:35 pm

    Jerry Friedman's question is a good one. Everybody now stresses the second syllable, but is there any evidence (from poetry, for example) that Henry David did the same?

  24. Graeme said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 7:39 pm

    Well, one night in a club in Amsterdam, a guy asked me if I were Charles Darwin. I don't have a beard. I was not 150 years old. Maybe this is a trend…people come up to respectable men and ask them bizarre questions?

  25. Rebecca said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 8:45 pm

    Were you jaywalking, littering, or otherwise being civilly disobedient? Was his intonation consistent with a "who do you think you are, HDT?" Reading?

  26. Morten Jonsson said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 9:00 pm

    Regarding how Thoreau pronounced his name: Hawthorne, in his diaries, records meeting Thoreau. Presumably having only heard the name, not seen it, he spells it "Thorow," which seems to indicate it was pronounced like "thorough."

  27. Ethan said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 10:40 pm

    The guy was really aiming for "You are Henry David Thoreau and I claim my £5".

  28. Graeme (of Oz) said,

    October 27, 2015 @ 11:57 pm

    He might've been wanting to sell pencils…


  29. David Morris said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 12:49 am

    The stranger's question left Mark Thoreau-ly confused.

  30. RJP said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 6:41 am

    @Morten Jonnsson,

    'which seems to indicate it was pronounced like "thorough."'

    Or more precisely, like the standard US pronunciation of "thorough", since in Britain it is normally pronounced rather differently.

  31. John Walden said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 6:43 am

    Maybe you imagine the life you live.

  32. popegrutch said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 10:03 am

    In the week before Halloween, I expect such questions in an academic environment. I am, in fact, Charlie Chaplin today.

  33. Toma said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 10:21 am

    @ Simon Spero

    Thanks for the Ghostbusters reference.

  34. William Berry said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 11:27 am

    On the pronunciation of Thoreau: My old Norton's American Renaissance textbook anthology (Poe, Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, Twain, H. James) states that the stress is on the first syllable, as in the "Thorow/ thorough" pronunciations mentioned above.

  35. Sybil said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 11:54 am

    @Morten Johnnson: how would he have spelled it if the accent were on the second syllable?

    [Having this somewhat in mind]

  36. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 12:25 pm

    RJP: "Or more precisely, like the standard US pronunciation of "thorough", since in Britain it is normally pronounced rather differently."

    Or even more precisely, like the standard pronunciation in New England at the time.

    Wikipedia says,

    'Amos Bronson Alcott and Thoreau's aunt each wrote that "Thoreau" is pronounced like the word "thorough" (pronounced THUR-oh—/ˈθʌroʊ/—in General American,[7][8] but more precisely THOR-oh—/ˈθɔːroʊ/—in 19th-century New England). Edward Waldo Emerson wrote that the name should be pronounced "Thó-row", with the h sounded and stress on the first syllable.[9]'

    (I've "enlivened" the links to 7, The Thoreau Reader, and 9, The Walden Woods Project; the page for reference 8 is no more.)

    I can only add that the name of Thoreau, New Mexico (pop. about 1900), is pronounced /θəˈru/.

  37. Morten Jonsson said,

    October 28, 2015 @ 1:20 pm


    Maybe "Thoreau"? If the accent were on the second syllable, Hawthorne might have realized it was a French name.

  38. AG said,

    October 29, 2015 @ 2:27 am

    I had a professor who was adamant about pronouncing it like US English "thorough", accent on the first syllable.

    Reminds me of the line from The Big Lebowski:


  39. Nathaniel said,

    October 30, 2015 @ 4:32 pm

    You should have replied, "My name is John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt."

  40. KevinM said,

    November 2, 2015 @ 12:22 pm

    Obviously, he was selling new clothes; wanted to know if he was wasting his time. http://www.literaturepage.com/read/walden-17.html

  41. ohwilleke said,

    November 2, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

    Maybe he was a realtor selling rural pond front property?

  42. BZ said,

    November 3, 2015 @ 3:05 pm

    @David L,
    Wow, I wouldn't have gotten the Ghostbusters reference if this was posted before last week.

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