Paul Doiron here—
I’ve been thinking a lot about Nathaniel Hathorne lately. And William Falkner, too.
What’s that? You think I misspelled the names of those two great American authors? Well, yes and no. It’s a little known fact that Nathaniel Hathorne added a “w” to his last name in his twenties. Why did he do it? Some people think the change was an attempt by Hawthorne to distance himself from his notorious family of Salem Witch Trial fame. But it seems more likely that he was merely trying to return the surname to its ancestral spelling.
In the case of William Faulkner—born William Falkner—a third party was to blame. Cecil Adams, of The Straight Dope fame, lays it out:
He didn’t change it—the printer who set up his first book did, by mistake, and Faulkner decided to live with the new spelling rather than hassle to correct the error. He’s lucky his name wasn’t Friar Tuck.
Indeed he was! I also tend to believe that Faulkner realized that readers would have an easier time pronouncing his surname if it contained a “u.” This might just be projection on my part. As someone with a name that resists easy pronunciation by native English speakers, I have come to see the wisdom of going with the flow.
“When you grow up with an uncommon surname, mispronunciation is a lifelong companion,” I once wrote:
In my life I’ve been called just about everything: Doron, Dyer, Drier, Dye-run, Dry-run. The most common variant was, and is, Dorian (as in Gray). The American tongue has difficulty wrapping itself around the French diphthong. I am sympathetic to this handicap although I sometimes wonder how Agatha Christie managed to create a world-famous Belgian detective with a surname almost identical my own, and yet somehow hostesses in restaurants continue to page me as, “Darren, party of two.”