Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass often makes its way into the hands of oversized American characters of, shall we say, uncertain repute. We learned, for example, under scandalous circumstances, of Bill Clinton’s admiration for the book, and we’ll never forget the role it played in the rise and fall of similarly alliteratively named, power-mad Walter White. Another fictional mastermind—Sideshow Bob—quotes gleefully from Leaves of Grass in a recent Simpsons episode. And perhaps the most outré character of them all—the florid speech of the rogue and pimp Al Swearengen in HBO’s Deadwood—derives in part from the “barbaric yawp” Whitman describes as his native tongue in the poem from which the book’s title comes, “Song of Myself.”
One of the many reasons this particular poem from Leaves of Grass captures the imagination of outlaw intellectuals (and narcissists) may be Whitman’s invention of a new American poetic idiom for the eloquent assertion of stridently defiant personal identities. (As Ezra Pound put it, Whitman “broke the new wood.”) The Guardian placed “Song of Myself” at the top of a 10 best American poems list for the “peerless self-performance” of the poem’s hypnotic cadences. Who better to interpret those lines than another self-invented American contrarian, Orson Welles?
During some difficult times in the fifties—in part due to Welles’ IRS trouble—the great actor/director/multi-media impresario found work on radio plays in England, including The Lives of Harry Lime (based on his character in The Third Man) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (as Moriarty). In 1953, the BBC contracted with Welles to record an hour of readings from “Song of Myself.” BBC 3 broadcast the session, and it later saw release as an LP, now sadly out of print. Fortunately, however, much of this recording has been digitally preserved. At the top, hear Welles read section VI of the poem, and directly above, hear him read the heretical section XLVIII. The Mickle Street Review, an online journal of Whitman studies, hosts a small part of Side 1 and, it appears, all of Side 2 of the record, below. The text of the poem was too long for a full treatment, and Welles, it seems, abridged and adapted some of the work himself. His reading was apparently very well received by the UK press.
While the BBC commissioned the recordings—and Welles no doubt needed the money—he already had an affinity for Whitman. In the same year he completely re-invented American film with Citizen Kane, he also began broadcasting the Orson Welles Show on CBS Radio, on which he and his guests gave dramatic readings from drama, poetry, and fiction. Welles produced 19 episodes, though only 8 have survived. One of the lost episodes, from December 1, 1941, featured Welles reading from Leaves of Grass. As further evidence, we have this photograph of Welles reading Gay Wilson Allen’s The Solitary Singer, a critical biography of the poet.
What draws Welles, and restless personalities like him, to Whitman, and especially to Leaves of Grass? One answer lies in Whitman’s own life. Early on, PBS’s American Experience tells us, Whitman staked out “radical positions… putting him in near constant opposition to society’s prevailing sentiments.” He never moderated his views or his voice, though faced with charges of blasphemy, obscenity, bad writing, and various other public vices at the time. Whitman’s steadfast commitment to his political and artistic vision brought him worldwide acclaim, as well as censure, in his lifetime. A particularly scathing 1882 Atlantic review of the second printing of Leaves of Grass catalogues Whitman’s literary abuses and concludes that “the book cannot attain to any very wide influence.” Despite this terribly wrongheaded prediction, the reviewer at least recognizes Whitman’s “generous aspiration,” a quality held in common by all of Whitman’s admirers, be they heroes, villains, or just average people responding to the poet’s raw self-assertion and capacious, grandiose, and particularly American, form of longing.