Hear Classic Readings of Poe’s “The Raven” by Vincent Price, James Earl Jones, Christopher Walken, Neil Gaiman, Stan Lee & More

It can seem that the writing of literature and the theory of literature occupy separate great houses, Game of Thrones-style, or even separate countries held apart by a great sea. Perhaps they war with each other, perhaps they studiously ignore each other or obliquely interact at tournaments with acronymic names like MLA and AWP. Like Thomas Pynchon’s characterization of the political right and left, scholars and writers represent opposing poles, the hothouse and the street. That rare beast, the academic poet, can seem like something of a unicorn, or dragon…

…Or like the ominous talking raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous of poems.

The divide between theory and practice is a recent development, a product of state budgeting, political brinksmanship, the relentless publishing mills of academia that force scholars to find a pigeonhole and stay there.... In days past, poets and scholar/theorists frequently occupied the same place at the same time—Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Shelley, and, of course, Poe, whose perennially popular “The Raven” serves as a point-by-point illustration for his theory of composition just as thoroughly as Eliot’s great works bear out his notion of the “objective correlative.”

Poe’s object, the titular creature, is an “archetypal symbol,” writes Dana Gioia, in a poem that aims for what its author calls a “unity of effect.” In his 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition,” Poe the poet/theorist tells us in great detail how “The Raven” satisfies all of his other criteria for literature as well, such as achieving its intent in a single sitting, using a repeated refrain, and so on.

Should we have any doubt about how much Poe wanted us to see the poem as the deliberate outcome of a conceptual scheme, we find him three years later, in 1849, the year of his death, delivering a lecture on the “Poetic Principle,” and concluding with a reading of “The Raven.”

John Moncure Daniel of the Richmond Semi-Weekly Examiner remarked after attending one of these talks that “the attention of many in this city is now directed to this singular performance.” At that point, Poe, who hardly made a dime from “The Raven,” had to suffer the indignity of having all of his work go out of print during his brief, unhappy lifetime. Moncure and the Examiner thereby furnished readers “with the only correct copy ever published,” previous appearances, it seems, having contained punctuation errors.

Nonetheless, for all of Poe’s pedantry and penury, "The Raven"'s first appearances made him semi-famous. His readings were a sensation, and it's a sure bet that his audiences came to hear him read the poem, not deliver a lecture on its principles. Oh, for some proto-Edison in the room with an early recording device. What would it be like to hear the mournful, grief-stricken, alcoholic genius—master of the macabre and inventor of the detective story—intone the raven’s enigmatic “Nevermore”?

While Poe’s speaking voice has receded irretrievably into history, his poetic voice may live close to forever. So mesmerizing are his meter and diction that many great actors known especially for their voices have become possessed by “The Raven."

Likely when we think of the poem, what first comes to the mind’s ear is the voice of Vincent Price, or James Earl Jones, Christopher Lee, or Christopher Walken, all of whom have given “The Raven” its due.

And so have many other notables, such as the great Stan Lee, Poe successor Neil Gaiman, original Gomez Addams actor John Astin, and venerable Beat poet/scholar Anne Waldman (listen here). You will find those recitations here at this round-up of notable “Raven” readings, and if this somehow doesn’t satiate you, then check out Lou Reed’s take on the poem, the Grateful Dead’s musical tribute, "Raven Space," or a reading in 100 different celebrity impressions.

Finally, we would be remiss not to mention The Simpsons’ James Earl Jones-narrated parody, a worthy teaching tool for distracted young visual learners. Is it a shame that we now think of “The Raven” as a Halloween yarn fit for the Treehouse of Horror or any number of enjoyable exercises in spooky oratory—rather than the theoretical thought experiment its author seemed to intend? Does Poe rotisserie in his grave as Homer snores in a wingback chair? Probably. But as the author told us himself at length, the poem works! It still never fails to excite our morbid curiosity, enchant our gothic sensibility, and maybe send a chill or two down the spine. Maybe we never really needed Poe to explain it to us.

You can find other literary readings in our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


New BBC Dramatization of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children Now Streaming Free for a Limited Time

FYI: The BBC is now streaming a dramatization of Salman Rushdie's Booker Prize-winning novel Midnight's Children. This free stream will only last for a limited time (the next 29 days). So dive in.

Here's how the BBC briefly describes the production:

To mark the 70th anniversary of the Partition of India, an ambitious new dramatization of Salman Rushdie's dazzling novel of love, history and magic. Saleem Sinai is born on the stroke of midnight on 15th August 1947, at the exact moment that India and Pakistan become separate, independent nations. From that moment on, his fate is mysteriously handcuffed to the history of his country. The story starts with Saleem's grandfather, Aadam, in Kashmir in 1915. Dramatised by Ayeesha Menon. Starring Nikesh Patel, Abhin Galeya and Meera Syal.

You can find the seven individual episodes here. Each is about an hour long. Find more free literary delights in our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free

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Hear a Rare Recording of Flannery O’Connor Reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1959)

Flannery O'Connor was a Southern writer who, as Joyce Carol Oates once said, had less in common with Faulkner than with Kafka and Kierkegaard. Isolated by poor health and consumed by her fervent Catholic faith, O'Connor created works of moral fiction that, according to Oates, “were not refined New Yorker stories of the era in which nothing happens except inside the characters' minds, but stories in which something happens of irreversible magnitude, often death by violent means."

In imagining those events of irreversible magnitude, O'Connor could sometimes seem outlandish--even cartoonish--but she strongly rejected the notion that her perceptions of 20th century life were distorted. “Writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable," O'Connor said. “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures."

In April of 1959--five years before her death at the age of 39 from lupus--O'Connor ventured away from her secluded family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, to give a reading at Vanderbilt University. She read one of her most famous and unsettling stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find." The audio, accessible above, is one of two known recordings of the author reading that story. (The other, from a 1957 appearance at Notre Dame University, can be heard here.) In her distinctive Georgian drawl, O'Connor tells the story of a fateful family trip:

The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida. She wanted to visit some of her connections in east Tennessee and she was seizing at every chance to change Bailey's mind. Bailey was the son she lived with, her only boy. He was sitting on the edge of his chair at the table, bent over the orange sports section of the Journal. "Now look here, Bailey," she said, "see here, read this," and she stood with one hand on her thin hip and the other rattling the newspaper at his bald head. "Here this fellow that calls himself The Misfit is aloose from the Federal Pen and headed toward Florida and you read here what it says he did to these people. Just you read it. I wouldn't take my children in any direction with a criminal like that aloose in it. I couldn't answer to my conscience if I did."

After you listen to this rare track, you can follow this link to a recording of O'Connor reading her 1960 essay, "Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction," in which she writes: “I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic."

You will find O'Connor's reading of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" housed in our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

Note: An earlier version of this post was first published on our site in 2012.

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Looking for free, professionally-read audio books from Audible.com? Here’s a great, no-strings-attached deal. If you start a 30 day free trial with Audible.com, you can download two free audio books of your choice. Get more details on the offer here.

Hear Moby Dick Read in Its Entirety by Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry, John Waters & Others

"Moby-Dick is the great American novel. But it is also the great unread American novel. Sprawling, magnificent, deliriously digressive, it stands over and above all other works of fiction, since it is barely a work of fiction itself. Rather, it is an explosive exposition of one man’s investigation into the world of the whale, and the way humans have related to it. Yet it is so much more than that."

That's how Plymouth University introduces Herman Melville's classic tale from 1851. And it's what set the stage for their web project launched back in 2012. Called The Moby-Dick Big Read, the project featured celebrities and lesser known figures reading all 135 chapters from Moby-Dick -- chapters that you can start downloading (as free audio files) on iTunesSoundcloud, RSS Feed, or the Big Read web site itself.

The project started with the first chapters being read by Tilda Swinton (Chapter 1), Captain R.N. Hone (Chapter 2), Nigel Williams (Chapter 3), Caleb Crain (Chapter 4), Musa Okwonga (Chapter 5), and Mary Norris (Chapter 6). John WatersStephen Fry, Simon Callow, Mary Oliver and even Prime Minister David Cameron read later ones.

If you want to read the novel as you go along, find the text in our collection of Free eBooks. We also have versions read by one narrator in our Free Audio Books collection. And, as always, you can download a professionally read version of Moby-Dick (or most any other novel), if you want to take part in Audible.com's 30-Day Free Trial program.

Tilda Swinton's narration of Chapter 1 appears right below:

An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2012.

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Stream a 24 Hour Playlist of Charles Dickens Stories, Featuring Classic Recordings by Laurence Olivier, Orson Welles & More

Children, cast off your fingerless mitts and gather round the mercifully cold hearth for some old timey, seasonally inappropriate listening.

Spotify has pulled together 67 Charles Dickens audio classics into a massive playlist for your summertime listening enjoyment–nearly 24 hours worth. That should last the long cross-country drive to see grandma.

Big gorillas like Oliver Twist and Great Expectations figure prominently. Sir Laurence Olivier, preparing to step into the part of Mr. Micawber, calls David Copperfield “a novel which I think must be almost the most famous ever written.”

Still true half a century later? Immaterial. Olivier's use of "I think" and "almost" leaves room enough for a sort of genial, general agreement.

Some of the introductions give unintentionally hilarious added value, such as host Frank Craven’s attempt to contextualize a Lux Radio Theater presentation starring Orson Welles as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities excerpt. The author’s work was often published in serial form, he tells listeners:

Records tell us of how crowds thronged the wards of New York City to receive news of their favorite heroine or hero. For already, the names of Dickens’ characters were household words, as much, I imagine, as Lux Toilet Soap is a household word throughout America today, and for very much the same reason–the ability to find approval among people of all kinds of ages and every walk of life, not only among women who are anxious to preserve their loveliness but with every member of the family, young and old. Lux Toilet Soap is quick to make friends and to keep them. 

How disappointed the sponsors must’ve been that in the whole of A Tale of Two Cities, there’s not a single reference to soap. (For the record, Oliver Twist has one and David Copperfield has two…)

Lesser known treats include Emlyn Williams, a Welsh actor who spent three decades performing as Dickens in a touring solo show, reading “Mr. Chops,” a tale of a circus dwarf, ill used by society. Dickens himself performed the story on his popular lecture tours. More recently actor Simon Callow mined it for a one man show. Sturdy material.

The 24-hour playlist (the first one above) will be added to our list of Free Audio Books. If you need to download Spotify's free software, grab it here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Christopher Lee Reads Four Classic Horror Stories by Edgar Allan Poe (1979)

Christopher Lee, whose nearly 70-year acting career spanned most of the 20th century and nearly all of the 21st century so far, saw numerous technological, cinematic, and cultural trends come and go but remained an institution all the while. He first grew famous, as his many fans know, in the vivid, campy Hammer Horror films of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s like The Curse of FrankensteinCorridor of Blood, and Dracula. His starring role in that last gave him his signature onscreen persona — he would go on to play the blood-sucking Count a total of ten times — but though he specialized in dark, villainous roles, his understanding of their essence meant his hundreds of performances transcended their eras, and often their material as well.

Lee knew, in other words, what it meant to be frightening, ominous, or simply unsettling in a rich and intriguing way, and that knowledge can hardly have come without an appreciation for the enduring work of Edgar Allan Poe.

We've previously featured several of Lee's readings of the 19th-century American master of the macabre, including Poe's most famous works like "The Raven" and "The Fall of the House of Usher," but only dedicated collectors will have run across the long out-of-print release we submit for your enjoyment today: Christopher Lee Reads Edgar Allan Poe Tales of Horror, originally released in 1979, on cassette only, by the discount label Music for Pleasure, Ltd.

Spanning two tapes, this recording includes not only "The Fall of the House of Usher" but "The Black Cat," "The Pit and the Pendulum," and "The Cask of Amontillado," all of which demonstrate not just Lee's ability to conjure up a spooky atmosphere with his voice alone, but his perfect suitability to the kind of language Poe used to tell his stories, always highly mannered even while hinting at the unspeakable depths below. The question of what makes Poe's writing so of its time yet so timeless may never be fully answered, but then, nor, probably, will the question of what makes Lee's elegant performances stand out from even the most schlocky or dated productions. Whatever the reasons, the union of the two always guarantees captivating listening, even from a simple 1970s bargain-bin package like this one. You can find old cassettes of Christopher Lee Reads Edgar Allan Poe Tales of Horror floating around on Amazon.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Sci-Fi Radio: Hear Radio Dramas of Sci-Fi Stories by Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. LeGuin & More (1989)

Image by Mr.Hasgaha, via Flickr Commons

If you dig through our archives, you can find no shortage of finely-produced radio dramatizations of your favorite science fiction stories. During the 1950s, NBC's Dimension X adapted stories by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and even Kurt Vonnegut. Later in the '50s, X Minus One continued that tradition, dramatizing stories by Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Poul Anderson and others. By the 1970s, Mind Webs got into the act and produced 188 adaptations--classics by Ursula K. LeGuin, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke. And the BBC did up Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy.

Those productions will keep you busy for a good while. But if you're wondering what the 1980s delivered, then tune into Sci-Fi Radio, a series of 26 half-hour shows which aired on NPR Playhouse, starting in 1989. Some of the adapted stories include: "Sales Pitch" and "Imposter" by Philip K. Dick, "Diary of the Rose" and "Field of Vision" by Ursula K. LeGuin, "Wall of Darkness" by Arthur C. Clarke, and "Frost and Fire" by Ray Bradbury.

You can stream all episodes below, or over at Archive.orgSci-Fi Radio will be added to our collection, 900 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free. Hope you enjoy.

Follow Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and share intelligent media with your friends. Or better yet, sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

If you'd like to support Open Culture and our mission, please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us provide the best free cultural and educational materials.

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