Hear Walt Whitman (Maybe) Reading the First Four Lines of His Poem, “America” (1890)

Of all Amer­i­can poets, almost no one looms larg­er than Walt Whit­man. As I once heard an old poet acquain­tance say, Amer­i­can poets don’t need Shake­speare and the Bible; we’ve got Dick­in­son and Whit­man. Indeed, Whitman’s voice emerges from the past like some Amer­i­can Moses, show­ing the way for­ward, open­ing his arms to hold his frac­tious coun­try­men togeth­er. One can blovi­ate all day about Walt Whit­man. He tends to have that effect. But even Whit­man, he of the ser­pen­tine lines full of the car­go of the con­ti­nent, stretch­ing from left mar­gin to right, ocean to ocean, could be rel­a­tive­ly suc­cinct, and even about his favorite sub­ject, Amer­i­ca. Take his poem “Amer­i­ca” from 1888:

Cen­tre of equal daugh­ters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, endur­ing, capa­ble, rich,
Peren­ni­al with the Earth, with Free­dom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, tow­er­ing, seat­ed Moth­er,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.

Now, believe it or not, you can hear what may well be the voice of Walt Whit­man, Amer­i­can Moses, emerg­ing from the past to read the first four lines of “Amer­i­ca,” from a wax cylin­der record­ing above. Most like­ly cap­tured in 1889 or 1890 by Thomas Edi­son, this read­ing was orig­i­nal­ly found on a cas­sette called “The Voice of the Poets,” dis­cov­ered in a library by Whit­man schol­ar Lar­ry Don Grif­fin. The cas­sette, made in 1974 and includ­ing the voic­es of Edna St. Vin­cent Mil­lay and William Car­los Williams, takes the Whit­man audio from a 1951 NBC radio pro­gram, whose announc­er, Leon Pear­son, claims comes from a wax cylin­der record­ing made in 1890.

Sur­pris­ing­ly, the ’74 cas­sette tape, which land­ed in libraries across the coun­try, seemed to go unno­ticed by schol­ars until Grif­fin men­tioned it in the Walt Whit­man Quar­ter­ly Review in 1992. This men­tion sparked debate about the authen­tic­i­ty of the record­ing, and once schol­ar­ly debate is sparked, the fire can burn for decades, whole careers built on its embers. In this case, some schol­ars, includ­ing his­to­ri­an Allen Koenigs­berg, argued that since no orig­i­nal wax cylin­der has appeared, and men­tion of the record­ing in Edison’s cor­re­spon­dence is incon­clu­sive, the prove­nance is sus­pect. Fur­ther­more, Koenigs­berg argued, the record­ing qual­i­ty seems too good for the peri­od. His con­clu­sion comes backed by the analy­sis of audio experts. Accord­ing to The Edis­on­ian, a Rut­ger’s Uni­ver­si­ty Edi­son newslet­ter:

Ana­lysts for both the Library of Con­gress and the Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein Archives con­sult­ed on the case and agreed that the clar­i­ty of the record­ing was beyond what could be achieved in 1889 or 1890… the sound analy­sis along with the doc­u­men­ta­tion dif­fi­cul­ties led Koen­ings­berg to con­clude that “the sup­posed Whit­man record­ing is a fas­ci­nat­ing fake.”

On the oth­er side of this debate is the edi­tor of the Walt Whit­man Quar­ter­ly Review, Ed Fol­som, who presents his case in an arti­cle sim­ply titled “The Whit­man Record­ing,” in which he dis­cuss­es prob­lems with the Library of Con­gress analy­sis. Yet anoth­er par­ti­san for authen­tic­i­ty, William Grimes—who cov­ered the con­tro­ver­sy for The New York Times points out that the voice sounds like what Whitman’s would have, and he makes a com­pelling argu­ment that the poem would not at all be the obvi­ous choice for a fake. Grimes cites unnamed “spe­cial­ists in the his­to­ry of the phono­graph,” whom, he writes, “agree… that the pos­si­bil­i­ty of out­right fraud or a hoax is unlike­ly.”

And on it goes. No one can defin­i­tive­ly set­tle the case, unless new evi­dence should come to light. With no inten­tion of malign­ing Ed Folsom’s good faith, I can imag­ine the Whit­man Quar­ter­ly edi­tor want­i­ng this to be true more than his­to­ri­an Koenigs­berg and the LOC ana­lysts. But I also want it to be Whit­man, and so I’m glad to make an exu­ber­ant leap of Amer­i­can faith and think it’s him. From Edi­son wax cylin­der record­ing, to radio broad­cast, to cas­sette, to mp3, over more than a cen­tu­ry of Amer­i­can poetry—it would be a per­fect­ly Whit­manesque jour­ney.

via @stevesilberman

 Relat­ed Con­tent:

Voic­es from the 19th Cen­tu­ry: Ten­nyson, Glad­stone, Whit­man & Tchaikovsky

Thomas Edi­son Recites “Mary Had a Lit­tle Lamb” in Ear­ly Voice Record­ing

Mark Twain Cap­tured on Film by Thomas Edi­son in 1909.

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • Shelley says:

    I want to believe it, but I find myself think­ing he would have been just a tad more flam­boy­ant.…

  • amy says:

    why flam­boy­ant? could be real — hope it is.

  • Karen says:

    I bought this Barnes & Noble course on CD about Whit­man and it was awe­some! Great teacher. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s/Walt-Whitman-CD-course-Karen?store=allproducts&keyword=Walt+Whitman+CD++course+Karen

  • Jim says:

    Kewl, Karen!!! And isn’t it total­ly awe­some that the course’s teacher has the same name as you!!!??!?!!

  • E. Michael Rupert says:

    I’m curi­ous whether or not a region­al lin­guist has exam­ined the record­ing. It sounds to me as if there are three dis­tinct region­alisms (“ample” being only one) that don’t seem to come from the same per­son (accent). It sounds like an actor por­tray­ing a poet. It also sounds like the cylin­der is spin­ning about half as fast a the ones I’ve heard before. This type of arti­fact seems fair­ly use­less with­out cor­rob­o­ra­tion, does­n’t it?

  • Josh Jones says:

    I think you’re right, E. Michael, it is use­less as a his­tor­i­cal arti­fact. But not as a con­ver­sa­tion piece!

  • Allen Koenigsberg says:

    Giv­en the prove­nance of this record­ing, from the sup­posed col­lec­tion of Roscoe Haley, it is very unlike­ly that it is gen­uine. He nev­er allowed any­one to see the actu­al record, and also claimed to own a record­ing of Grover Cleve­land AND Har­ri­et Beech­er Stowe. What are the odds?


  • Larry MacDonald says:

    Hel­lo Allen

    I’m look­ing for any infor­ma­tion on the col­lec­tor Roscoe Haley pur­port­ed to hold in his pos­ses­sion the wax record­ing of Walt Whit­man.
    He would be a great uncle of mine. His niece was aware of his vast col­lec­tion and was a wit­ness to it as well I believe.
    I was curi­ous as to any­thing you might know about the man and the col­lec­tor. For exam­ple, how did you know that he claimed to be in pos­ses­sion of these oth­er mon­u­men­tal record­ings of Grover Cleve­land and Har­ri­et Beech­er Stowe?
    He lived in Man­hat­tan and lived into his 90’s. He was orig­i­nal­ly from Chat­tanooga Ten­nessee. His sis­ter , my grand­moth­er, was also close to him and lived in New York.
    Any­way, I’m doing some fam­i­ly research and I find all these details about him fas­ci­nat­ing.

    Thank You,

    Lar­ry Mac­Don­ald
    Nova Sco­tia

  • Michelle says:

    Hi Larry‑I fell upon your reply some­how. Roscoe Haley was my grand­fa­ther’s broth­er (so he was great uncle). My grand­fa­ther lived with Roscoe after their par­ents acci­dent for years before enlist­ing for war. He then became a mer­chant marine after the trag­ic inci­dent of their oth­er broth­er and final­ly set­tled near Olean/Cattaraugus/ Brad­ford. I am curi­ous as well about Roscoe’s col­lec­tions and won­der if I can con­nect some things passed on from my grand­fa­ther.

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