Orson Welles Reads From America’s Greatest Poem, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1953)

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 Dead­woodderives 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.

Side 1:

Side 2:

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Orson Welles Reads Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in a 1977 Exper­i­men­tal Film

Orson Welles Meets H.G. Wells in 1940: The Leg­ends Dis­cuss War of the Worlds, Cit­i­zen Kane, and WWII

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

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

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  • emmett walz says:

    How mag­nif­i­cent. I have not ever “con­nect­ed with” Whit­man in attempts to read his work to myself. How grate­ful I am to have found this sump­tu­ous re-intro­duc­tion to his pas­sion­ate, and most human­ist Love for all life, ren­dered acces­si­ble, now, by the grace of my always loved, Orson Welles. I have missed him great­ly since the day of his death, and must become cloudy eyed each time I see him, or hear his musi­cal, gold­en, voice. Thank you for this gift.

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