The First Recording of Allen Ginsberg Reading “Howl” (1956)

Allen_ginsberg_erads howl

Image by Michiel Hendryckx, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Occa­sion­al­ly I slip into an ivory tow­er men­tal­i­ty in which the idea of a banned book seems quaint—associated with sil­ly scan­dals over the tame sex scenes in James Joyce or D.H. Lawrence. After all, I think, we live in an age when best­seller lists are topped (no pun) by tawdry fan fic­tion like Fifty Shades of Grey. Nothing’s sacred. But this notion is a mas­sive blind spot on my part; the whole aware­ness-rais­ing mis­sion of the annu­al Banned Books Week seeks to dis­pel such com­pla­cen­cy. Books are chal­lenged, sup­pressed, and banned all the time in pub­lic schools and libraries, even if we’ve moved past out­right gov­ern­ment cen­sor­ship of the pub­lish­ing indus­try.

It’s also easy to for­get that Allen Ginsberg’s gen­er­a­tion-defin­ing poem “Howl” was once almost a casu­al­ty of cen­sor­ship. The most like­ly suc­ces­sor to Walt Whitman’s vision, Ginsberg’s orac­u­lar utter­ances did not sit well with U.S. Cus­toms, who in 1957 tried to seize every copy of the British sec­ond print­ing. When that failed, police arrest­ed the poem’s pub­lish­er, Lawrence Fer­linghet­ti, and he and Ginsberg’s “Howl” were put on tri­al for obscen­i­ty. Appar­ent­ly, phras­es like “cock and end­less balls” did not sit well with the author­i­ties. But the court vin­di­cat­ed them all.

The sto­ry of Howl’s pub­li­ca­tion begins in 1955, when 29-year-old Gins­berg read part of the poem at the Six Gallery, where Ferlinghetti—owner of San Francisco’s City Lights book­store—sat in atten­dance. Decid­ing that Ginsberg’s epic lament “knocked the sides out of things,” Fer­linghet­ti offered to pub­lish “Howl” and brought out the first edi­tion in 1956. Pri­or to this read­ing, “Howl” exist­ed in the form of an ear­li­er poem called “Dream Record, 1955,” which poet Ken­neth Rexroth told Gins­berg sound­ed “too for­mal… like you’re wear­ing Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty Brooks Broth­ers ties.” Ginsberg’s rewrite jet­ti­soned the ivy league deco­rum.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, no audio exists of that first read­ing, but above you can hear the first record­ed read­ing of “Howl,” from Feb­ru­ary, 1956 at Portland’s Reed Col­lege. The record­ing sat dor­mant in Reed’s archives for over fifty years until schol­ar John Suit­er redis­cov­ered it in 2008. In it, Gins­berg reads his great prophet­ic work, not with the cadences of a street preach­er or jazzman—both of which he had in his repertoire—but in an almost robot­ic monot­o­ne with an under­tone of man­ic urgency. Ginsberg’s read­ing, before an inti­mate group of stu­dents in a dor­mi­to­ry lounge, took place only just before the first print­ing of the poem in the City Lights edi­tion.

Note: This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on our site in 2013. Over the years, the audio orig­i­nal­ly fea­tured in the post, along with many of the links, went dead. So we gave every­thing a refresh and brought it back.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Allen Gins­berg Record­ings Brought to the Dig­i­tal Age. Lis­ten to Eight Full Tracks for Free

James Fran­co Reads a Dream­i­ly Ani­mat­ed Ver­sion of Allen Ginsberg’s Epic Poem ‘Howl’

2,000+ Cas­settes from the Allen Gins­berg Audio Col­lec­tion Now Stream­ing Online

Allen Ginsberg’s “Celes­tial Home­work”: A Read­ing List for His Class “Lit­er­ary His­to­ry of the Beats”

13 Lec­tures from Allen Ginsberg’s “His­to­ry of Poet­ry” Course (1975)

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

Hear Flannery O’Connor Read “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. 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.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Flan­nery O’Connor Reads ‘Some Aspects of the Grotesque in South­ern Fic­tion’ (c. 1960)

Hear Flan­nery O’Connor’s Short Sto­ry, “Rev­e­la­tion,” Read by Leg­endary His­to­ri­an & Radio Host, Studs Terkel

Flan­nery O’Connor’s “Every­thing That Ris­es Must Con­verge” Read by Estelle Par­sons

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

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2017. We’re bring­ing it back for Hal­loween.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Gus­tave Doré’s Splen­did Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” (1884)

The Raven: a Pop-up Book Brings Edgar Allan Poe’s Clas­sic Super­nat­ur­al Poem to 3D Paper Life

A Read­ing of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in 100 Celebri­ty Voic­es

Edgar Allan Poe’s the Raven: Watch an Award-Win­ning Short Film That Mod­ern­izes Poe’s Clas­sic Tale

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

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Hear Neil Gaiman Read A Christmas Carol Just Like Charles Dickens Read It

In Christ­mases past, we fea­tured Charles Dick­ens’ hand-edit­ed copy of his beloved 1843 novel­la A Christ­mas Car­ol. He did that hand edit­ing for the pur­pos­es of giv­ing pub­lic read­ings, a prac­tice that, in his time, “was con­sid­ered a des­e­cra­tion of one’s art and a low­er­ing of one’s dig­ni­ty.” That time, how­ev­er, has gone, and many of the most pres­ti­gious writ­ers alive today take the read­ing aloud of their own work to the lev­el of art, or at least high enter­tain­ment, that Dick­ens must have sus­pect­ed one could. Some writ­ers even do a bang-up job of read­ing oth­er writ­ers’ work: mod­ern mas­ter sto­ry­teller Neil Gaiman gave us a dose of that when we fea­tured his recita­tion of Lewis Car­rol­l’s “Jab­ber­wocky” from mem­o­ry. Today, how­ev­er, comes the full meal: Gaiman’s telling of A Christ­mas Car­ol straight from that very Dick­ens-edit­ed read­ing copy.

Gaiman read to a full house at the New York Pub­lic Library, an insti­tu­tion known for its stim­u­lat­ing events, hol­i­day-themed or oth­er­wise. But he did­n’t have to hold up the after­noon him­self; tak­ing the stage before him, BBC researcher and The Secret Muse­um author Mol­ly Old­field talked about her two years spent seek­ing out fas­ci­nat­ing cul­tur­al arti­facts the world over, includ­ing but not lim­it­ed to the NYPL’s own col­lec­tion of things Dick­en­sian. You can hear both Old­field and Gaiman in the record­ing below. But per­haps the great­est gift of all came in the form of the lat­ter’s attire for his read­ing: not only did he go ful­ly Vic­to­ri­an, he even went to the length of repli­cat­ing the 19th-cen­tu­ry lit­er­ary super­star’s own severe hair part and long goa­tee. And School Library Jour­nal has pic­tures. The sto­ry real­ly gets start­ed around the 11:00 mark. Gaiman’s read­ing will be added to our list of Free Audio Books. You can find the text of Dick­ens’ clas­sic here.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in Decem­ber 2014.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Oscar-Win­ning Ani­ma­tion of Charles Dick­ens’ Clas­sic Tale, A Christ­mas Car­ol (1971)

Charles Dick­ens’ Hand-Edit­ed Copy of His Clas­sic Hol­i­day Tale, A Christ­mas Car­ol

Hear Charles Dick­ens’ A Christ­mas Car­ol Read by His Great-Grand­daugh­ter, Mon­i­ca

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

Hear Moby Dick Read in Its Entirety by Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry, John Waters & Many 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 over at Project Guten­berg.

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

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

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Illus­tra­tion of Every Page of Her­man Melville’s Moby Dick

How Ray Brad­bury Wrote the Script for John Huston’s Moby Dick (1956)

Hear a Com­plete 24-Hour Read­ing of Moby-Dick, Record­ed at the South­bank Cen­tre in Lon­don (2015)

What’s the Best Audio Book You’ve Ever “Read”?

Image by Knop­per

We were look­ing for a good audio­book. So we asked our friends on Twit­ter for their audio­book rec­om­men­da­tions, and recom­men­da­tions we got. Good ones, and more than a few.  So we thought we would share the twit­ter thread/recommendations with you.

I, Claudius nar­rat­ed by Nel­son Runger; Loli­ta read by Jere­my Irons; Last Chance Tex­a­co by Rick­ie Lee Jones; The Ili­ad as read by Alfred Moli­na; The Odyssey read by Ian McK­ellen; Anna Karen­i­na nar­rat­ed by Mag­gie Gyl­len­haal, and the list goes on.

If you find any titles you like, you can always sign up for a free tri­al with

Please feel free to add any of your own favorites to the com­ments sec­tion below. Enjoy…

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent 

1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free

Hear Neil Gaiman Read Aloud 15 of His Own Works, and Works by 6 Oth­er Great Writ­ers: From The Grave­yard Book & Cora­line, to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven & Dick­ens’ A Christ­mas Car­ol

Hear Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Read­ing Let­ters by Kurt Von­negut, Alan Tur­ing, Sol LeWitt, and Oth­ers

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Hear Aldous Huxley Narrate His Dystopian Masterpiece, Brave New World

The CBS Radio Work­shop was an “exper­i­men­tal dra­mat­ic radio anthol­o­gy series” that aired between 1956 and 1957. And it start­ed with style–with a dra­ma­tized adap­ta­tion of Brave New World, nar­rat­ed by Aldous Hux­ley him­self. The broad­cast aired on Jan­u­ary 27 and Feb­ru­ary 3 1956.  The remain­ing 84 pro­grams in the CBS Radio Work­shop series drew on the work of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, James Thurber, H.L. Menck­en, Mark Twain, Robert Hein­lein, Eugene O’Neil, Balzac, Carl Sand­burg, and so many more. You can hear many of those episodes online here.

If you would like to sign up for Open Culture’s free email newslet­ter, please find it here. Or fol­low our posts on Threads, Face­book, BlueSky or Mastodon.

If you would like to sup­port the mis­sion of Open Cul­ture, con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your con­tri­bu­tions will help us con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing the best free cul­tur­al and edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als to learn­ers every­where. You can con­tribute through Pay­Pal, Patre­on, and Ven­mo (@openculture). Thanks!

Relat­ed Con­tent

Aldous Hux­ley Pre­dicts in 1950 What the World Will Look Like in the Year 2000

When Aldous Hux­ley, Dying of Can­cer, Left This World Trip­ping on LSD, Expe­ri­enc­ing “the Most Serene, the Most Beau­ti­ful Death” (1963)

Aldous Hux­ley Tells Mike Wal­lace What Will Destroy Democ­ra­cy: Over­pop­u­la­tion, Drugs & Insid­i­ous Tech­nol­o­gy (1958)

Aldous Hux­ley to George Orwell: My Hell­ish Vision of the Future is Bet­ter Than Yours (1949)


Hear Sherlock Holmes Stories Read by The Great Christopher Lee

The extend­ed Sher­lock Holmes Uni­verse, as we might call it, has grown so vast in the last cen­tu­ry (as with oth­er fran­chis­es that have uni­vers­es) that it’s pos­si­ble to call one­self a fan with­out ever hav­ing read the source mate­r­i­al. Depend­ing on one’s per­sua­sion, this is either heresy or the inevitable out­come of so much medi­a­tion by Holme­sian high priests, none of whom can resist writ­ing Holmes fan fic­tion of their own. But Sher­lock­ians agree: the true Holmes Canon (yes, it’s cap­i­tal­ized) con­sists of only 60 works — 56 short sto­ries and four nov­els, exclud­ing apoc­rypha. No more, no less. (And they’re in the pub­lic domain!)

The Canon safe­guards Arthur Conan Doyle’s work against the extra-volu­mi­nous flood of pas­tichists, par­o­dists, and imposters appear­ing on the scene since Holmes’ first appear­ance in 1892. (Doyle per­son­al­ly liked Peter Pan author J.M. Barrie’s Holmes par­o­dy, “The Adven­ture of the Two Col­lab­o­ra­tors,” so much he includ­ed it in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy.) The Holmes Canon remains untouch­able for its wit, inge­nu­ity, and the true strange­ness of its detec­tive — a por­trait of per­haps the most emo­tion­al­ly avoidant pro­tag­o­nist in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture when we first meet him:

All emo­tions, and [love] par­tic­u­lar­ly, were abhor­rent to his cold, pre­cise but admirably bal­anced mind. He was, I take it, the most per­fect rea­son­ing and observ­ing machine that the world has seen, but as a lover he would have placed him­self in a false posi­tion. He nev­er spoke of the soft­er pas­sions, save with a gibe and a sneer. They were admirable things for the observer—excellent for draw­ing the veil from men’s motives and actions. But for the trained rea­son­er to admit such intru­sions into his own del­i­cate and fine­ly adjust­ed tem­pera­ment was to intro­duce a dis­tract­ing fac­tor which might throw a doubt upon all his men­tal results. Grit in a sen­si­tive instru­ment, or a crack in one of his own high-pow­er lens­es, would not be more dis­turb­ing than a strong emo­tion in a nature such as his.

How to make such a cold fish com­pelling? With a host of quirks, an inge­nious mind, a “Bohemi­an soul,” some unsa­vory qual­i­ties, and at least one or two human attach­ments, if you can call them that. Sherlock’s cold, log­i­cal exte­ri­or masks con­sid­er­able pas­sion, inspir­ing fan the­o­ries about an ances­tral rela­tion­ship to Star Trek’s Spock.

But of course, we see Holmes almost entire­ly through the eyes of his side­kick and amanu­en­sis, James Wat­son, who has his bias­es. When Holmes stepped out of the sto­ries and into radio and screen adap­ta­tions, he became his own man, so to speak — or a series of lead­ing men: Basil Rath­bone, John Giel­gud, Ian McK­ellen, Michael Caine, Robert Downey, Jr., Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch, and the late Christo­pher Lee, who played not one of Doyle’s char­ac­ters, but four, begin­ning with his role as Sir Hen­ry Baskerville, with Peter Cush­ing as Holmes, in a 1959 adap­ta­tion.

In 1962, Lee took on the role of Holmes him­self in a Ger­man-Ital­ian pro­duc­tion, Sher­lock Holmes and the Dead­ly Neck­lace, an orig­i­nal sto­ry based on Doyle’s work. He played Holmes’ smarter but unmo­ti­vat­ed old­er broth­er, Mycroft, in 1970, then played a much old­er Holmes twice more in the 90s, paus­ing along the way for the role of Arnaud, a char­ac­ter in anoth­er Doyle adap­ta­tion, The Leather Fun­nel, in 1973 and the nar­ra­tor of a 1985 Holmes doc­u­men­tary, The Many Faces of Sher­lock Holmes. In an extra­or­di­nary career, Lee became an icon in the worlds of hor­ror, sci­ence fic­tion, fan­ta­sy, and Sher­lock Holmes, a genre all its own, into which he fit per­fect­ly.

In the videos here, you can hear Lee read four of the last twelve Holmes sto­ries Doyle wrote in the final decade of his life. These were col­lect­ed in 1927 in The Case-Book of Sher­lock Holmes. We begin, at the top, with the very last of the 56 canon­i­cal sto­ries, “The Adven­ture of Shoscombe Old Place.”  Lee may nev­er have played Dr. Wat­son, but we can imag­ine him bring­ing his famil­iar grav­i­tas to that role, too, as he nar­rates in his deep mel­liflu­ous voice. Find links to 7 more sto­ries from Doyle’s last col­lec­tion, read by Lee, on Metafil­ter, and hear him nar­rate The Many Faces of Sher­lock Holmes, just below.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Arthur Conan Doyle Names His 19 Favorite Sher­lock Holmes Sto­ries

Hor­ror Leg­end Christo­pher Lee Reads Bram Stoker’s Drac­u­la

Sher­lock Holmes Is Now in the Pub­lic Domain, Declares US Judge

Read the Lost Sher­lock Holmes Sto­ry That Was Just Dis­cov­ered in an Attic in Scot­land

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

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