Walt Whitman's voice?

« previous post | next post »

Michael Newman writes:

This was posted by Daniel Ezra Johnson on Facebook, who says he's skeptical about the authenticity: Maria Popova, "Walt Whitman Reads 'America': The Only Surviving Recording of the Beloved Poet’s Voice", brain pickings 7/4/2013.

I'm a bit more positive about it. This is my comment on facebook in response to his skepticism:

He's r-less, and there's the distinct but not raised THOUGHT, which is what we'd expect. If there was a short-a split sample, I'd have more confidence either way. But there are some odd pronunciations that sound old-fashioned, such as "earth." The "endeared" I didn't understand, like there's no in-glide. I doubt a faker would have done that. So, I'm tentatively on-board.

I wonder if people on language log might have a clue about it.

Here's the audio:

There's an extensive recent discussion in a pseudonymous blog written by a recording engineer ("Herm"): "The Voice of the Poet?", The Red Wheelbarrow 3/27/2011:

The Walt Whitman recording floated to the surface of the illimitable ocean of history most recently in 1992.  In that year, long-held rumors of such a recording coalesced into the handy solidity of a cassette tape from Texas whose contents electrified Whitman scholars at the University of Iowa, then radiated far and wide to the general public.  The story was featured in the New York Times, on National Public radio and CBS "Sunday Morning."   An Associated Press story spread the tale across the country.

The story erupted in 1992, was bruited widely about, and then had the door slammed just as quickly on it.  There has been no significant writing on the subject of the Walt Whitman recording, and no new discoveries or revelations regarding it, in 18 years.

Two armed opposing camps, the True Believers, who have no doubt that the recording is the voice of the great poet and embrace it as an object deserving literary veneration, and the Naysayers or Debunkers, who just as surely know it is a base fraud, nail their certainty ultimately to the flagpole of  a mere three or four documents from that year, 1992.  Three written essays and one radio show.  And of these four documents, three present the positives and the negatives of the case and leave the matter open.  Only one of the four sources concludes unequivocally that the recording is, in the author's words, "a fascinating fraud."

Those four sources:

William Grimes, "Poem is Whitman's.  Is the Voice?", NYT 3/16/1992
NPR Morning Edition, 3/20/1992 [Transcript or recording not available on line, as far as I can tell]
Allen Konigsberg, "Walt Whitman (1819-1892) Speaks?", Antique Phonograph Monthly, 1992.
Ed Folsom, "The Whitman Recording",  Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Spring 1992.


  1. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 7:55 am

    The NYT article claims the recording was "remarkably clear and free from distortion". That is certainly not my impression. What happened?

    [(myl) Just as a "remarkably large ant" is small relative to a "remarkably large goat" or a "remarkably large dumptruck", so a "remarkably clear wax cylinder recording" is not really very clear, by the standards of later (much less modern) recording technology…]

  2. dw said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 9:07 am

    I hear semi-rhoticity. There's a rhotic constriction in "Centre" and "fair", but in "earth" there is a centering diphthong without rhotic constriction that is a plausible precursor to the famous New York "oil-earl" merger.

    Other points of interest:
    * T-voicing in "daughters"
    * a rounded THOUGHT vowel
    * a prominent yod in "enduring"
    * very prominent raising in "ample" and "and"
    * a big contrast between the stressed vowels of "ungrown" and "young", with a higher vowel in the latter
    * a diphthong in "rich" that sounds Southern to me

    This seems a fairly plausible accent for someone born in Long Island in the early nineteenth century, but who hadn't been trained to sound more like an Englishman (which public speakers often did in those days).

    @Jonathan Gress-Wright: I think "remarkably clear and free from distortion" is relative to the age of the recording.

  3. Stephen C. Carlson said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 11:02 am

    How do we know what Whitman sounded like? Without a clear provenance tying the recording to Whitman himself, do we have enough evidence to tell if it was Whitman or some actor of the day (assuming the lost wax recording genuinely belongs to the 1890s)?

  4. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 2:54 pm

    One argument against authenticity is that the printed version of the poem, and the only version otherwise attested, goes on for two more verses. But the WWQR article says that, according to the NBC broadcaster Pearson, the original wax cylinder was in fact badly damaged, so perhaps the last two lines were on there but couldn't be recovered?

  5. dw said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 4:06 pm

    The best argument I can see for this recording's inauthenticity is that it seems far too well preserved for a wax cylinder from the early 1890s (Whitman died in 1892).

    For a comparison, listen to the examples at Wikipedia's Phonograph cylinder page.

    Does anyone know of any other "remarkably clear and free from distortion" recordings from this period? (Although I'd still be interested to know where it came from, even if it's a fake).

  6. DaveK said,

    July 5, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

    @Jonathan Gress-Wright
    I doubt there were two more lines on the recording–the speaker ends with a finishing crescendo at "love". Actually, I'd consider the missing two lines to be an argument in favor of authenticity. Whitman was known for revising his poetry after initial publication and if he decided the poem was better without the last two lines, he may have edited them out at some point before the recording was made (maybe on the spur of the moment as he was reading it).
    On the other hand, anyone else reading a poem by Whitman wouldn't be likely to have the audacity to change it.

RSS feed for comments on this post