Listen to Whitman!

And I mean that literally!

Imagine my excitement when I was perusing the internet last night and came across at The Walt Whitman Archive a sound recording from 1890 of what is very likely Walt Whitman’s actual voice!

The recording is a bit muddled and raspy but how many times do you get to hear the voice of an author, poet, or anyone for that matter, who died before the turn of the 20th century?!?

It seems almost too good to be true.

In fact, many skeptics thought as much when the recording was first released in 1992 at the Whitman Centennial Conference held at the University of Iowa.  An article by Ed Folsom entitled The Whitman Recording (published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review) reveals that the recording was part of the Roscoe Haley Collection.  Roscoe Haley was a New York City elevator operator whose apartment was found to be chock full of recordings, books, and papers when he died in 1982.  When the find was unearthed, it generated some skepticism.  In an NPR report, Sam Brylawski of the Recorded Sound Reference Center at the Library of Congress asserted that the recording “has either been exceptionally well equalized or it’s a fake.”  He expounds further,

. . . recording  in  the  1890s  was  crude  at  best.  . . .  All recordings were  enormously  noisy.  What you  have  here on this  recording is  a voice  that  comes  through  really  loud  and  clear.  The  surface  noise  on  the cylinder is  pretty much in the  background.”

However, not everyone agreed with Brylawski.

You see, there is a letter from the Edison Institute dated from 1889 and signed by Thomas Edison himself in which he expresses a desire to get a recording of the great American poet’s voice.  Experts who have knowledge of Edison’s wax-cylinder method believe that the recording could be authentic.  One such expert, Dave Beauvais asserts,

{R}ecordings  of  pre-World War  I  vintage,  exhibit this  superlative  richness,  balance,  and freedom from distortion in the lower and middle portions of the audible spectrum. They sound  like  they’ve  been  perfectly  equalized- but that’s  just  the  way  they  were  cut, acoustically . . . .  The  near-perfect equalization was inherent in the Edison process.”

Beauvais also comments on the authenticity of the voice in the recording, revealing that the accent within it would have been very difficult to emulate.

It  exhibits a quaint and subtle regional inflection – a  soft mix of  Tidewater Atlantic and an Adirondack dilution of  the contemporary New York accent -which has  quite literally  disappeared in  our age.  No one  speaks this  way  any  more. The  notion  that  someone  might  have  set  out  to  imitate  such  a  subtle  and nuanced  archaic  inflection  strains  credibility  just  a  bit . “

You can listen to the recording for yourself by clicking the link below or visit The Walt Whitman Archive and click on “Pictures and Sound.”

It amounts to 36 seconds and 4 lines of the 6-line poem entitled, America. I’ve included the text of the poem below as it’s somewhat difficult to understand in the recording.

Hear Whitman Speak!


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.




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10 thoughts on “Listen to Whitman!

  1. Pingback: Whitman speaks – to me the listener « A Room of One's Own

  2. Wonderful!

    I have been fascinated by the Walt Whitman recording for years, being a real fan of poets reading their own works, and more recently have been interested in the controversy surrounding it.

    I am, in fact, writing a gargantuan blogpiece on the subject. I hope to publish it soon!

    So, on a random search, I was excited to find your concise and enthusiastic entry on the same topic, published today!

    By the way, did you know that, in addition to Whitman, there are recordings (these unquestionably authentic) of Robert Browning and Alfred, Lord Tennyson?! Hard to wrap one’s head around, but there are.

    Well, thanks for publishing, and look for my entry soon!

    Jim Hermanson
    Denver, Colorado

    • Thank you so much for your response!

      I had never heard of this recording before (when it hit the news in ’92 I was only 11 or 12 years old) so when I stumbled across it, you would have thought that I was a little girl and Santa Claus had just landed in the fireplace. I’m endeavoring to read the 400+ poems of Leaves of Grass over 2011. His poetry is the first thing that I read each morning and with each reading my love and appreciation for him deepens.

      I will definitely watch out for your post.

      That’s incredible that there are Tennyson and Browning recordings too! I had no idea. Do you happen to know if they are accessible anywhere online?

      Cheers! Thanks again for your comment.

    • Thanks for posting the links.

      I must say that after listening to Tennyson and Browning, I am beginning to understand why Whitman generated so much skepticism. There is definitely a noticeable disparity. A wiki article said that Browning was at a party when the recording was made. Perhaps the recording conditions contributed to the voice quality . . .

      Thanks again!

  3. Yeah.

    The heck of it is that, just as I need to add the flourishing ending on the piece which invites my readers to listen with me to the recording again. . .I myself am having my doubts about it. . .only because of the recording quality when compared with other 1890 Brown Wax cylinder recordings.

    In those others, there is a noticeable quality of the speaker having to YELL (or YAWP?) to make his voice heard clearly. But Whitman seems not to be straining, just speaking.

    Sort of.

    There is actually one other 1890 recording I heard which gave me heart, sounding more in the ballpark of the Whitman one than do the Tennyson or the BRRRRROWning. I found it at the National Park Service pages on the Edison National Historic Site, and I don’t remember who it features, but it was also from 1890, and you could hear a lot of subtlety and expression in a speaker who was not yelling into the horn, just projecting loud enough.

    I think, however, I have to mention my qualms, even though my piece was to end on a heroic note. . .

  4. I posted my piece about the Whitman recording earlier this week.

    You can find it, I think, via my name link, above.

    I would rather have sent this to you privately, via email, so you could post or not at your discretion, but no email addy appears.

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