The Multimedia Archive is a place that showcases audio and video recordings related to Whitman mostly but also related to other American artists featured in our peer-reviewed journal. We also collect and link to everyday media (videos, songs, blog posts) from around the web in an effort to highlight Whitman’s continuing influence on culture.
Whitman was a poet who placed prime importance on performativity. Some of our recordings—some going as far back as to the 1920s—reveal the ways in which Whitman has been reimagined and reactivated in new technologies over time. It is the hope that this archive will enliven thinking about Whitman as he is interpreted at particular historical and cultural moments, and in formats that keep him forever alive.
— Tyler Hoffman
Although Whitman did not perform his poems in public on many occasions, he imagined them as meant to be launched by the human voice. For training, he says that he “spouted in the woods, down by the shore, in the noise of Broadway where nobody could hear me: spouted, eternally spouted, an (sic) spouted again…. I think I had a good voice: I think I was never afraid—I had no stage reticences (I tried the thing often enough to see that.).” Hailing his “sincerity of voice and manner,” audiences praised his public speaking as “devoid of tricks of elocution,” and in this he was in line with a revised sense of public speech (oratory as opposed to elocution) that emerged in the mid-nineteenth century. An audience of mechanics and young men in Camden, NJ, commented in a letter to the Springfield Republican (July 23, 1875) on Whitman’s reading of his lyric “The Mystic Trumpeter” “in a manner which singularly combined strong emphasis with the very realization of self-composure, simplicity and ease”:
His voice is firm, magnetic, and with a certain peculiar quality we heard an admiring auditor call unaffectedness. Its range is baritone, merging into bass. He reads very leisurely, makes frequent pauses or gaps, enunciates with distinctness, and uses few gestures, but those very significant. Is he eloquent and dramatic? No, not in the conventional sense, as illustrated by the best known stars of the pulpit, court-room, or the stage—for the bent of his reading, in fact the whole idea of it, is evidently to first form an enormous mental fund, as it were, within the regions of the chest, and heart, and lungs—a sort of interior battery—out of which, charged to the full with such emotional impetus only, and without ranting or any of the usual accessories or clap-trap of the actor or singer, he launches what he has to say, free of noise or strain, yet with a power that makes one almost tremble.
The poetics of naturalness that the correspondent points up here—one that eschews theatricality of voice and gesture, that is without affectation but powerfully affective—is, again, a sign of the times, with Whitman proposing to bring oratory to a new more intimate level, the poet not “ranting” but “leisurely” speaking.
Readers of Whitman in his day and after found his verse ripe for recitation. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have read Leaves of Grass aloud—an “unusual” occurrence apparently, as it is reported that Lincoln rarely vocalized anything in his Springfield law office but newspaper extracts; Leaves, though, we are told, he “read with sympathetic emphasis verse after verse,” hailing them for their “virility, freshness.” Henry James, despite writing some hostile reviews of Whitman’s work, nonetheless, according to Edith Wharton, was cured of his stammer when reciting Whitman, whose lines poured fluidly from his lips. Carl Sandburg lectured on Whitman beginning in 1906 and recited Whitman’s poetry as part of his performances. Langston Hughes recorded “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” on the Folkways album The Glory of Negro History (1958). The beat poet Allen Ginsberg recited Whitman as part of his lectures at the Naropa Institute on July 4, 1975 and again on August 2, 1976.
Doc Searls, senior editor of Linux Journal, a leading technology magazine, reported on his popular blog that Whitman’s poetry came alive for him in the voice of The Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor, whom he heard on the radio reciting Whitman:
The first time I truly heard Walt Whitman was when Garrison Keillor read selections from “Song of Myself,” accompanied by Leo Kottke on guitar. I was driving North on highway 280 south of San Francisco, on the spine of The Peninsula. The setting sun made silhouettes of the mountains to the West, and brightened the fog in the long valleys below. Beneath the fog lay the Crystal Springs and San Andreas reservoirs, the latter of which gives its name to the world’s most famous fault. The setting was perfect. So was the reading…. I was so knocked out by what I heard that I had to pull over and stop the car. Here, I knew, was Truth with a capital T.
The contemporary San Francisco poet Jack Foley also felt the profound effect that vocalizing and auditing Whitman historically has had: “I read aloud Whitman’s magnificent … poem, ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ on one of my KPFA [radio] programs. I know what an extraordinary experience it is to perform that poem. After hearing the program, some listeners phoned in to tell me they hadn’t realized what an amazing poet Whitman was until they had heard me read him aloud…. (On another show I played a recording of Orson Welles reading selections from Leaves of Grass; it too was an extraordinary experience.)”
Whitman’s poetic words have been performed in a range of media, as Kenneth Price chronicles in To Walt Whitman, America (2004) (see William Pannapacker’s review of Price’s book in this issue). Perhaps one of the best-known modern recitations of Whitman occurred in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, where the eccentric teacher Mr. Keating jumps on desks while 3 Hoffman | Auditing Whitman reciting Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” to inspire his students. Whitman’s voice has been crucial behind the screen, too. In Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002), Daniel Day-Lewis is said to have modeled his Bowery boy speech on the alleged extant recording of Whitman reading all but the last two lines of his poem “America” on wax cylinder. In the second part of Michael Cunningham’s novel Specimen Days (2005), “The Children’s Crusade,” the performance of Whitman is again front and center, as young boys roam the streets of New York, explosives strapped to their bodies, reciting Leaves. Even Whitman’s famous Lincoln lecture has been subject to re-staging, by the writer Daniel Mark Epstein in April 2005.
The audio files that MSR makes available in this issue constitute yet another medium— usually neglected—in which Whitman’s poetry was articulated to the public in the twentieth century. In this introduction, I want to say a few words about the culture and poetics of verse recitation in America that shape the delivery style of actors reciting Whitman’s work on a range of LPs dating from the 1940s to the 1970s, in an effort to better understand just how we are to hear them, and Whitman through them. (Read More)