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ARSCLIST  February 2013

ARSCLIST February 2013

Subject:

The Walt Whitman - Edison Controversy

From:

Steve Ramm <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Association for Recorded Sound Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 11 Feb 2013 10:36:42 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

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This is just one of the articles in the newest issue of the Edison Papers  
Project Newsletter. I'm not sure it settles the controversy but it's worth  
reading. (The full newsletter is located at: _http://tinyurl.com/a2tdl3d_ 
(http://tinyurl.com/a2tdl3d) 

Steve Ramm

 
Edison and Poetry: Did Edison Record Walt  Whitman?
  
In the early 1980s, the scholar Larry Don Griffin was conducting research 
for  a paper on the quality of Walt Whitman's voice when he came across a 
cassette  tape in the Midlands (Tex.) College Library that purported to include 
a  recording of the poet reciting the first four lines of his poem 
"America":  
America 
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear'd, capable,  rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane,  towering, seated Mother,
Chair'd in the adamant of Time. 
Walt Whitman (1888)  
_Listen  to the recording, courtesy of The Whitman Archive _ 
(http://www.whitmanarchive.org/multimedia/index.html)  
The cassette, which also included recordings of James Whitcomb Riley, Edna  
St. Vincent Millay, and William Carlos Williams, was commercially produced 
in  1974 and made generally available to libraries across the country. It 
had not  elicited any real scholarly interest, however, until Griffin 
mentioned the  Whitman snippet in an article in the Winter 1992 edition of the Walt 
Whitman  Quarterly Review. Griffin's revelation soon excited a lively debate 
on  whether the recording was authentic.  
The question of authenticity immediately led to the question of provenance, 
 which eventually led to Thomas Alva Edison. The first clue in the chain 
emerged  from the cassette itself. The narrator who introduces the Whitman 
recording also  introduces himself—Leon Pearson, the brother of the columnist 
Drew Pearson. He  notes further that technicians at NBC had transferred the 
Whitman recording to  tape from a wax cylinder.  
The Library of Congress, which is a repository of the NBC archives, was 
able  to identify the program— "Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow"—originally 
broadcast in  1951. The wax cylinder in question, in the meantime, was purported to 
have come  from the collection of a retired elevator operator and collector 
of such  recordings, Roscoe Haley of New York, who died in 1982. 
Essentially, the chain  of provenance ends there. The original wax cylinder, which 
Pearson had said was  badly damaged, has not been found. It could simply have 
disintegrated, as some  wax cylinders do if they are not cared for properly. 
Nor could researchers trace  the cylinder to Haley's collection. The only 
evidence that this is where NBC got  it is the broadcast itself, though it 
seems unlikely that Pearson would have  fabricated such a detail.  
It is at this point in the story, in 1992, that Edison comes into the  
picture. Archivists at the Thomas Edison National Historic Park at West Orange  
turned up two documents relating to a potential recording of Walt Whitman. 
Both  are dated 14 Feb. 1889. _The first is from Edison's private secretary 
Alfred O. Tate to the  Boston-based journalist and Whitman admirer Sylvester 
Baxter_ 
(http://edison.rutgers.edu/NamesSearch/SingleDoc.php3?DocId=LB028222) . Tate writes  that Edison himself had received Baxter's letter of 8 
February "in regard to  obtaining a phonographic record of the poet Whitman." He 
then notes further that  Edison "is very much obliged for your suggestion, 
and will endeavor to carry it  out."  
_Later the same day, Tate prepared a letter for Edison to Jesse H.  
Lippincott, the head of the North American Phonograph Co._ 
(http://edison.rutgers.edu/NamesSearch/SingleDoc.php3?DocId=LB028223)  Lippincott had  recently 
purchased the Edison Phonograph Co. and represented Edison's phonograph  
interests. Tate attached Baxter's original letter and asked, on Edison's behalf,  
if Lippincott wished "to act upon this gentlemen's suggestion, and obtain a  
phonogram from the poet Whitman?"  
Edison representatives during this period are known to have made a number 
of  phonograms of prominent figures, including P. T. Barnum (1890), British 
Prime  Minister William Gladstone (1888), Otto von Bismarck (1889), and Field 
Marshall  Helmuth von Moltke (1889), as well as poets Robert Browning 
(1889) and Alfred,  Lord Tennyson (1890). They were chiefly used for the purpose 
of demonstrating  the phonograph. A recording of Whitman likely would have 
been used for the same  purpose.  
Lippincott's response, unfortunately, has not been found, and to date the  
tantalizing paper trail ends with Edison's letter. With no ironclad proof as 
to  the recording's authenticity, scholars are left to draw their own 
conclusions,  marshaling such arguments as they can. Those who doubt the 
recording is really  Whitman, beginning with historian Allen Koenigsberg, have 
argued that since the  wax cylinder can't be found, there is no proof that it is 
an Edison cylinder at  all, so that even if Edison had followed up on his 
desire to record Whitman, the  recording in hand—whatever it may be—might not 
have been made for Edison. Then,  too, since no follow-up to the Edison 
correspondence has come to light, there is  nothing to show that Edison made 
any recording of Whitman.  
Koenigsberg encapsulated his findings in an article "Walt Whitman (1819–
1892)  Speaks?" which appeared in the Winter 1992 edition of Antique Phonograph 
 Monthly. He notes that in the extensive contemporaneous documentation of  
Whitman's life from 1889-1892, no one has found any mention of a recording. 
This  documentation includes not only Whitman's own correspondence but 
extensive  letters and memoirs by Whitman's friends and frequent newspaper 
reports, as well  as the nearly daily account of Whitman's activities in Camden, 
N.J., and  Philadelphia that his friend Horace Traubel kept.  
Koeningsberg and other critics have also pointed to the high quality of the 
 recording as evidence that it is a fake. Analysts for both the Library of  
Congress and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives consulted on the case and 
 agreed that the clarity of the recording was beyond what could be achieved 
in  1889 or 1890. Experts at the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives also 
noted that  there was much more bass response than one could expect from a 
century-old  recording. Of course, the recording was not taken directly from the 
wax  cylinder, but rather from the tape of a 1951 radio program that had 
presumably  been rerecorded on cassette in 1974. Nonetheless, the sound 
analysis along with  the documentation difficulties led Koeningsberg to conclude 
that "the supposed  Whitman recording is a fascinating fake."  
Those who believe the recording is authentic, beginning with Ed Folsom, the 
 editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, have developed counter  
arguments. In his article "The Whitman Recording," which appeared in the Spring  
1992 edition of the WWQR, Folsom reveals that the clarity of the  recording 
might actually connect it to Edison. He quotes his own expert, Dave  
Beauvais of Magic Media Services, Amherst, Mass., who says that in making his  
cylinders, Edison used a vertical cut technique that made "near-perfect  
equalization" inherent in his process. Beauvais writes that the analysts at the  
Library of Congress are "certainly not the first ones to disbelieve their ears 
 when stumbling upon vertical-cut artifacts."  
William Grimes, who covered the 1992 controversy for the New York  Times, 
notes that the voice heard on the recording has a marked New York  accent in 
certain words and is consistent with Traubel's description of  Whitman's 
"strong and resonant" tenor. Beauvais meanwhile concludes that the  accent is 
"a soft mix of Tidewater Atlantic and an Adirondack dilution of the  
contemporary New York accent." One does note a certain southern lilt mixed with  a 
more Northern accent, a hybrid that perhaps derives from Whitman's New York  
upbringing and from the many years he spent in Washington, D.C., in the 
1860s  and 1870s, then still in many ways a Southern city. As Beauvais notes, 
"it  strains credulity" to think that someone would create such an accent in 
order to  perpetrate a fraud.  
Further evidence in favor of the recording's authenticity comes from the 
poem  itself. "America" is not one of Whitman's better-known works, and its 
obscurity,  says Grimes, militates against the idea that it would be a "likely 
choice for  anyone concocting a fake." The poem would have been a much more 
likely choice  for Whitman himself to have made, though. "America" first 
appeared in the 11  Feb. 1888 edition of the New York Herald and was then 
reprinted in an annex to  the 1888 edition of Leaves of Grass. For Whitman, 
then, the poem would  have been new and therefore fresh in his consciousness in 
1889 or 1890, the very  time when Edison was contemplating making a 
phonogram.  
Although no correspondence has as yet come to light beyond the two letters 
of  February 1889, there is another interesting connection between Edison 
and  Whitman in this same period. In May 1889, Edison filed a famous lawsuit 
against  both his erstwhile best friend Ezra Gilliland and his own personal 
attorney John  C. Tomlinson for having entered into a secret side deal with 
Lippincott in order  to profit from the sale of Edison's phonograph rights. 
Edison felt betrayed and  swindled after it became apparent to him that 
Gilliland and Tomlinson, who had  acted as his agents in selling the Edison 
Phonograph Co., had acted to benefit  themselves.  
Edison hired the prominent New York attorney and free-thinker Robert G.  
Ingersoll to help with his lawsuit. Ingersoll also happened to be a good 
friend  and warm admirer of the poet Walt Whitman. It was Ingersoll who gave the 
keynote  address at Whitman's seventieth birthday celebration in 
Philadelphia on 31 May  1890 and later gave the poet's funeral oration in 1892. By the 
time he gave the  birthday address, Ingersoll would have been 
well-acquainted with Edison's  phonograph, having served as the inventor's attorney in the 
phonograph lawsuit  the previous year. It is not inconceivable that 
Ingersoll arranged for Whitman  to record a few lines on the occasion of his 
birthday.  
It would not have been difficult for Ingersoll to make such an recording.  
Edison had spent a good deal of effort in 1887 and 1888 making his 
phonograph  more "user-friendly." As Paul Israel has noted in his book Edison: A Life 
of  Invention, the new phonograph was "designed for use by a single person  
working in the quiet of an office." It was also highly portable, so that  
Ingersoll himself or anyone else might have brought along a phonograph and  
recorded Whitman at his birthday celebration or at any time after 1888. 

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