Very interesting stuff, Steve.
As anyone who has heard the Marston CD releases of early Edison cylinders
can attest, an Edison cylinder in prime condition can yield remarkably
clear sound. I heard a demonstration last year at the Edison Museum, where
a batch of stored cylinders had been discovered and heard this for myself.
You can hear them on the Edison website. For example, look at:
Looking at the evidence discussed in the article, which is circumstantial
evidence given that a Whitman cylinder reportedly did exist at one time but
apparently no longer does, it looks to me like the recording is more likely
than not real (having not heard it myself). It would take a series of some
extraordinary frauds and coincidences for this to be a fake, given the mass
or circumstantial evidence cited.
And the fact that no recording is mentioned in the Whitman papers and
archives is not evidence of anything. The absence of a (paper) record of
something is simply not proof that it does not exist. I believe that this
factor has to be discounted almost completely. It's not evidence but
rather the absence of evidence, which proves nothing one way or the other.
We may never get a better answer. Thanks for posting.
On Mon, Feb 11, 2013 at 10:36 AM, Steve Ramm <[log in to unmask]> wrote:
> 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_
> 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
> a recording of the poet reciting the first four lines of his poem
> 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 _
> 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
> 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
> 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
> disintegrated, as some wax cylinders do if they are not cared for
> 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
> 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
> (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._
> 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
> 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
> Marshall Helmuth von Moltke (1889), as well as poets Robert Browning
> (1889) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1890). They were chiefly used for the
> 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
> 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,
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> certain words and is consistent with Traubel's description of Whitman's
> "strong and resonant" tenor. Beauvais meanwhile concludes that the accent
> "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
> "it strains credulity" to think that someone would create such an accent
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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
> 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.