Walt Whitman Reads “America”: The Only Surviving Recording of the Beloved Poet’s Voice
36 seconds of timeliness from a rare wax-cylinder capsule of timelessness.
By Maria Popova
Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) is celebrated as the father of free verse and revered as one of the most influential voices in American literature. A century after his death, a serendipitous discovery surfaced a tape-recording of what is likely an 1889 or 1890 wax-cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading his late poem “America,” an 1888 addition to his continuously revised 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass (public library; public domain). Though the origin and authenticity of the tape, preserved by The Walt Whitman Archive, has been debated, it is currently believed to be the only surviving recording of the beloved poet’s voice. What makes it all the more special is that the poem itself rings with particularly timely resonance as we celebrate a long overdue step towards equality for all in America. Enjoy:
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.
Complement with Whitman on democracy and the key to a healthy society, the power of music, his prescient reflections on integrating body and spirit in healthcare, and his abiding advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life. For an extra helping of awe, savor James Earl Jones reading Whitman and this superb homage to the cosmos in a mashup of Whitman and NASA, then revisit the only surviving recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice.
Published July 4, 2013