Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Jack London's voice and the voices of American authors

Jack London historian Clarice Stasz recently alerted the Jack London listserv to this article:

Call of the past

By Bob Norberg

Scientists using cutting-edge technology have brought Jack London back to life.

The voice of the famed author can be heard in a 2½-minute recording, the only recording of London known to exist. It was made almost a century ago and just now recovered from a wax recording cylinder.

"Just a rush letter, ere I sail for Hawaii," London says in the scratchy recording. "I merely want to tell you that everything concerning California prisons in the Star Rover is true."

Star Rover was a London novel deploring conditions at San Quentin.

The letter, dated Dec. 2, 1915, the year before London died, was written to Max Ehrmann, an Indiana lawyer, philosopher and poet, and goes on to deplore the conditions of the state's prisons and the execution of Jake Oppenheimer for assault and battery.

London dictated the letter into a Dictaphone, probably in his cottage den in Glen Ellen. The voice on the recording is slow and halting, the sound of a man in declining health who would die 11 months later.

"It is exciting," said John Crossman, state parks superintendent. "I still have the words ringing in my ear about the prison, that it was really that bad."

(go to the link for more)

[Note: Someone who had heard the recording described the voice as being somewhat like that of the actor Pat O'Brien, for those of you familiar with old movies.]

At the Wharton Society site, people often ask whether recordings exist of Wharton's speaking voice; there aren't any, as far as I know. I'll try to add to this list below and then post it somewhere on the American Authors site, for which I will be developing an FAQ.

Many or most of the modernists (T. S. Eliot, etc.) seem to be available on recorded media, but recordings of earlier authors aren't usually available. A sample list of 19th- and early 20th-century American authors' voices on recorded media (best information available at this point):

  • Walt Whitman: yes, purportedly. You can listen to it at the Walt Whitman Archive.
  • Mark Twain: no.
  • Charles W. Chesnutt: no or probably not
  • Frank Norris: no
  • W. D. Howells: no
  • Jack London: yes
  • Paul Laurence Dunbar: no or probably not
  • Edith Wharton: no
  • Willa Cather: no or probably not
  • Sarah Orne Jewett: no or probably not
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald: yes.

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