Twenty years ago, it was impossible for most of us to listen to JRR Tolkien read Elvish or see Zelda Fitzgerald grin at a camera or hear an inebriated Hemingway shout about pigeons. But today, these and other rare recordings of famous authors are just a mouse click away. Enjoy, you lucky ducks.
1. Ernest Hemingway
In this recording from 1950, Ernest Hemingway describes his novel Across the River and Into the Trees. He sounds drunk, which may explain the interesting vocal modulation and bursts of random yelling. Best part: “[she] enjoys herself very much, looking out of the upper windows and studying the action OF THE PIGEONS.”
2. JRR Tolkien
In this TV spot, watch Tolkien light a pipe, blow smoke rings, write and read Elvish, clap at fireworks, and answer questions about The Lord of the Rings in a thick, garbled accent. It’s not hard to see how this mind imagined worlds full of elves, wizards, and hobbits.
3. Raymond Chandler
In 1958, Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series, interviewed crime writer Raymond Chandler for the BBC. This is the only recording of Chandler’s voice. Listening to their conversation is like eavesdropping on two master genre writers talk shop. [Part 2, 3, 4]
4. Sylvia Plath
While many stereotype Sylvia Plath as moribund and depressed, this interview reveals a sharp, enthusiastic person with an adroit ability to turn a phrase. “Poetry,” she says, “is a tyrannical discipline. You’ve got to go so far, so fast, in such a small space that you’ve just got to burn away all the peripherals.”
5. Walt Whitman
Here’s Walt Whitman reading his poem “America.” It was taken from a wax cylinder recording Thomas Edison made in 1889 or 1890—although the recording’s authenticity is somewhat disputed. The last two lines of the poem are not read.
6. Langston Hughes
Watch the famous poet from the Harlem Renaissance read his poem "The Weary Blues," while the Doug Parker Band plays jazz in the background.
7. Virginia Woolf
This is the only known recording of Virginia Woolf’s voice. On April 29, 1937, she read an essay on words for a BBC radio series called “Words Fail Me.” It was published in The Death of the Moth and Other Essays in 1942. A sample: “Of course, you can catch [words] and sort them and place them in alphabetical order in dictionaries. But words do not live in dictionaries; they live in the mind.”
8. and 9. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald
Here’s footage of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda sitting at an outdoor table, surrounded by friends and a dog. It’s a glimpse into the decadent lifestyle Fitzgerald made famous in his novels and short stories. Wait until the end, when Zelda glances at the camera and grins.
10. Edna St. Vincent Millay
Edna St. Vincent Millay reads her poem “Love is Not All.” Her high-faluting accent and theatrical style may seem dated today, but in the 1920s, Millay’s reading tours regularly sold out to rapt crowds.
11. John Steinbeck
In this 1952 interview, John Steinbeck talked about writing The Grapes of Wrath and how things had changed since the book was published in 1939. He’s surprisingly optimistic about the changes in American society since the Great Depression: “We have solved so many of [the problems] and the solutions have been the product of ourselves, and the product of our own people working together. We have many more to solve, but at least we’re on the way there.”
12. Flannery O’Connor
13. Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Like a ghost from the past, Tennyson reads his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Like the Whitman recording, it too was taken from a wax cylinder Thomas Edison made in 1890. Tennyson can be hard to understand at times, especially at the poem’s most famous lines: “Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die.” Odd, too, is the mysterious knocking at the end.
14. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
In a pleasant Scottish brogue, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle talks about how he started writing Sherlock Holmes (“I began to think of turning scientific methods, as it were, onto the work of detection”) and the character’s popularity (“I’ve even had ladies writing to say that they’d be very glad to act as [Holmes’] housekeeper”). Then the interview veers toward “psychic matters” as Doyle explains that he has given up mystery writing to devote himself to the study of spiritualism.
15. JM Barrie
The author of Peter Pan was famously short, as is evident in this 1931 footage, where Barrie unveils a statue of Henry James.
16. Arthur Miller
In a 1987 interview, Arthur Miller talks about his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. In addition to thoughtful insight into Monroe’s psychology, he discusses the reception of After The Fall, a play he wrote about his relationship with Monroe.
17. Vladimir Nabokov
Here’s Nabokov talking about his novel Lolita on a 1950s CBC program "Close Up.” The interview is at the height of the controversy surrounding the book, which was banned due to its theme of child molestation. When asked his intentions in writing it, Nabokov replies: “I don’t wish to touch hearts and I don’t even want to affect minds very much. What I want to do is produce that little sob in the spine of the artist reader.”
18. William Faulkner
In this short excerpt from a Q&A as University of Virginia’s first Writer-in-Residence, Faulkner talks about The Sound and the Fury, and why it was his favorite novel. Listen to the full recording here.
19. Jack Kerouac
And finally, here’s Jack Kerouac on the The Steve Allen Plymouth Show in 1959. After awkwardly answering questions while Steve Allen tinkles on the piano, he gives a terrific reading from On The Road and Visions of Cody while jazz plays in the background. You gotta love that ending: “I think of Dean Mor-i-ar-ty.”