Nobody reads James Baldwin like James Baldwin. I am listening to a recording made 50 years ago in Boston. His voice is lilting, clipped, authoritative, angry. He is reading a passage from his 1962 novel “Another Country”: the suicidal flight of the character Rufus through the New York City subway and up to the railing of the George Washington Bridge. “He was black and the water was black.” Then Baldwin’s voice changes, becomes older, takes on the sorrowful cadences of the preacher delivering Rufus’s eulogy. And then it changes again: the meditative, self-examining narrator of the 1956 “Giovanni’s Room,’’ remembering a poignant and confusing early sexual encounter.
Baldwin’s powerful reading is part of the newly re-released series of Calliope Author Readings made in the early ’60s by the writer Lynne Sharon Schwartz and her husband Harry. The Schwartzes, who were living in Boston at the time, went to hear James Baldwin speak at MIT. Inspired by the popular Caedmon LPs of poets reading from their own work, and operating on what Lynne Sharon Schwartz today characterizes as “a passion for books, the optimism of youth, and sheer nerve,” the Schwartzes asked Baldwin if he would be willing to participate in a new recording project. Lynne chose the passages, and Baldwin read them aloud in the Beacon Hill living room of the Harvard Glee Club sound engineer, a friend of the Schwartzes. Baldwin then put the Schwartzes in touch with William Styron, who in turn led them to James Jones and Philip Roth.
Over the next year, the Schwartzes and their friend Howard Kahn put together a collection of some of America’s greatest midcentury writers reading from their own work. In addition to Baldwin, Styron, Jones, and Roth, they recorded Nelson Algren reading from “The Man With the Golden Arm”; Bernard Malamud reading the devastating short story “The Mourners” from “The Magic Barrel”; and John Updike reading his virtuosic story “Lifeguard.” The group included no women, an omission Schwartz regrets now but acknowledges was typical of the period. Still, it’s an astonishing list; its prescience and discernment make me think of Vasari, who in the mid-16th century singled out among his contemporaries the visual artists we still admire today.
The edited readings, which averaged around 15 minutes long, were issued on small vinyl LPs. A friend of the Schwartzes designed the album covers; other friends came to “gluing parties” at Harry and Lynne’s apartment on the back side of Beacon Hill, assembling the albums by hand. At night the Schwartzes piled up the freshly glued albums under the dresser to dry. The recordings were warmly reviewed by The Atlantic Monthly, The Saturday Review, Playboy, and The Boston Globe, among others. The project ended in the summer of 1963 when Harry, a city planner, won a Fulbright to go to Rome.
Today these recordings are perhaps even more powerful and important than when they were originally released. All the writers except Roth are dead, and in many cases these are the only existing recordings of them reading their own work.
Aside from their historical value, they are glorious to listen to. You have the sense that not only are you listening to the writer reading, you are listening to him writing, hearing the words and the rhythms as he must have heard them while he was composing. You get the whispery, elitist, ironic arrogance of John Updike’s young lifeguard. You get the exuberant surprise of Philip Roth not only reading, but acting, two disillusioned, perpetually injured old boarding house inhabitants strategizing about how to guilt-trip a rich son. (“If Roth were not so good a writer, it would be the world’s duty to force him onto the stage,” wrote poet and critic John Ciardi.) And you get James Jones, gruff and delicate, reading the famous “From Here To Eternity’’ passage in which Prewitt picks up a bugle and plays “Taps” to a base full of edgy soldiers. “The notes . . . vibrated there, caressingly, filled with an infinite sadness, and endless patience.” In Jones’s voice, the words are filled with an infinite sadness and an endless patience. Then he gives you the rhythm of the bugle, Prewitt’s rhythm.
“Day . . . is done,
Gone . . . the sun.”
It’s hard to say which is more shattering: the words, or the silences between them.
Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her latest book is “The News From Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story.’’