Switching through the dozens of cable TV channels we seem to receive at home, I was reminded of a disheartening thought I’ve had in the past: There must be thousands upon thousands of hours of sound and video of, say, Justin Bieber or Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), but no photograph exists of Ben Jonson or Benjamin Franklin, and no one has any idea what Geoffrey Chaucer or Joan of Arc or Saint Augustine or Stonewall Jackson sounded like. The technology that assails us with the sights and sounds of Madonna, or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, doesn’t exist for those we would truly value hearing and seeing. Or I would like to hear and see, at any rate.

Between a fascination with the past, and a capacity for hero worship, I have always been on the prowl for the sound of historic voices, the more distant the better. Yet to what end? The human voice cannot have evolved very much since the invention of speech, and as likely as not, we might be surprised to learn that Jesus actually sounded like Wally Cox, or Jane Austen like Amy Winehouse.

There was widespread indignation, for example, about Daniel Day-Lewis’s impersonation in Lincoln of Abraham Lincoln, whose voice was rendered in reedy, slightly tenor, decidedly rustic tones. But who knows what Lincoln sounded like? We may safely assume that most accounts of his way of speaking are either generous or imprecise, like descriptions of music. I gather that Lincoln is thought to have had a high-pitched voice, and he was certainly born and raised on the frontier. But the high notes might have been caused by the effort to speak to large crowds without amplification, and our knowledge of what someone born in Kentucky in 1809 sounded like is based on a handful of phonetic renderings in stories and anecdotes. So Daniel Day-Lewis’s guess is as valid as any—and probably closer to reality than the usual stentorian, voice-of-God versions of Lincoln.

In my own case, there is a certain pleasure in detecting signs of social class and regional origins, of hearing obsolete accents and modes of speech. My late father-in-law, for example, was from Mississippi, and spoke in an antiquated, port-wine tone that was probably closer to the speech patterns of the Old South than the sound of, say, the cast of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. I understand just enough German to hear the rough Prussian burr and diphthongs in Paul von Hindenburg’s voice. Oliver Wendell Holmes wields the WASP/Brahmin vowels you would expect from the source—and in a tone and timbre now almost entirely eradicated from American speech. Addressing a radio audience on his ninetieth birthday (1931), Justice Holmes refers to the program as a “simpozhim” (symposium) and to himself as a “listener-in.”

Of course, voices are more than their anthropological tags. Speaking of Lincoln, we are reasonably accustomed to his photographs, and can therefore imagine—minus the static quality, flat black and white, and frozen expression—what he must have looked like in person. But step back a generation or two, and the mystery deepens. You can recognize George Washington on the dollar bill, or in the Houdon sculpture; but it would be awfully interesting to see him in the sharp image of a daguerreotype, or hear him speak. Similarly, the very sound of remote, even legendary, figures provides an intimate glimpse, an immediacy that can be startling. You are not only hearing the actual sound of so-and-so, but the voice of somebody indescribably remote, who fought in the Civil War or grew up in the Manhattan of Henry James.

Two examples come to mind. There is an early Edison recording of Walt Whitman, easily found on YouTube, reciting a late poem entitled “America.” It strikes me in two ways. First, I am hearing the voice of someone who was born in 1819, during the presidency of James Monroe; and second, I am struck by how contemporary he sounds. Whitman was a native of the North Shore of Long Island and grew up in Brooklyn; yet there is little evidence of what we might consider a New York, or Brooklyn, accent, and no trace whatsoever of the Victorian oratorical style.

The other sound is one I associate with an occasion, a commemorative service at Westminster Abbey for William Gladstone (1809-1898) on the centenary of his death. At the end, a recording of Gladstone’s voice was played, and it boomed and echoed through the precincts in ghostly fashion. I was surprised to hear that Gladstone, a rich man’s son and product of Eton and Oxford, had something of a Liverpool twang in his delivery. But mostly I was gripped with a kind of emotion, transfixed to hear this voice of the distant past, in a place he knew and where, indeed, he lies buried.

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