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Re-Released Recordings Reveal Literary Titans In Their Youth

James Baldwin, shown here in 1964, was the first in a series of authors Harry and Lynne Sharon Schwartz recorded.
Getty Images
James Baldwin, shown here in 1964, was the first in a series of authors Harry and Lynne Sharon Schwartz recorded.

You can listen to plenty of actors performing the works of William Shakespeare. But imagine if you could hear the voice of the young playwright himself — or the older one, for that matter — reading his own writing aloud.

Well, we can't take you back that far. But in the early 1960s, when recorded readings by authors were rare, a young couple in Boston decided to be literary audio pioneers.

The idea was hatched in 1962. Lynne Sharon Schwartz, who is a respected novelist today,was working on a magazine at the time. Her husband, Harry, was at the Boston Redevelopment Authority. They were avid readers, Lynne Sharon Schwartz says: "And we were just hanging out with friends and talking about the major or the young, up-and-coming writers of their day. We were aware of Caedmon, which had brought out the Dylan Thomas record of A Child's Christmas in Wales. And we thought, we could do something like that."

A few of the 'big guys,' like T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden, had recordings out on LPs. But there weren't recordings of up-and-comers, like Philip Roth and John Updike, or of other, more established authors: Bernard Malamud, William Styron, James Baldwin. The Schwartzes' idea was to record such authors, put them on vinyl LPs, eight minutes per side, sell the records for $1.95 apiece, and pay each writer $150 — pretty good money in the early '60s.

The Schwartzes heard that Baldwin was going to speak at MIT.

"So we all went to his talk, and afterward we approached him and said, 'Would you like to do a reading?' " Harry Schwartz says. "And he said, 'Eh, sounds like a good idea.' "

Baldwin read from Giovanni's Room, his second novel, published in 1956. It's an early book about homosexuality, then a forbidden subject.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz directed the reading. Then, with razor blades and sticky tape, they edited the various takes down to 16 good minutes. James Baldwin helped the Schwartzes set their recording dream in motion.

"He said, 'Oh, I'll call my friend Bill Styron; maybe he wants to do this,' " Harry Schwartz says. "And then Styron led us to James Jones, and they led us to Philip Roth."

Philip Roth, shown here in 1960, was an up-and-coming young writer when he recorded a story for the Schwartzes.
/ AP
Philip Roth, shown here in 1960, was an up-and-coming young writer when he recorded a story for the Schwartzes.

A clear up-and-comer at the time, by 1962 Roth had made a splash with the short story collection Goodbye, Columbus. The Schwartzes recorded him, at age 29, reading from a new novel, Letting Go. They took their van and engineer to Roth's house in Princeton.

"He was this warm, jovial, welcoming young person," Lynn Sharon Schwartz says. "We sat around the fire, had a drink ... and then of course when he started to read the passage and burst out with this comic rendition, we had no idea he had this in him."

The author's reading was rich and hilarious, with accents, shouting and enthusiastic acting. Listening to the recording today, all of the Roth elements are there — humor, Jewish-American life, zest. In seven years he would publish Portnoy's Complaint, which made him a star and led to a lifetime of books, awards (including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award) and fame.

John Updike was another author the Schwartzes recorded before he hit it big. Lynne Sharon Schwartz says Updike was slightly known when they recorded him, age 30, reading an excerpt of "Lifeguard," from his short story collection Pigeon Feathers.

At 30, Updike's voice is hesitant, careful, a bit precious. At 76, in an interview with NPR, his voice is more confident — after so many books and stories and reviews and Pulitzer Prizes.

It was clearly a labor of love when Lynne and Harry Schwartz released their recordings in 1963. Now, they're being reissued on CDs and audio files as Calliope Author Readings. The Schwartzes believe these archival tapes of young writers who would become 20th-century literary lions are even more valuable now.

"Some of these works are available read by actors," says Lynne Sharon Schwartz. "But it's not quite the same thing when you hear an author read his own. Then you really understand more about what it means to him, what he intended. These are historical documents — you know, they're voices. They're part of the cultural heritage."

The voices put us in the presence of beginnings, while we know full well what the glorious future will be for these writers.

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Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.
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