Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New YorkWhile Gangs of New York has divided critics and audiences like few movies in recent cinema, there’s been virtual unanimity in praise of star Daniel Day-Lewis’ barnstorming turn as Bill “The Butcher” Poole, knife-wielding uber-boss of Manhattan’s blood-spattered mid-19th-century gangland. But though Bill is happiest carving up opponents – and/or slabs of meat – Day-Lewis himself says he’s loath to “dismember the corpse” by revealing what went into his work because “it’s part of the illusion.”

This “illusion” seems sufficiently strong, however, to withstand a little analysis – especially as doing so sheds light one of world literature’s most remarkable relics. Summing up his Oscar predictions in the Chicago Sun-Times last week, America’s most prominent film critic Roger Ebert mentioned that Day-Lewis had largely based Bill’s accent on a “wax cylinder recording” of Walt Whitman, the 19th century poet known as America’s Bard. The Butcher’s ominously flat accent is one of the most memorable aspects of the movie – especially in contrast to the inspid and erratically Leprechaun tones of nominal co-stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz.

“A strange Noo Yawk accent thick with East River mud,” is how Salon magazine described it. The New York Daily News suggested that the “pathologically nativist” Bill was semi-consciously attempting to “invent the New York accent” as a rebuff to the invading Oirish hordes. Many observers have presumed that, given the film’s chronological setting and inevitable absence of survivors from the period, the accents had to be made up and guessed at. In Day-Lewis’s case, however, this doesn’t seem to be so.

Exact details remain hazy, but Whitman scholars know Thomas Edison was keen to record the poet’s voice for posterity on his then-new-fangled “phonograph” device – other existing cylinders feature the eminent likes of Phineas T Barnum and Lord Tennyson. And Whitman was always such a relentless self-publicist (he wrote and circulated glowing, anonymous reviews of his own work) it’s most unlikely he would have rejected the offer. The recording has been dated to 1890, when Whitman would have been 71 and living just across the river from Edison’s recording studios in Philadelphia. The voice takes just under 39 seconds to read out the first four lines of his six-line 1888 poem “America.”

The only known, slightly damaged, copy of the cylinder ended up in the possession of a Manhattan lift-operator, Roscoe Haley, as part of his vast hoard of bizarre Americana. Haley made the recording available to a 1951 NBC radio programme entitled Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow, and while the cylinder itself has since been lost, Whitman scholars were tantalised by rumours that the radio show had been taped. One such tape was eventually unearthed in an obscure university library in the 1980s by Larry Griffin, a Professor of English who used the recording in his poetry classes for several years.

Walt WhitmanBut it was only in 1992 – the centenary of Whitman’s death – that Griffin brought the tape’s existence to wider public knowledge when he mentioned it in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. This resulted in what Griffin now remembers as a a “crazy media blitz”, with his office besieged by newspapers and TV crews. The recording has since been widely anthologised in audio collections of poetry, and Griffin hypothesises that Day-Lewis may have stumbled across it when listening to one such tape that also included a reading by his own father, the former Poet Laureate C. Day-Lewis.

The Whitman recording is played in the museum at the poet’s birthplace in Huntington, Long Island, just across the river from Manhattan, and the voice can also be heard, in a rather eerily anachronistic context, via a download from several academic websites.* It even crops up on an acclaimed CD of folk music by Tom Russell, The Man From God Knows Where. But some scholars, alarmed at the lack of authentication materials, have cast doubt on the recording — many comment that the voice is suspiciously clear for such a relatively “ancient” technology. Griffin cheerfully rebuts this claim: “The wax-cylinder method is regarded by audio experts as a superior way of recording the human voice than 78s or even some early 33rpm discs.” And, even if the voice is not Whitman himself, accent experts reckon that its very close to how they believe a Long Island resident of the early-to-mid-19th century would have spoken.

“And why would anybody want to fake it?” asks Griffin. “America isn’t a well-known work by any means, and it’s not like anyone could make any money from it. There’s never been any money at all in poetry,” he says ruefully: “and I should know, Im a poet myself.”

Neil Young
for The Independent newspaper
19th March, 2003