365 Days of Mountain Mischief: From Walt Whitman to Alton Weagle

  • Dan Szczesny Picasa—Courtesy

  • Dan Szczesny —Courtesy

Co-published with InDepthNH and Manchester Ink Link
Wednesday, April 05, 2017

In mid-1951, just as Alton Weagle was beginning to contemplate the string of Mount Washington record stunts he’d pull throughout the decade, an NBC Radio program called Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow played a 36-second wax cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading from his poem “America.”

There’s no reference in anything Whitman or his own colleagues wrote about making this recording, but there is a letter from Thomas Edison himself expressing interest in making the recording, which apparently was put to wax around 1890, when Whitman was an old hermit living in Camden, N.J. Voice analysts and sound engineers have happily debated whether it’s actually Whitman or not ever since.

I don’t know if Weagle heard this back in 1951 – or if he read Whitman, or poetry, at all. I don’t know. But, sitting in my bed, I played that recording on my smart phone; from wax to microchip with 125 years of space between us. And behind the haunting crackle and fuzz of that early marvel of sound engineering, there he was – that old man with the long, thick beard, the elder statesmen of American letters. Like a ghost. I listened again and again until I memorized each skip and pop, Whitman’s voice – the slight affectation to his words, like a Long Island lisp, emerging from another century, giving me chills.

I hope Weagle heard it, or knew of him – I will choose to believe that he did. How else to explain Alton’s wanderlust, his connection to the mountains, his almost transcendental desire to use his flesh and bone to forge a bond between himself and the landscape, much as Whitman did in New York City.

How else to explain this? So lost am I in the sound of Whitman’s voice, it is my wife that brings my attention to the words themselves.

“Love,” she said. “Listen to what he says about America.”

“Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

“All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

“Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

“Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love”

Freedom, law and love. From Whitman, the man who thought of America as the ultimate poem, to Weagle, the man who loved the New England American landscape so much that he launched a decades-long celebration of a mountain. And now to me, as I’ll try to meld Whitman’s words with Weagle’s actions on Alton Weagle Day come May.

Until then, I’ll be returning to the North Country often, to talk of Weagle with his family, to figure out what could possess a man to push a wheelbarrow filled with sugar up a mountain and to learn Alton’s recipe for blueapple pie – yup, he baked, too!

(Manchester author and journalist Dan Szczesny’s column, 365 Days of Mountain Mischief, includes snippets from his upcoming book on Mount Washington, “The White Mountain,” coming out in 2018. To become a donor or sponsor for the White Mountain Campaign, email Dan at danszczesny@gmail.com or visit hobblebush.com/product-page/the-white-mountain.)