February 2014 Features

In Their Own Voices

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, M.A. ’61, and her husband, Harry, are part of a team that recorded great mid-century authors reading their own works.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, M.A. ’61, and her husband, Harry, are part of a team that recorded great mid-century authors reading their own works.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, M.A. ’61, offers literature lovers the chance to hear major 20th-century American authors interpreting their works.

By Larry Keller

Listen to the words of literary greatness:

He stood on the other side of the fence—a short, ugly little man with a puny, pock-marked face and black, raked-back hair fluttering violently in the wind. His arms were raised above his head, skinny and straight and motionless, like a man supplicating heaven and the sky.

The voice is that of William Styron, reading a passage from his debut novel, Lie Down in Darkness. The Pulitzer Prize winner was in his late 30s when Lynne Sharon Schwartz, M.A. ’61, heard him read those lines five decades ago. Styron’s dead now, but thanks in part to Schwartz’s efforts, we can still listen to him.

Schwartz and her husband, Harry, were living in Boston when they and a friend, Howard Kahn, got the idea to ask authors to read recorded excerpts from their novels to sell them. The trio then asked local recording engineer Stephen Fassett to join them. Their plan gained traction when James Baldwin came to MIT to give a lecture. They approached him after his talk with their proposal—$50 for the recording and a $100 advance against sales.

“To our great surprise, he said yes,” Schwartz says. “It was the audacity of our youth. And then Baldwin was good enough to say, well, why don’t we try his good friend Bill Styron. We did it, and it went like that, from one [author] to another.”

James Jones, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, John Updike, and Peter Ustinov subsequently added their voices. The readings were produced on seven-inch vinyl records and sold primarily in bookstores. They weren’t profitable, but they received national critical acclaim.

Now, a half-century later, the Schwartzes are reissuing the recordings in February as Calliope Author Readings on two CDs and as individual audio file downloads. They will be available on Amazon, in bookstores, and libraries, and on calliopeauthorreadings.com. Baldwin and Jones each read from two of their novels. Ustinov was replaced by Nelson Algren, who was taped reading from his novel The Man With the Golden Arm after the original recordings were released.

Schwartz, a Brooklyn native, received a bachelor’s degree from Barnard College, and moved to Philadelphia while her husband studied for his master’s degree in urban planning at the University of Pennsylvania. She then attended Bryn Mawr on a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, and graduated with an M.A. in English and comparative literature.

“I had an excellent experience there,” she recalls. “The professors were good, and I became close friends with my classmate, Sandra Berwind, M.A. ’61, Ph.D. ’68, who went on to serve as the Chair of Bryn Mawr’s English Department for many years.”

Schwartz became an accomplished and versatile author in her own right, and has had 23 books published—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, essays, and translations from Italian. Her next work, a book of essays titled This Is Where We Came In, is due out in March. She also is on the faculty of Bennington College’s MFA program in writing and teaches in Columbia University’s graduate writing program. She has taught at two Bryn Mawr writing workshops at the invitation of Creative Writing Program Director and Professor of the Arts Karl Kirchwey.

“Lynne has a kind of humanity and intelligence about her own work and that of other writers that I find quite rare,” Kirchwey says. “She was a great resource to the students of Bryn Mawr.”

Schwartz likes all of the Calliope readings, but some especially stand out. “Roth and his reading [from Letting Go] were very memorable,” she says. “He did a complete comic rendering. It was three characters, and he did every voice. It was a total performance.”

Then there was James Jones and From Here to Eternity.

“The passage he reads is what ‘Taps’ means to the soldiers”—what Jones called the requiem for the common soldier, Schwartz says. “It’s a gorgeous passage, and he reads it with such emotion. You can practically feel him on the verge of tears.”

Schwartz adds, “I think people find a special pleasure in hearing the writers themselves read their own work, as opposed to an actor. You see what the passage means to them.”

The readings are rich in cultural and historical value, she adds, because they are the voices of renowned U.S. authors, and only Roth is living: “To hear the voice of somebody who is gone, and this is your only chance to hear them, is an experience.”

Listen Calliope Author Readings excerpts (courtesy of Calliope Author Readings)