Tolstoy's audio "postcard" to American people: 100-year-old riddle

MOSCOW. (Anastasia Yelayeva, RIA Novosti) - It has been a hundred years since the two geniuses, a famous American inventor and a great Russian writer, exchanged what we might now call "intellectual products." However, the story still has many historical riddles associated with it.

The names of the two men are Thomas Edison, who perfected and patented more than a thousand inventions, and Leo Tolstoy.

One of the pet inventions of Edison, who suffered from impaired hearing from birth, was the "speaking" machine, a phonograph that he patented in 1878. It could record and reproduce sound on wax cylinders.

Tolstoy first tried to make a phonograph record in 1895. He was visiting with ethnographer Blok, who had received a batch of new "speaking" machines from America, and Tolstoy recorded his short story called "The Repentant Sinner."

Several years later in May 1907 the editor of the New York Times, Stephen Bonsal, visited Leo Tolstoy at his Yasnaya Polyana estate. Moved by the warm reception, he promised the writer to send him the new phonograph, which American journalists were already using extensively in their work.

The promised gift reached Russia almost a year later, in January 1908. Bonsal had entrusted the delivery to Arthur Brisbane, his journalist friend from the New York Evening Journal, who in turn went to Edison's firm Edison Business Phonograph.

When the inventor was told who the phonograph was intended for, he refused to charge anything and sent his own machine to Yasnaya Polyana with an engraved caption: "A Gift to Count Leo Tolstoy from Thomas Alva Edison."

The phonograph is still on view at the writer's museum in Yasnaya Polyana.

In the summer of 1908 Edison asked the author of "War and Peace" to make several recordings for him in English and French.

"...Short messages conveying to the people of the world some thought that would tend to their moral and social advancement. My phonographs have now been distributed throughout all of the civilized countries, and in the United States alone upwards of one million are in use," the American wrote. "Your fame is worldwide, and I am sure that a message from you would be eagerly received by millions of people who could not help from being impressed with the intimate personality of your own words, which through this medium would be preserved for all time..."

The Russian classic consented and later, in December 1908, Tolstoy's personal physician Dushan Makovitsky made a diary entry about the "arrival of two Englishmen with a good phonograph," who recorded and then played back the voice of Leo Tolstoy.

We learn from the doctor's personal notes that Tolstoy "practiced before speaking into the phonograph, especially the English text." He prepared for the recording very thoroughly, was very nervous and thought a great deal about what exactly to tell the millions of listeners "in all the civilized countries of the world."

Tolstoy's friend and assistant, Vladimir Chertkov, advised him to read in English an extract from the treatise "On Life" written back in 1887. As Tolstoy's personal physician attests, while the writer delivered the Russian and French texts on the first try, when it came to reading in English, he stumbled on a couple of words and decided to make a new recording the following day.

Eventually the recordings turned out to be very good, surviving the journey across the ocean and reaching Edison, who confirmed their high quality.

Edison's gift and Tolstoy's reciprocal gesture did not pass unnoticed by the press, although either the journalists or the historians, or both had confused a few things about the episode.

On February 20, 1908, the respectable Duma newspaper (Dumsky Listok) reported that Leo Tolstoy had dictated some of his interpretations of Evangelical texts. Tolstoy made his speech into the phonograph in English, of which he has a full command."

It would be logical to assume that these were the famous "cylinders," especially since on the following day, February 21, the New York Times carried an article entitled "Tolstoy's Gift to Edison. Will Send Record of His Voice - Edison Gave Him a Phonograph."

However, the fate of these cylinders is unknown to Russian Tolstoy scholars. Indeed, their existence is widely questioned, and the facts set forth in articles in the early 1908 and the discrepancies in the recording dates suggest that eyewitness accounts were invented or distorted.

In January 1909, an obscure Moscow newspaper Rul reported a visit to Tolstoy by Edison's closest assistants (in fact the audio engineers): "Leo Tolstoy read four extracts in Russian, English and German. The cylinders produced a wonderfully clear rendering of his voice. According to our sources, these cylinders will not be released to the public."

In 1911, after Tolstoy's death, the New York Times reported that his son, Count Tolstoy, had visited Edison, who made an exception for the son of the great writer and let him into the famous Room 12, where he stored everything necessary for his experiments. There was a notice over the door saying "this room is not open to any visitors on any pretext whatever."

Edison's album in which he kept comments by famous people on his inventions contains a note by Tolstoy: "The most powerful force in the world is thought. The more forms of expression it finds the more that force can manifest itself. The invention of printing was a milestone in human history. The appearance of the telephone and especially the phonograph, which is the most effective and impressive medium for recording and preserving not only the words, but the shades of the voice that says them, will mark another era." Signed: "Leo Tolstoy."

But what about the cylinders with the writer's voice which had been dispatched across the ocean? We were told at the Tolstoy State Museum that they most probably perished during a fire at Edison's office in 1914.

However, a historian and audio archivist Lev Shilov claims in his book "The Voices of Writers. Records of a Sound Archivist" that one recording has survived. This was confirmed in the late 1980s by American author Bell Kaufman, a member of the New York Public Library Edward Kazinets and the curator of the Edison Museum Mary B. Bowling.

In a letter to the State Literary Museum in Moscow Mary B. Bowling wrote: "The question has been raised again and again what happened to the cylinders which Tolstoy had recorded for Edison, especially the two recordings in English... the search we have undertaken uncovered a lot of related correspondence and documentation, but not the cylinders themselves. Even so, in response to your letter we have made another thorough study of some of our unmarked cylinders. I am happy to report to you that we have discovered a cylinder with a recording of Tolstoy in English."

Bell Kaufman later came to Moscow, where she met with and allegedly showed the cylinder to Lev Shilov. Unfortunately, Shilov died in 2004 and the authenticity of the find is still in question because there is no documentary proof, and the American side has not revisited the issue.

Tolstoy was planning to dictate his reminiscences into the machine even before he received it. But the tests of the phonograph in action showed that it was incapable of recording non-stop for extended periods: the wax cylinders had to be replaced every 10-12 minutes. So Tolstoy decided to use the phonograph to record small parables, tales and letters. The records have preserved for us not only the writer's voice, but also a waltz he had composed.

Most of the cylinders with recordings of the writer's voice, which, incidentally, were later issued on CDs, are now at the Tolstoy State Museum. As for the legendary recording addressed to "the civilized peoples of the whole world" and dispatched to America, its fate has yet to be found out.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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