Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Howard Pyle’s Speech

Detail of a photograph of Howard Pyle by Frances Benjamin Johnston (1896)

Usually, when imagining Howard Pyle, the Movie, I cast Tom Wilkinson in the title role - though he might be too old for it at this point. And I’d definitely want to hear David Ogden Stiers recite Pyle’s words or narrate a Pyle documentary à la Ric Burns or Ken Burns on, maybe, PBS’s American Experience. (Stiers could have easily been cast as Pyle, too, once upon a time.) But did Pyle sound like either of these two men? It’s impossible to say, barring the discovery of a wax cylinder recording of Pyle’s voice. I dream of finding one; I doubt, though, that one exists.

So, how did Pyle sound and speak?

In a 1903 letter, Pyle told John Ferguson Weir that his voice had “a somewhat dominant and carrying quality.”  Fellow illustrator (and alleged student) Ernest Clifford Peixotto recalled Pyle’s “manly voice.” Pyle pupil Harvey Dunn remembered his teacher’s “far carrying voice” and his “deep and compelling laugh.” A 1909 interviewer said Pyle spoke “easily and swiftly...in curt sentences and jerky pauses.” Biographer Charles D. Abbott said, “Howard Pyle had a rich tenor voice, and considerable facility in using it, that made him very popular in musical circles.” Indeed, Pyle sang in public quite often, particularly in the choir of his church and in the chorus of the Tuesday Club. He also - in his twenties, at least - performed in amateur theatricals.

In my mind’s ear, I hear a clear, confident, steady stream of words issuing from Pyle’s mouth.

But artist James Edward Kelly remembered that when he met the young Howard Pyle in 1876, he “talked with a slight lisp.” And Pyle’s longtime friend, journalist Edward Noble Vallandigham, who befriended Pyle in the early 1880s, recalled that he had “a slight impediment of speech.”

Pyle himself echoed Vallandigham’s unfortunately vague description at least twice: in 1895, when invited to do a reading of his works, Pyle begged off, blaming “somewhat of an impediment in my speech that would perhaps make it unpleasant and awkward both for myself and my hearers.” Refusing a similar invitation that same year, he confessed, “I have unfortunately at times a slight impediment in my speech that might in such a public reading be unpleasant, both to you and to myself.”

So was it - like Kelly said - merely a “slight lisp”? Perhaps, but when asked in a 1982 tape-recorded interview if her father read aloud from books, Eleanor Pyle Crichton (1894-1984) said, “No, he never read. He stuttered.”

Whatever it was, though, the “impediment” didn’t always stop Pyle from singing, acting, teaching, or, for that matter, from more formal speaking engagements. At the same time that he was turning down the above mentioned offers, he was finding his way as a teacher, starting with lectures on “Practical Illustration” to students at the Drexel Institute in the fall of 1894. And it wasn’t long before Pyle did begin to accept invitations to speak: in 1897 he delivered the commencement address at Delaware College, and in the first decade of the 20th Century he spoke before the Society of Arts and Crafts of Boston, the School of Fine Arts of Yale University, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Franklin Inn Club in Philadelphia, Milwaukee-Downer College, the Irvington Athenaeum (in Indianapolis), the Art Students’ League of New York, the National Academy of Design, the American Institute of Architects - and so on - not to mention his ten years’ worth of almost weekly “composition lectures” to students and guests at Wilmington and Chadd’s Ford.

Somewhere along the line, it seems that Pyle overcame his “impediment,” or at least he became less self-conscious about it. Perhaps his conviction to the cause of raising illustration from what he described as a “discredited handicraft” to a distinctly American school of art had something to do with it.

1 comment:

James Gurney said...

What an amazing compilation of research. Thanks, Ian. Let's hope something surfaces. There was a wax cylinder that appeared recently with Tchaikovsky joking around with his contemporaries. And I've met a student of Gammell, who had met Sargent, and they pass along a good impersonation of Sargent's speaking manner. Based on the lecture notes that have survived, I imagine Mr. Pyle delivering his words deliberately and thoughtfully, in the manner of the teaching and oration of his time.