Jon Hamm Brings Walt Whitman to Life

Producer Sarah Jaffe shares her experience working on the audiobook of Walt Whitman’s recently-discovered Life and Adventures of Jack Engleincluding casting actor Jon Hamm as the narrator.

Why did you want to work on Life and Adventures of Jack Engle?
I think all of us who go into book publishing do so because we’re voracious readers who love books, and legendary authors like Walt Whitman loom pretty large in the pantheon of writers who made us readers—at least I feel that way! I’d read about the discovery of a lost Whitman work in the New York Times, so when I saw that we’d gotten the audio rights, I was ready to clear the decks and do just about anything to get my hands on Jack Engle. After all, how often do you get to work on the “new” Walt Whitman?! It’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

What was the casting process like? What, in particular, made you decide to cast Jon Hamm as the narrator?
The moment I took on this production, I knew Jack Engle needed a special reader, both to do justice to Whitman’s writing and also to bring a broad range of ears to his work. Again, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, an English major’s dream. So I started by making a dream casting wish list—in a perfect universe, who would I want to read Walt Whitman to me? I knew Jack Engle needed a narrator who was a reader himself, someone with a classic storyteller’s voice, who could capture the humor, the poetry, and the Dickensian pulp factor; someone with a timeless sound and a nice balance of warmth and gravity. You can’t get much better than Jon Hamm for that blend. He’s got that beautiful deep voice that can seamlessly pivot from playful to gruff within the span of a sentence, and he’s such a nuanced, intelligent actor. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also the face of a very different “story of New York at the present time” in Mad Men. I knew Jon had expressed an interest in audiobook narration for the right book, and I had a hunch that an opportunity to be a part of Walt Whitman’s legacy might appeal to him as much as it did to me. I’m still in delighted disbelief that he said yes!

I have to admit, though, that I was a little ambivalent about casting such a big name for this book. Walt Whitman published the story anonymously when it was serialized in a New York newspaper, The Sunday Dispatch, and it faded into obscurity. There was a sense that Whitman kept his fiction hidden for a reason. It’s not sacrilegious to suggest that Jack Engle, as fun and as game-changing as it may be, is no Leaves of Grass. Would he be upset that this work was being brought to life by such a recognizable name, face, and voice? Ultimately, I decided not to worry about it. While the newspaper serial was the popular entertainment of its day, I think Whitman would be tickled that his work is now captivating a much larger, more diverse American population. I also consulted Zachary Turpin, the University of Houston scholar who rediscovered Jack Engle, and he was really excited that Jon Hamm was slated to read. Once I got Zack’s blessing, I knew it was the right choice.

What was your favorite part of the production process?
Can I say all of it? It was a pleasure to immerse myself in the text itself, and I thoroughly enjoyed working with Zack, whose intelligence and love for Whitman’s work beam right up off the page. His experience in front of a classroom prepared him well for his work in front of the mic (Zack recorded his introduction to Jack Engle, which appears as an afterword in the audiobook). And then, of course, getting to spend two days in the studio with Jon Hamm was probably some of the most fun I’ve ever had in my (already extremely fun) career. Jon is a brilliant reader. In addition to having a rich narrative voice, Jon was also able to quickly parse the long, antiquated sentence structure and tease out its meaning, and to magnify the very modern human quirks of his characters along with Whitman’s big sparks of humor and observational wit. You can definitely tell Jon was an English major. He also took direction remarkably well—all I had to do was give him the tiniest feedback and he instantly understood what I wanted and adjusted his performance perfectly. It made me incredibly envious of every film and television director who’s gotten to work with him. Plus, y’know, any day spent listening to Jon Hamm read to you for hours on end is a very good day indeed.

What was the most challenging part?
There’s a lot of archaic 19th century language throughout the book, which shouldn’t be surprising since it was written in 1852. We no longer use words like “quondam” (which means “former” or “onetime”) or “chid” (the past tense of “chide”—what, that’s not obvious?), or refer to the “Locofocos” in political debate (they were a now-defunct faction of Democrats in the 1850s). And since the meat of the book starts in a law office, there were lots of unfamiliar terms to me, like “appurtenance” and “hereditament.” Needless to say, I had to do a good amount of research to prepare for the recording. Luckily, Zack Turpin and Ed Folsom (an English professor at the University of Iowa, Whitman scholar, and editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review) were enormously helpful in figuring out how to handle certain characters—in the absence of a living author, they were the next best thing! It was actually a ton of fun to discuss the book with them. We debated over how Madam Seligny would pronounce her name—we settled on a dubious-sounding, partially Anglicized version of the proper French pronunciation. We also decided that J. Fitzmore Smytthe’s last name should rhyme with “writhe,” to better capture the character’s unctuous nature and justify the baroque spelling. Zack and Ed also helped me to discern the appropriate pronunciation of Ephraim Foster’s name—EE-fra-eem. As Ed pointed out, the 19th century pronunciation of the name most likely still had the third Hebraic syllable. Plus, Whitman might have been tickled by this in contrast to the character’s extensive knowledge of the proper preparation of pork products.

What are you most excited for listeners to experience with the audiobook?
I think I’m most excited for listeners to experience the whole thing together, from the period music at the start of the audiobook to the historical and literary context Zack provides in the afterword. But Jon Hamm’s subtle, straightforward narration is a standout! He smooths out the long sentences and clauses for you, and lets the language shine through, whether it’s a Dickensian adventure sequence or one of the later, more meditative chapters where you can hear Whitman growing into himself as the writer we all know and love. His few character voices are also a delight. This is just a really special audiobook, and I’m so excited for it to be out in the world for listeners to discover.