- Views & Opinions
It was searching for the name Jack Engle in mid-19th century newspapers that put Zachary Turpin on to the “warm lead” that turned into a “white hot” discovery: A forgotten 165-year-old novel written by Walt Whitman.
Turpin, a Ph.D. student at the University of Houston, already made history last year when he discovered hitherto unknown musings on Whitman’s Manly Health and Training.
That find was published online immediately by the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review at the University of Iowa and was recently brought out in book form by Regan Arts.
Turpin continued his search through Whitman’s many notebooks — which contain numerous half-baked and fully-conceived proposals for plots and poems — to look for clues to other writings still lingering unread in dusty, aging, non-digitized newspapers.
“My professional opinion is that there is a non-zero number of these left,” Turpin joked in a phone interview.
But Turpin began to narrow his search last summer after reading a long plot outline that Whitman had jotted down. It concerned a Dickensian tale of a young adopted orphan who thwarts the plans of a villainous lawyer from taking financial advantage of a young girl.
Turpin’s database searches for the character name Jack Engle came up with a business card-sized literary notice for Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography; in which the reader will find some familiar characters.
The short novel — or long tale — ran over the span of six issues of the Sunday Dispatch, a short-lived, mid-19th century Manhattan newspaper.
The only extant copies of the newspaper for the issues containing the novel are located at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
“It’s amazing to think that those six issues — bounded together in a volume in the Library of Congress archive — that’s the only existing original copy of the novel,” Turpin said.
However, the novel is about to become much more accessible.
The text of Jack Engle was published online in late February by the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, complete with an introduction by Turpin.
“This is a big deal,” said Ed Folsom, editor of the review and a professor English at UI. “This one really seems to be even more important than (Manly Health), for lots of reasons.”
Turpin worked with UI Press — which has a series focused on Whitman — to ensure that a trade paperback edition of the 165-year-old work also would be available for purchase when the novel’s discovery was made public.
The hardest part about the process, Turpin said, was keeping everything under wraps until the press and the journal were ready to move forward with publication.
James McCoy, director of UI Press, said he first learned of Turpin’s discovery through an email with the subject line: “Walt Whitman’s lost novel! This is not a joke!”
“I immediately thought it was a joke,” McCoy said.
After confirming with Folsom that the find was genuine, McCoy said he quickly worked to get Turpin under contract to publish the book.
From that point on, however, UI Press basically had to invert its normal marketing process and work to keep a book a secret until the galleys were edited and printed books were available for release.
“It’s been a really interesting six months,” McCoy said. “We had to deal with designers and editors that we knew we could trust absolutely — because we didn’t want anyone leaking out the information.”
All the bibliographic information and metadata about a book usually goes out six months before the release date, McCoy said. For Jack Engle, the press started keying in that information only a few days before publication.
After The New York Times broke the story, calls and messages started pouring in.
“The outpouring of desire for Walt Whitman that I’ve experienced this morning is outstanding,” McCoy said. “I’m hearing what a great coup this is — particularly for a university press. But this is the strength of what we do.”
The novel’s discovery also is reviving discussions about why Whitman gave up writing sentimental and sensationalist fiction to become the experimental poet of democracy that we know today.
Until now, the last short story known to be written by Whitman was completed in 1848 — seven years before Whitman self-published his poetry collection Leaves of Grass in 1855. The discovery of the 1852 novel Jack Engle suggests Whitman may have continued to write fiction right up to the publication of his ground-breaking book of poems.
“For the first time, we have a piece of fiction that co-mingles with Whitman’s development of the poetry in Leaves of Grass,” Folsom said. “In the early 1850s, he’s already published a couple of poems that are free verse, politically charged poems, anti-slavery poems, that are kind of leading to Leaves of Grass. He’s writing the notebooks out of which Leaves of Grass is going to emerge, and he’s writing notes to himself where he’s actually questioning what this thing is going to be that he’s been thinking about.”
Folsom is particularly interested in Chapter 19 of Jack Engle, in which the narrator stands in the graveyard at Trinity Church and looks at all the inscriptions written on the grave stones. Or, as Folsom phrases it, “all the plots that are written on the grave plots.”
The narrator, voicing Whitman’s own literary transformation, begins to think about how he is in the place where all plots come to an end.
“And then he starts listening to the people walking outside the cemetery, and he calls them bustling, and they’re alive and they’re joyful, and it’s this ever-returning crowd,” Folsom said. “It may be all different people, but it’s always there. It’s the present. It’s life. It’s what’s around him at that moment. And you can just feel Leaves of Grass sort of emerging there.”
Whitman, who died in 1892, probably would have argued against publication for any his earlier fiction. He actively disparaged the temperance novel, Franklin Evans, that he wrote in the 1840s, and he generally did not reminisce fondly about his fiction.
Yet Turpin said it probably is unfair to hold Whitman’s stories and novels to the same unbelievably high standards set by his poetry.
“While most 21st century readers may put this novel in conversation with Leaves of Grass and see the poems benefiting from the comparison, most mid-19th century readers probably would have come to the exact opposite conclusion,” Turpin said.
Turpin said he is finishing his dissertation and getting set to graduate, but he already has a few “warm leads” on where to look for other forgotten Whitman writings.
“It’s not the most sustainable business model,” Turpin said of his literary treasure-hunting, “but it’s exciting while it lasts.”
An AP member exchange feature.