Found: a lost novel by Walt Whitman

A graduate student at the University of Houston found a 'quasi-Dickensian' lost novel by Walt Whitman in the archives of the Library of Congress.

Jon Shapley/Houston Chronicle via AP
Zachary Turpin, a University of Houston graduate student, poses for a portrait at his home in Houston, on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. Turpin recently discovered a previously unknown novella by the poet Walt Whitman.

A long forgotten novel penned by Walt Whitman is making its way into the hands of new readers, following a surprising discovery of the early-career serial in a now defunct New York newspaper.

“The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle” was re-published Monday, nearly 165 years after it first ran as a newspaper serial. While the work, which follows the story of an orphan who takes revenge against a corrupt lawyer, lacks the nuanced insight and style of Mr. Whitman’s later poetry, it sheds a light on the artistic process of a younger Whitman experimenting to find his voice.

“It’s like seeing the workshop of a great writer,” Ed Folsom, the editor of The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, which published the piece online, told The New York Times. “We’re discovering the process of Whitman’s own discovery.”

The work will also be reprinted in both hardcopy and paperback by the Iowa University Press.

Some century-old works have remained alive on rumors, sending those eager to find them searching through archives on a mission to uncover original pieces of art, literature, or historical documents. That’s not the case with “The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle,” which was discovered by a University of Houston graduate student who hadn’t set out looking for any undiscovered works, exactly.

Zachary Turpin found the first clues of the work’s existence while sifting through manuscript drafts, notebooks, and scraps compiled in the Integrated Catalog of Walt Whitman’s Literary Manuscripts. By following several unfamiliar character names, he was later able to link them to a series published anonymously in The Sunday Dispatch, which was advertised in The New York Times.

Securing a copy of the only known Dispatch issue from that day, which is held by the Library of Congress, Mr. Turpin was able to place all of the puzzle’s pieces together.

“Something about it just seemed right,” he told The Guardian. “The name Jack Engle. The year. The newspaper (to which we know Whitman had contributed before).”

“I couldn’t believe that, for a few minutes, I was the only person on Earth who knew about this book,” he added.

Later in life, Whitman made it clear that he had no interest in reviving his early works, instead preferring to be known for his refined and celebrated poems that would become enduring classics. Around the time that the Dispatch published “The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle,” Whitman had already begun work on “Leaves of Grass,” the epic poem published three years later that made him a household name.

But for historians and literature experts, the somewhat clumsy series is a window into the early days of Whitman’s creative process, as he played with prose before transitioning his style and making forays into poetry.

“You see him asking, Should it be a novel? Or a play, with thousands of people onstage, chanting in unison?” Turpin told the Times. “It’s amazing to think that ‘Leaves of Grass’ could have taken a different form entirely.”

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