Grad student rediscovers Walt Whitman in ‘golden age of literary discovery’
Zachary Turpin, an American literature graduate student at the University of Houston, was not expecting to stumble upon his second landmark literary discovery as he browsed the archived journals of famed nineteenth-century author Walt Whitman.
At 96 pages, “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle” offers insight into Whitman’s mind as he may have concurrently written “Leaves of Grass,” the book of poetry for which he is most famous. Many self-proclaimed “Whitmaniacs” believe the 1852 fictional work, which chronicles the adventures of an orphan in New York City, offers a yet-untapped perspective on some of the most pivotal years of Whitman’s creative life.
“It was utterly surreal,” Turpin said. “It’s not every day that you can say to yourself, ‘I’m the only living person that knows about something,’ particularly something so important to American culture.”
The Walt Whitman Archive is an online compilation of rare, digitized versions of Whitman’s journals and published works. The key to the discovery, Turpin said, was the inclusion of names like Jack Engle and Wigglesworth in an outline featured in one of the journals.
“What excited me about this particular notebook is that it’s full of really odd and unique character names, names you wouldn’t really see every day,” Turpin said. “For someone who’s a digital researcher like I am, these are great, golden keywords and key phrases.”
Despite the common belief in the literary community that this outline never amounted to anything, Turpin said, the search turned up multiple results, including a literary notice in an 1852 edition of the New York Daily Times. The notice previewed an anonymous story to be published in the paper’s following Sunday dispatch.
Though there was nothing about the notice that inherently pointed to Whitman, Turpin followed the paper trail until it ultimately led him to the Library of Congress, which houses the only existing copy of that edition. As calmly as he could, Turpin requested to see the first page of the issue.
“So while my wife and my newborn son were sleeping next to me, I was looking at this literary notice, just sort of fantasizing and obsessing and telling myself to calm down, and it was a month after that that the image came in,” Turpin said. “And when I opened it, I saw all of those fantastic and unique character names that I’d been hoping for.”
It’s not every day that a large work is recovered and attributed to a famous author, but this novella marks Turpin’s second Whitman discovery in less than a year.
“I’m just so happy for Zack,” said Karen Karbiener, a professor of Whitman at New York University. “And the fact that he’s done it twice — it’s like lightning striking twice.”
For Turpin, one of the most significant effects of uncovering “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle” is getting another glimpse of Whitman during a time when, up until recently, everyone assumed he had stopped writing fiction. As a result, Turpin said, the novella and “Leaves of Grass” share a few similar themes.
“It’s fascinating to see him working out these ideas about nature and the city — and about the complexity of everyday American life — that are shortly to appear in ‘Leaves of Grass,'” Turpin said. “It’s a way to pull back the curtain and see one of these other Whitmans.”
Ed Folsom has been co-directing The Walt Whitman Archive for more than twenty years and said a pivotal point in the novella occurs in Chapter 19, when Jack Engle pays a visit to the cemetery at New York’s Trinity Church. There, Folsom said, Engle considers the graves around him and contemplates the ever-constant flow of life.
“It’s here, at this moment, that we can feel Whitman losing interest in fictional plots and beginning to become entranced with how to celebrate and focus on that ever-changing flow of life,” Folsom said, drawing a connection to a central theme from “Leaves of Grass.”
To Wyman Herendeen, the chair of UH’s English department at the time of the discovery, this work shares a depiction of the American hero as a layman, an idea also present in “Leaves of Grass.” Even across literary forms, Herendeen said, Whitman emphasizes this characterization.
“It tells us a little more about his artistic development, about the concept of American heroes, since Whitman conceived of himself as the author of the American epic in ‘Leaves of Grass,'” Herendeen said. “His idea of the epic hero is an every man — a common man — as representing American life and individualism.”
Not only does learning more about Whitman’s creative life help us to better understand his work, Karbiener said, but it shows young scholars and authors that perseverance still pays off: Turpin made this big revelation in the literature world as a student, not as someone with decades of literary scholarship under his belt.
Karbiener said there may be a reason Whitman allowed the novella to be forgotten. It’s not a great novel, she said, but it shows his creative progression, and that’s part of what makes it an interesting find.
“For my students, it’s cool to know because artists don’t just get born — they have a long training period,” Karbiener said. “It’s really a great lesson to see how Whitman labored over stuff, and it was not as easy as he would have wanted us to think it was. Whitman’s a great example of how just trying and trying again, and believing in yourself, can actually work.”
A ‘golden age’
One of the most remarkable takeaways from the discovery for Folsom is how widely accessible Whitman and other nineteenth-century authors have become in the digital age.
The kind of information Turpin and other scholars use to make these discoveries was once only available to individuals lucky enough to live near an archive, Folsom said. He believes that with digital archiving, we are entering a “golden age of literary discovery.” Turpin’s discovery, he said, might serve to reconfirm that idea for people.
“Zack is one of the most talented and persistent of this new breed of digital archivist, and I’m confident he will uncover many more important documents in the years to come,” Folsom said.
A work like “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle” reemerging in the present day serves as a reminder that there could be countless more unknown publications waiting to be discovered, Turpin said, and the evidence shows that there are.
Everyone knows Whitman as the bearded and easygoing author behind what many believe to be the greatest American book of poetry, Turpin said. Now, readers will have the opportunity to get to know a different Walt.
“I think what is encouraging is to see so many readers across the country and across the world picking up Whitman again, or for the first time, and really diving into his work,” Turpin said. “As a teacher, there’s nothing better.”