Two shadowy pasts converge in Jon Hamm’s reading of Walt Whitman’s lost novel, “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle.” Published anonymously in the New York Sunday Dispatch in 1852, it was presented as the work of an author who chose to use “unreal names” to prevent identification.
Now, this tale of an orphan with a mysterious past is read in what we can only think of as the voice of Don Draper. And remember: The smoldering antihero of “Mad Men” was born Richard Whitman!
The novel was discovered in 2016 by the scholar and literary sleuth Zachary Turpin. Miraculously, only one copy of “Jack Engle” survived the vandalism of the years — thanks to the Library of Congress, where Whitman’s papers are stored.
Whitman wrote this novel of villainy foiled, virtue preserved and justice done three years before the publication of “Leaves of Grass,” and I think it’s safe to say that he did so strictly for money. Still, if “Jack Engle” is not a work of art, it is entertaining, especially if you have a taste for 19th-century melodrama. Beyond that, the reader and listener will find here germs of the sensibility that blooms so exuberantly in Whitman’s poetry: contempt for the genteel, celebration of “this glorious New York” and a feeling of untrammeled oneness with nature and the nation.
Without spoiling the ludicrous plot, I can tell you that Jack, an urchin on the streets of New York, is rescued by a kindly purveyor of milk, eggs and pork. In time, he joins the law office of Mr. Covert, in whose “visual organs” were “a certain sanctimonious satanic look.” There the young man works with a young scrapper and an alcoholic wreck who holds the key to Jack’s past. Our hero’s circle of friends further expands to include Martha, Mr. Covert’s lovely ward and the target of his “vile machinations.”
Hamm’s reading is straightforward and clear. His only actorly spin comes with an evasive side villain, J. Fitzmore Smytthe, an unctuous Wall Streeter, whom he delivers with appropriate shiftiness — just, we feel, as Whitman would have him.
Turpin provides an afterword discussing the book’s discovery and its place in Whitman’s work. The audio book will be released May 30, the day before Whitman’s 198th birthday.
Katherine Powers regularly reviews audio books for The Washington Post.
By Walt Whitman
Read by Jon Hamm
Random House Audio. 5 hours.