For a month, Zachary Turpin “would sit there night after night, buzzing.”
The graduate student at the University of Houston had spent the past few years digging through the digitized papers of American writer Walt Whitman, which contain 40 to 50 years’ worth of his personal notes. “He was more or less a hoarder,” Turpin told The Washington Post during a phone interview.
For the unfamiliar, Whitman (1819-1892) was one the most influential poets included in the American canon. In the 1850s he popularized free verse with his magnum opus “Leaves of Grass,” which includes the famous line “I contain multitudes.” Many call him the “father of free verse.” Before his life as a poet, the New Yorker worked as a schoolteacher, journalist and novelist.
Turpin’s mission was to find any undiscovered works by Whitman. Day after day, he pored over the papers, checking certain key words against old publications, hoping to find some match, some hint of an unearthed Whitman work. After all, he often published fiction and journalism without his own byline, which Turpin thinks was a method of “protecting his poet persona.”
But the work was going slowly.
“It isn’t as if you turn up a major nugget every day … or even get that many leads that go anywhere,” Turpin said.
One particular notebook, though, stood out. Scribbled throughout it were half-finished concepts, writer’s notes for potential stories. Among the notes were three character names that struck Turpin as unique, perhaps even bizarre — Wigglesworth, Smytthe and Jack Engle.
“As a digital warrior, I thought those were gold,” Turpin said.
He began cross-referencing the names with mid-19th century U.S. publications.
Thus his excitement when he stumbled upon a small advertisement appearing in the New York Daily Times on March 13, 1852, for an upcoming serialized novel titled the “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle” to be published in the Sunday Dispatch.
“Something about it felt more or less on the money. The time period was almost right,” Turpin said. Whitman had contributed to the Dispatch before, he knew.
“And the name was there, Jack Engle,” Turpin said. “I must have read that notice maybe 500 times.”
While it “became my duty to find this publication,” Turpin said, it wasn’t going to be easy. The Sunday Dispatch was a “three penny newspaper made in 1852. Pulpy, riddled with typos and not made to last.” As a result, the only copies were buried and forgotten in the depths of the Library of Congress. The paper hasn’t even been digitized.
Taking a trip on a whim was financially out of the question, so he emailed the curators at the library there, asking to see the copies of the Sunday Dispatch to which the ad referred. And he emailed again. And again.
“I don’t believe in spiraling out in one’s mind thinking about these things,” he said, hinting at the fact he was doing just that while waiting on a reply.
A month passed, and he found himself at his in-laws’ home when his phone lit up — an email. Sure enough, it was a PDF from the Library of Congress, the document he had been anxiously awaiting.
Tingling, he opened it.
“What I saw was all those unique, offbeat character names,” Wigglesworth, Smytthe and Jack Engle, he said. “That was the moment I knew it was something.”
Immediately, “I said some unprincipled words, and I immediately told my wife,” he said, pausing. “Well, I sort of couldn’t get words out, so she asked, ‘Good or bad?’ And I said, ‘Good.’”
In fact, he had discovered a 36,000-word novel written by Whitman during the same time period the poet was penning “Leaves of Grass,” published in 1855. The novel’s full title: “Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Auto-Biography (A Story of New York at the Present Time).”
Turpin called the book a twisting Dickensian tale of an orphan in New York City, a “bold and fascinating novel” that’s “got everything you could possibly want,” including a city mystery, a sensationalist romance, a villain (without the mustache) and “a little bit of blood and guts.”
“This is Whitman’s take on the city mystery novel, a popular genre of the day that pitted the ‘upper 10 thousand’ — what we would call the 1 percent — against the lower million,” David S. Reynolds, a Whitman expert at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, told the New York Times.
Though language in passages of the book mirror that of Whitman’s magnum opus, the form and content are extremely different. Turpin told The Post this serves as “a good reminder that when he was writing ‘Leaves of Grass,’ he didn’t really know what he was writing.”
Whitman eventually chose to publish “Leaves of Grass” under his name and the novel anonymously.
The opening lines of the lost book are, “Candidly reader we are going to tell you a true story. The narrative is written in the first person; because it was originally jotted down by the principal actor in it, for the entertainment of a valued friend.”
This, of course, was not the case. Turpin suspects he chose to obscure his authorship as a means of hiding his interest in fiction and journalism while en route to becoming a poet. After all, he said, “the poet of America can’t also be potentially writing potboilers.”
As noted in the New York Times, Whitman once wrote in 1882, “My serious wish were to have all those crude and boyish pieces quietly dropp’d in oblivion.” Later, when he heard someone was interested in publishing his past fiction, he said, “I should almost be tempted to shoot him if I had an opportunity.”
Clearly, Whitman hadn’t expected Turpin, who previously uncovered another of the poet’s serials, a 47,000 word self-help work titled, “Manly Health and Training.”
Now Turpin is turning his attention to one of Whitman’s most famous lost works, a long novel titled “The Sleeptalker.” Whitman’s letters contain multiple references to a completed draft, and Turpin said, “God knows that he probably wouldn’t have thrown away a full manuscript.”
Added Turpin,“This could be just the beginning.”
Read the entirety of Whitman’s lost novel here.