Lost Novel of Walt Whitman Finally Sees the Light of Day

Mar 23, 2017

Who would think that doing a key word search of a massive newspaper database would turn up a previously unknown short novel by the much beloved 19th century author Walt Whitman?   University of Houston graduate student Zachary Turpin was the detective who uncovered his second Whitman find in an 1852 issue of an obscure New York City newspaper. 

Right after reading the scanned copies of the "The Sunday Dispatch," Turpin found that he could assemble the complete novel, which was serialized in he paper.   He told Charity: "The place I began was the integrated Whitman catalog, which is essentially an online repository of all the manuscript odds and ends that are housed in different archives around the country.  The notebook that got me going was called "A Schoolmaster"--and this is interesting because it contains what looks like lots of outlines for his tales, or maybe even longer pieces of fiction."  Turpin's hunch was confirmed when he discovered a literary notice in the New York Daily Times in 1852, which said: "Tomorrow in the Sunday Dispatch is a work called 'The Life and Adventures of Jack Engel'."  'This had all the trappings of what might be a Whitman work," Turpin told us.

Once Turpin calmed down and realized what he had discovered (he's also raising young children and finishing his dissertation), the first thing he did was call the University of Iowa's Ed Folsom, a professor of English and one of the world's authorities on Walt Whitman.  Needless to say, Folsom was thrilled to know that Turpin had come up with his second Whitman find in old, forgotten newspapers of the mid-19th century (his first was a series of columns that Whitman had written about men's health).  Folsom, editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, told Charity: "I think the most important aspect  of this discovery is that it's a late piece of Whitman fiction.  Up until this discovery, we had always assumed that Whitman actually stopped writing fiction in the late 1840s, in fact 1848 was the last known publication of a short story.  Finding 'Jack Engle' makes us rethink everything we thought we knew about Whitman's career."

Turpin's hope was that the University of Iowa press would publish the "Life and Adventures of Jack Engle," to make it available to the wide readership it deserves.   James McCoy, director of the Press, was happy to oblige.  The Press kept the book a secret until the galleys were edited and printed books were available for release.