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Reading Walt Whitman’s Recently Discovered Novel

Last year, English scholar Zachary Turpin uncovered The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, a fictional autobiography published and serialized in 1852 in a New York Sunday newspaper.

The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, the lost novel of Walt Whitman, published by University of Iowa Press (image courtesy University of Iowa Press)

English scholar Zachary Turpin has made a discovery that may change the public’s perception of literary giant Walt Whitman.

Hidden in the depths of the Library of Congress is a Victorian New York Sunday newspaper entitled the Sunday Dispatch (1845–1854). Like many newspapers at the time, it published short fiction on a regular basis, and provided writing other than news to its readers. For emerging writers, this was a way to test out their work’s worth, to see how it stood against breaking news, if people were interested in the genre, or if it would create a scandal. Some authors used pen names or published anonymously. As a result, many of these texts have been lost to time and are resting, in secret, authorless and long unread in a discontinued newspaper.

In 2015, Turpin discovered Manly Health and Training, a self-help book written in 1858 by Whitman, which was previously unknown to the public. Similarly, in May 2016, Turpin uncovered The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, a fictional autobiography published and serialized in 1852 that follows the unusual life of an unfortunate Jack Engle caught amidst a legal battle between an evil lawyer, Covert, and his ward, Martha. Covert, Jack’s boss, wants to trick Martha out of her inheritance. Stuck between wanting to help Martha and doing his job, Jack is put at the center of a Cornelian dilemma. “This is a novel about a man whose professional and personal destinies are incompatible, a tale of irony and coincidence,” explains Turpin. The text that Turpin found in the only surviving copy of the Sunday Dispatch did not have an author and it was through detective-like work that the scholar was able to reveal the author’s identity. Whitman carried notebooks in which he wrote down ideas for stories. Thankfully, these notebooks contained character names and plot points that mirrored those found in the newspaper Turpin stumbled upon.

Earlier this year, the novel was published by University of Iowa Press, and on May 30 the story was released in audiobook format by Penguin Random House. Ed Folsom, editor of the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and co-director of the Walt Whitman Archive states: “Now we see that the fiction and poetry were mingling in ways we never before knew.” To Folsom’s point, what is the most interesting about this work is perhaps neither the plot nor the ways in which Whitman crafts his narrative. In fact, the story in itself is rather unremarkable. It seems much more important to look at the subtle hints the text gives us about the not yet fully developed poet whom we’ve all come to know, study, and love.

A lot of the discussion around the book has been centered on one specific chapter. Critics are drawn to the 19th chapter, where Jack wanders through a cemetery, pausing the narrative suddenly, to move among different plots, so to speak. There, Jack’s thoughts meander and, soon enough, he starts speculating on the meaning of life and death: “Human souls are as the dove, which went forth from the ark, and wandered far, and would repose herself at last on no spot save that whence she started. To what purpose has nature given men this instinct to die where they were born?” These philosophical speculations feel familiar to readers who have read his magnum opus, Leaves of Grass. There, Whitman uses an effervescent free verse to let the “I” wander around — much like Jack in the cemetery — line by line, through the history of cities and languages, through the mind and the body, and ultimately, back into itself.

But what’s curious is that none of the critical discussion has revolved around the antepenultimate chapter, the one that comes right after the cemetery, where Jack stumbles upon a “manuscript.” Much of the language in this chapter is similarly affected but it feels a bit more self-reflexive:

Whoever you are, into whose hands this dismal story may fall….Look around you on the beautiful earth, the free air, sky, fields and streets…All these things seem to me the most beautiful objects in the world. To be free, to walk where you will…Am I not philosophic here in my grated walls? Do you not see how keen my sight has become?

One might wonder whether Whitman — who says “Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost” — knew the text would disappear from circulation. Locked away for over a century only to be found behind the guarded bars of the Library of Congress, the text is now wiser, with a deeper understanding of its surroundings and condition. Ultimately, this discovery makes us ask the obvious question: What else is there?

The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle is now available in audiobook format, narrated by Jon Hamm. The book is available online for free at the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review and in print through University of Iowa Press.

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