Lost Walt Whitman Novel Offers an Early Glimpse Into Leaves of Grass
Uncovering the lost writings of Walt Whitman has become a bit of an accidental pastime for Zachary Turpin. Last spring, the University of Houston grad student uncovered “Manly Health and Fitness,” a nearly 50,000 word essay full of tips for healthy living, which Whitman wrote under the pen name Mose Velsor in 1858. Luck was on Turpin’s side again last summer when he came across Life and Adventures of Jack Engle, a serial tale that was advertised in The New York Times on March 13, 1852 as “an auto-biography, in which we will be handled the philosophy, philanthropy, pauperism, law, crime, love, matrimony, morals, etc., which are characteristic of this great city at the present time.” In actuality, it was a novel by Whitman that has remained hidden in the famed poet’s archives for nearly 165 years. Until now.
Today, The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review made the full text of the novel—which The New York Times describes as a “quasi-Dickensian tale of an orphan’s adventures”—available online, while the University of Iowa Press will make it available in book form.
While Turpin describes the novel as “rollicking, interesting, beautiful, beautiful, and bizarre” and compares it to “a pre-modern Thomas Pynchon,” Whitman expert and Walt Whitman’s America author David S. Reynolds is a bit more succinct with his review: “It’s not a great novel, though it’s not a bad read either,” he told The New York Times.
Though Jack Engle may lack a compelling narrative, it offers a unique glimpse into the literary mind of Whitman, who seemed to be using the novel as a way to explore the man—and writer—he longed to be, or, as The New York Times put it, “how a workaday journalist and mostly conventional poet transformed himself into the author of the sensuous, philosophical, wildly experimental and altogether unclassifiable free verse of Leaves of Grass.”
“It’s like seeing the workshop of a great writer,” said Ed Folsom, editor of The Walt Whitman Quarterly Review. “We’re discovering the process of Whitman’s own discovery.”
[h/t: The New York Times]